It makes for increased readership and increased television ratings, which is not necessarily a bad thing.
It can draw public attention to topics that require action by inciting debate and hopefully resolution to the problem at hand.
But too much controversy can overshadow the issue and cause it to be engulfed by the tidal wave of hostility that arises out of the audiences’ outrage toward the author of the controversial item. Suddenly the topic is no longer the real issue. The author and his or her character become the issue, as well as the credibility and judgment of the organization for which the author is affiliated.
Columnist/cartoonist Grant Woolard, a senior at the University of Virginia and staff member of the school’s paper The Cavalier Daily, learned that valuable lesson after his cartoon appeared in the Sept. 4 issue.
The cartoon that Woolard submitted to his editor was published and set off a heated debate among the minority population on the campus and within the city of Charlottesville Va., which led to national coverage by the Associated Press and The Washington Post, as well as local coverage in the Charlottesville paper, The Daily Progress.
The cartoon depicts, as reported by Ian Shapira of The Washington Post, “nine darkened figures with bald, enlarged heads, dressed only in loincloths, fighting each other over a tree branch, pillow, chair, boot and stool. The caption for the melee: “Ethiopian Food Fight.”
The cartoon also sparked protest by minorities on campus led by the NAACP. The protestors, along with some members of the Charlottesville community, called for the resignation of not only Woolard, but also all the editors that approved the cartoon for publication.
Woolard apologized, stating that he did not mean to offend anyone and that he was only trying to make a statement about the famine in Ethiopia. But he was still forced to resign his position on the paper. He stated in an interview with The Daily Progress that he felt that the editors should also share in the blame. An apology letter was run in The Cavalier Daily, but the damage was already done.
According to The Washington Post’s article, this is not the first time a controversial cartoon by Woolard had been published.
In a column written by Alec Solotorovsky, which appeared in The Cavalier Daily, the editors were taken to task for not refusing to publish this and other material too controversial to print. Solotorovsky said in the article that the editors needed to toughen up and not print questionable material just to make deadline.
Controversy can be a useful tool to gain the audiences’ attention, but as reporters, photographers and editors we need to remember why we are trying to gain their attention-to inform the public. If the audiences’ attention is misguided due to overtly controversial material and the real issues of the day get lost in the shuffle, then we have failed to do our jobs as journalists.