Is journalism becoming more dangerous?

Jan Wong began her fourth-year journalism class Wednesday afternoon with a minute of silence for the 12 people who died in the Charlie Hebdo office shooting. She’s never held a minute of silence before. Not for the recent Australia hostage situation or the Parliament Hill shooting. But this was different. It’s not that those other shootings weren’t saddening, but most of the people killed in the Paris shooting were journalists.

(Submitted)
(Submitted)

“Because this a journalism class I think we needed to do this. We needed to think about it more than ‘oh, it’s in the news.’ In a way it affects all of us,” said Wong, who covered the Tiananmen Square Massacre. “Journalists don’t do moments of silence, they cover them. This is different. Journalists were targeted because of what they expressed.”

After the moment of silence Wong had a class discussion about the shooting. She brought up some of the cartoons done by the publication and put the word “goading” on the board. Were these cartoonists trying to provoke a backlash? Did they die for a cause? Are they even journalists? Although some of the students took sides, the class struggled to see what truth there was in putting a star on the naked anus of the prophet Muhammad with the caption “A star is born.” But all agreed, these cartoonists had the right to publish what they did, and no one deserves to be killed for expressing their ideas.

In light of this attack, arguably the biggest attack on France since World War II, and the rise of extremism, the question becomes: Is journalism becoming increasingly dangerous?

“I think it’s always been dangerous. It just depends on who you’re offending at the moment,” Wong said. “At the moment, Muslim extremists are getting offended, but it’s dangerous to be a journalist embedded with troops now and they’re getting beheaded by ISIS.”

For journalism professor Michael Camp, journalism is becoming more dangerous, not just because of the rise of Muslim extremism, but something broader: the age of the Internet and social media.

“People are getting wound up by reading this really inflated propagandistic material online and it fills their heads with conspiracy theories and calls for action,” Camp said. “Journalists are dealing with a public that is much more volatile.”

Camp said now we’re seeing what mob mentality can do, but it’s not just religious extremists that make journalism dangerous. Still, Camp recognizes attacking Islamic core values is particularly dangerous.

Although extremists have always existed, Camp said responsible journalism has helped prevent those people on the fringes from finding each other. The perspectives and opinions people would read in newspapers and magazines were broader.

“We’re not all dining on the same table of information anymore. We’re all going to any number of sources,” Camp said. “I’m sure these guys who went into the café screaming ‘God is great’ and shooting people had probably been reading conspiratorial junk on the Internet for the last while and they were wound up by their friends who were living off the same poison.”

Camp said although Charlie Hebdo’s comics might not of been great journalism (one-sided and borderline racist), they contribute to the overarching discussion of conflict in the 21st century. They say something about the world we live in, even if it’s not what the publication intended them to say.

Camp said what journalists do that sets them above the noise on the Internet is put their name on their work.

“[Attaching your name] brings a certain discipline and restraint to you. If everything you wrote was anonymous and you didn’t have your name and nobody knew who was writing I suspect you’d let it hang out a little bit more,” Camp said.

Despite the tragedy of the terrorist attack on the Charlie Hebdo offices, Wong said the one thing reporters and commentators must never do is censor the truth.

“I have written things that put me in danger, but I don’t regret it. I think that’s part of your job and to pull your punches is, well, I guess you shouldn’t do your job then.”

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