Reporting the unspeakable

Last week The Ryersonian published an article about some explicit hate speech that had been written in a bathroom stall on campus. We were tipped off about the incident after a contact sent me a link to the Facebook page for Students Supporting Israel at Ryerson, who had posted a photo of the graffiti. As we prepared to publish the article online, the question came up in our newsroom: Should we publish the photo with it or not?

hate grafitti - cleaned

The hate graffiti was cleaned on Monday (Facebook/Students Supporting Israel)

Initially, some of us were hesitant. The language was offensive and a few of us were concerned that publishing it on our site would only serve to give the spiteful message a broader platform. In this case, the photo had already been made public. By the time we saw it, the photo had 120,000 views on Facebook and responses from as far away as Australia. But it was the community the speech had targeted that posted it, so did we really have the right to take ownership of it and potentially give it that much more exposure?

Some of our editorial staff believed the message could be conveyed just as well using selective quotes. Some pointed out that photos of discriminatory graffiti are hardly uncommon and can be found easily online, so we wouldn’t exactly be doing anything unprecedented.

But after some debate we reached the conclusion that the photo, being the main subject of the article, should be run. We chose to place it at the bottom of the article with a prior warning about offensive content. The prevailing argument was that, as journalists, it’s our job to document things like this and to show our readers what people are capable of. Censoring something like hate speech only serves to give it more power and we hope that making the image available will help to spark discourse about an important issue on campus.

Indeed, a fledgling petition has recently been launched, with the aim of encouraging Ryerson administration to be proactive in teaching students the importance of tolerance.

We’re certainly not the first media outlet to debate about the ethics of publishing questionable photos or content, and we won’t be the last. But these kinds of conversations serve to remind us what we, as journalists, want to do; to provide enough information to our readers so they can make informed decisions and to bring issues to light that may have otherwise gone unreported. The world of ethics can be a tricky minefield to navigate but we at The Ryersonian believe that in particular case, we have done our due diligence.

This article was published in the print edition of the Ryersonian on Oct. 28, 2015.

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