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Readers respond: Political cartoons should be balanced

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Posted: Friday, December 23, 2005 10:00 pm

Last week, we invited readers to comment on our choice of political cartoons. We received a strong and generally thoughtful response, with one common theme:

Give us balance.

"Please support the variety of political viewpoints, even if some may challenge or inflame some readers," wrote News-Sentinel reader Mary A. of Woodbridge.

Her comments reflect the majority of the 50-plus readers who took the time to offer their views by phone or e-mail. We've taken the reader comments to heart and developed a policy on the selection of our political cartoons. It's described below.

Richard Hanner

First, a quick recap. On Dec. 12, we published a cartoon from Chris Britt of the Springfield Journal-Register in Springfield, Ill. It showed a single, flag-draped coffin and the message: "The White House plan for bringing home the troops … one at a time."

A dozen or so readers, including several who were quite angry, called to complain. Two or three canceled their subscriptions. So we asked readers for their views.

Here are the questions I posed, with a percentage of the total reader response.

1. Were we wrong to publish such a sure-to-inflame cartoon?

52 percent said "no"; 48 percent said "yes."

2. Should we publish only cartoons that reflect a generally conservative readership?

12 percent said "yes."

3. Should we instead print work reflecting a variety of political viewpoints, even some that may challenge or inflame some readers?

70 percent said "yes."

Not all readers answered the last two questions, so the total doesn't add up to 100 percent.

Frankly, I was surprised by the results, as Lodi is a generally conservative community. Reader after reader, though, suggested that a blend of viewpoints in editorial cartoons should be the goal.

"Don't bow to the conservative or the liberal in your reporting of political viewpoints. Stay with a combination of both. By not doing so you would be doing a great disservice to your readers," wrote Donna Rowell of Lodi.

Many readers, in fact, said they want to be stimulated by a variety of viewpoints. They said cartoons that only reflect one side of the political spectrum can become, well, boring.

Raquel Dow of Lodi was blunt:

" … Just printing pabulum like the cartoon of King Kong in Saturday's paper does not stimulate any thought. I'd rather have something that I disagree with but that is at least thought provoking than safe cartoons and editorials that will not upset anyone."

Ron of Lodi wrote: "I, for one, welcome a variety of viewpoints about politics or any other subject - fan the flames!"

Getting back to the Britt cartoon. Several readers said we should not select cartoons that question President Bush or the war effort - that to do so is to undermine our troops.

"I will not subscribe to a paper that continues this type of Anti-American propaganda," admonished one reader.

"That cartoon was a direct insult to every person who ever wore a uniform representing the good old USA. Anyone who can think so low of our country and its leaders needs to move to another part of the world. I hope you never consider any cartoon or writing anywhere close to the thought presented in that one," wrote Don Swanson of Lodi.

We heard from a U.S. Marine, though, Sgt. Steven Metcalf, who said the cartoon depicted the "very important debate that's going on in our country."

And a World War II vet I spoke to at some length said he, too, felt comfortable with the Britt cartoon. "World War II was entirely different. We had a very clear enemy and a very clear purpose. I supported the war in Iraq at the beginning, but like Vietnam, I am starting to wonder why we are there now."

A few readers endorsed a variety of cartoon material, but said the Britt cartoon was "shocking" to them and that we need to use more discretion.

I shared the reader feedback with publisher Marty Weybret, chairman Fred Weybret and city editor Jennifer Bonnett, who chooses cartoons when I am off.

We decided on the following policy. It's aimed at providing a spectrum of views - but with a safeguard providing a closer look at cartoons that may be downright tasteless or incendiary.

Our cartoons are intended to stimulate thought and discussion. They include a variety of political viewpoints, some aligned with our editorial positions, others not. There may be images from time-to-time that are on the margin of taste or sensitivity. These will be reviewed and approved by the editor, publisher or chairman.

A final note. One Lodi man said checking with readers was a cop-out, that we should have created a policy based strictly on our own journalistic instincts.

I couldn't disagree more. The longer I am in journalism, the more I trust readers.

Almost without exception, the comments we received were incisive and thoughtful.

I'm quite grateful to everyone who responded to our invitation.

The Britt cartoon may be viewed at: http://cagle.msnbc.com/politicalcartoons/PCcartoons/britt.asp.

Richard Hanner is the Lodi News-Sentinel's editor. He can be contacted at (209) 369-7035 or by e-mail at richardh@lodinews.com.

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