Should the newspaper print racist graffiti?

172

In August, the world saw a truly shocking display of bigotry and violence at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va.

A group protests against racism at the August Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va. In the weeks after this rally, Yellowknife saw positive and negative reverberations from this rally. One negative effect was the mushrooming of a few swastikas around town. Yellowknifer editor Randi Beers weighs the news value of sharing such images in the newspaper.
(photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

That weekend, groups of self-proclaimed white nationalists, white supremacists and Ku Klux Klan members took to the streets in the name of white nationalism, which led to clashes with counter-protesters. One counter-protester died after the crowd she was in was rammed by a man in a car. Two police officers died in a helicopter accident that weekend as well.

Aftershocks of that weekend reverberated across North America for weeks in the form of vigils, community gatherings, more counter-protests and a seeming rise in white nationalist sentiment and graffiti.

In Yellowknife, more than a hundred people came together in Somba K’e Civic Plaza to stand for tolerance and equality. A few weeks later, a group of people gathered in the same place for a sunny Sunday afternoon community potluck to advance the same ideals.

The city also saw Nazi graffiti spring up on an Old Airport Road underpass and on a sidewalk near downtown. It’s unclear whether the swastikas and bigoted messages were new, or inspired by the Unite the Right rally. Perhaps those marks had been there for weeks, months or years and the general public hadn’t necessarily twigged to it until after the rally.

I have no intention of downplaying a phenomenon that has unarguably been on the rise across the Western world. Statistics show hate crimes spiked after the election of U.S. President Donald Trump.

According to the New Yorker, (“Hate on the Rise After Trump’s Election,” Nov. 17), leaders of the Anti-Defamation League had been “inundated with reports” in the days after the election. A Google search of racist graffiti brings up dozens and dozens of headlines about bigoted graffiti in dorm hallways, high schools, people’s houses — even basketball star Lebron James’ residence was attacked in early June.

The rise in graffiti coupled with the rise in attention to this graffiti makes me wonder if the spotlight might be part of what’s driving people to do it in the first place. Take Yellowknife for example. As far as we know, there is no organized white nationalist presence in this city. I don’t think it would be unreasonable to assume the swastikas drawn in the walls of the underpass near Old Airport Road were drawn by bored teenagers who were looking to garner attention more than they were looking to incite violence.

When Yellowknifer wrote about the graffiti, (“City to report racist graffiti,” Aug. 25 Yellowknifer), a photo of the offending swastika and message of white power accompanied the story. In making the decision of whether of not to run the photo, I was struck between two competing ideals — to report the news and do no harm.

The news was that the city and RCMP were responding more seriously to reports of racist graffiti. The city committed to reporting these incidents to the RCMP and the RCMP told Yellowknifer these incidents would be investigated as hate crimes. That’s serious stuff.

The other side of the coin was knowing I was probably making the day of whoever it was who posted the graffiti in the first place by running a huge photo of it in the newspaper. Just like any message, I believe the more we perpetuate it, the more it will grow. By running the photo Yellowknifer was — in a way — rewarding him or her by running that photo. This is something I would like to avoid doing if possible, which is why the photo isn’t running again with this column.

Yellowknifer belongs to the The Alberta Press Council, which lays out a set of ethical reporting standards all of its member newspapers are expected to abide by. Regarding pictures, the council recognizes the “importance of newspapers having the widest possible latitude to publish images.”

It also states, “Newspapers should consider the impact on their readers of publishing pictures which are prurient, gratuitously violent or which needlessly cause distress.”

Regarding that standard, Yellowknifer is well within these bounds. But the next point in the code of ethics, about discrimination, speaks directly to this issue:

“Newspapers should not publish material likely to encourage discrimination.”

If running the photo inspires copycats who also want to see their artwork end up in the newspaper, then it’s arguable running this photo does encourage discrimination.

Is there an unequivocally correct answer to whether or not that photo should have run? I would say not necessarily. But these are the things I must weigh when deciding what is — and isn’t — appropriate for print.

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here