Cartoons and Visuals

Case Study: Controversial cartoons and their impact around the world.


Media must not only be concerned with the words they use to cover certain stories but also the images.  Since images can be understood in a multitude of contexts, they often have a more varied impact on media consumers than does a story's text.

In October 2006, Russian daily newspaper Komersant published an article about the King of Spain, Juan Carlos I, hunting a bear. What was the problem? Someone had given the bear vodka before the king began hunting. The royal family was quoted by Agence France-Press as saying that it was “ridiculous” to believe that the king had sent someone to do it. But a few days later, Basque newspapers “DEIA” and “Gara” published this cartoon-like photo manipulation:

Hoy The backlash was unleashed. The Spanish justice department accused the cartoonist of committing “infamies and slander against the crown.” However, Judge Fernando Grande-Marlaska closed the case because the cartoonists were using their right of freedom of expression. Yet, it was re-opened in July 2008 because the court decided to re-consider the defamation case. It remains open. Only the cartoonists were tried in court. The original Russian article was never in dispute.

According to the Oxford dictionary, a cartoon is a “drawing executed in an exaggerated style for humorous or satirical effect.” We should add to the definition the term “manipulated images” because they are also a visual exaggeration of the reality, given the new digital image technologies available to do so.

Daryl Cagle, past president of the U.S. National Cartoonists Society and cartoonist for, wrote about the role of the cartoons in the media:

“Cartoonists have a great advantage over journalists in that we can draw whatever we want (…) but we have a contract with the readers who understand that we're drawing crazy things that convey our own views (…) Cartoonists don't exaggerate anything just because we have the freedom to do so; we exaggerate to communicate in a way that our readers understand.”

As you can see, cartoons are creative and deliberate tools that can promote skeptical thinking about media messages. In their exaggerated form they can send a message that is obviously constructed by the creative professional. More conventional photos and articles are also constructed but are more likely to be taken as fact. As a result, cartoons can be very controversial.

Now, imagine a cartoon of Prophet Muhammad’s face wearing a bomb as a turban, with an Arabic script on it.

That was one of the twelve controversial cartoons that Danish newspaper “Jyllands Postem” published on the front page on September 30, 2005. It was a claim of freedom of expression by Kare Bluitgen, a writer who was having problems finding an illustrator for his story about Muhammad’s life. The cartoon was also published by Norway’s newspaper “Magazinet,”Germany’s “Die Welt,” and France’s “France Soir.” 

But Islamic law forbids the illustration of Prophet Muhammad; therefore, it was an offense to Islam. After the publication, Islamic authorities from ten countries blamed Denmark’s and Norway’s governments for not taking action to stop the cartoons publication. There were also boycotts and violent protests all around the world. More than ten people were killed in those protests.

The British newspaper “The Guardian” reported that Wolfgang Schauble, German home secretary, defended the decision of the German newspapers to publish the cartoons: "Why should the German government apologize? This is an expression of press freedom."

Another case was a cartoon on the cover of “The New Yorker” magazine. It expressed its point of view about U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama and his wife Michelle. Barack Obama is dressed in the cartoon as a Muslim and his wife as being part of the American black revolutionary party called Black Panthers. Notice the U.S. flag on fire under Osama Bin Laden’s portrait.

new yorkerThis cover was published on July 21, 2008, during the U.S. presidential campaigns in which Obama was misunderstood by many Americans to be a Muslim. People reacted to the front page immediately.

Obama’s spokesman Bill Burton was quoted by Canadian Broadcasting Center as saying: “The New Yorker may think (…) that their cover is a satirical lampoon of the caricature Senator Obama's right-wing critics have tried to create. But most readers will see it as tasteless and offensive. And we agree."

In an interview on Huffington Post web site, The New Yorker Editor David Remnick argues: "I went with Barry Blitt's cover 'The Politics of Fear' because I thought it had something strong to say, shining a glaring light on all the lies and misconceptions about the Obamas - lies and misconceptions that are reflected, unfortunately, in the opinion polls.”

All this makes you wonder: What kind of impact does a cartoon have and why? In comparison with an editorial columnist or critical articles in other media, how can the freedom of expression within a cartoon be a problem? In that way, should there be any boundaries on freedom of expression with regard to cartoons? And if so, what are they, and who should decide?