Letter to the Editor:
As a subscriber to The Hamilton Spectator, I am thoroughly shocked at the lack of sensitivity regarding your choice of editorial cartoon for June 5. The situation is bad enough without adding to the tragedy. I would excuse a newsstand tabloid for sensationalizing a tragic story but, not the Spec. Let's keep black humour to a minimum and off the editorial page. Stick to making fun of our political system, where there is a lifetime of entertainment value.
Mr. R. McEwen, Port Dover
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At thespec.com this week, we posted a video made by a Dutch artist who stuffed his dead cat and turned it into a toy helicopter. With each paw adorned with a mini-rotor, the thing actually flies.
What a world.
At our daily news meeting here at The Spectator, some editors suggested we point our print readers to the online video by mentioning it on the front page, but others thought it simply in bad taste.
Dead pets are a dicey business for most editors (the same way living ones are always a surefire hit) and we are wary of things that would unnecessarily offend the sensibilities of our readers.
But what is bad taste? And is it even news?
In the end, we decided against pointing to the video, but I didn't receive any complaints about our decision to post it online. In fact, news organizations around the world also thought this "art" was newsworthy.
I did, however, receive many calls and emails from readers about another piece of art that appeared in the paper this week: an editorial cartoon by The Spectator's Graeme MacKay.
It depicted a man reading a newspaper that was dripping with blood, and the caption: "What's black and white and red all over?"
Many readers called and wrote to express their dismay, to say the least. A published letter by Robert McEwen summed it up: "I am thoroughly shocked at the lack of sensitivity regarding your choice of editorial cartoon for June 5. The situation is bad enough without adding to the tragedy."
Some in the blogosphere reacted to this with "what's-the-big-deal?" comments, but I heard from enough people to know that it was indeed a big deal, for them at least.
Editorial cartoonists are expected to be funny, and often they are, but they do much more than that — they comment on the miseries as much as the inanities of life. And they are expected to push the envelope. All good cartoonists do.
Some of the cartoons I've found the funniest in my career as a newspaper editor are the very ones readers have been distinctly "not amused" by.
As for this one, I'm not sure. Obviously, I was not amused by it, but I wasn't offended either. Was it necessary? There is no good answer. It was, after all, a gruesome week for news, and reality certainly was more shocking than the cartoon.
I can't say whether we needed to be reminded of that or not.
MacKay himself responded to the controversy this way: "No subject should be off the table" for a cartoon, he said, "but there was a definite lack of them" when he was looking for one last week.
In the end, he chose the subject about which most people were talking.
It's a challenge, to be sure, for editors and cartoonists alike. We try as best we can to be relevant and incisive and funny (if possible) without being too offensive. We don't always accomplish it all.
And we try to learn from our readers.
Ultimately, everything is indeed news. As for the question of what is bad taste or good? I'm afraid that will always remain a matter of individual opinion.
Paul Berton is editor-in-chief of The Hamilton Spectator and thespec.com. You can reach him at 905-526-3482 or firstname.lastname@example.org.