Provoking thoughtful commentary from readers on social issues can create barriers with just the use of words. Political cartoons – often witty, at times graphic, but never dull – transcend such barriers to inform and even sway public opinion through a captioned pictorial representation of underlying attitudes and emotions.
In the past, political cartoons have also offended certain religious groups and communities, raising fundamental questions regarding the role of media, freedom of expression and self-censorship.
Rattan Mall, editor of the Indo-Canadian Voice, says there are different levels of sensitivity editors need to consider when choosing what goes into a publication.
“As a South Asian, I can say stuff and not be accused of racism by my community,” says Mall. “But in a Canadian publication, the same topic would be judged more harshly by all communities – including the South Asian one.”
Consideration of the social environment
Vancouver is a mosaic of many communities. Issues are local and global, specific and broad. How editors of local publications choose to address these issues depends on: the artists and journalists whom they employ, creative license that is given, and what the targeted readership has come to expect.
“It’s really important for a mainstream newspaper to have a balanced staff with a number of different points of view,” says Mall.
Unique cultural circumstances, language barriers, and educational levels can all determine the layperson’s ability to engage in public debate on social and political questions.
“If you’re self-syndicated like I am you, don’t do cartoons that end up on the editor’s wall and not in the paper,” explains Ingrid Rice, a longstanding political cartoonist whose works have appeared in newspapers across Canada.
The editor maintains a finger on the pulse of the publication’s readership. Political cartoonists quickly learn the expectations of the editor, and by virtue, the audience’s inclinations.
Positioning the cartoon
Mall relies on his instinct, shaped by 40 years in journalism, to determine which pieces reach his readership.
“I generally avoid cartoons. I would be very sensitive to put one in my newspaper and cause a misunderstanding,” says Mall.
However, Mall adds fear of negative feedback cannot prevent journalists and editors from publishing points of view the readership might find controversial. When covering political or other topics that concern a specific community, one the editor belongs to no less, gut feeling is crucial.
Kambiz Karbasi, editor-in-chief of Farhang-e-ma (Our Culture) – a publication that caters to the Persian community in Vancouver –, echoes Mall’s sentiments. Karbasi further notes the philosophy and brand of the publication is of great importance when deciding whether a work will be published. It is not only important to know the community the editor wants to reach, but also in which manner – and with what message.
Although highly controversial or graphic editorial cartoons are memorable, they are rare.
Geoff Olson, local political cartoonist, tackles a number of local, national, and global topics in his editorial pieces.
“Since I am a political cartoonist, the sources of inspiration are generally the worst examples of venality and hypocrisy that I can find on any given news cycle,” says Olson.
As his work is opinion-based, and predicated on the idea that someone somewhere will disagree, second-guessing the reader would only serve to cripple creativity.
The Rights of the reader
The readership of any publication has the power to shape what is published. Political cartoons have jarred communities and garnered severe backlash, resulting in a broader discussion on freedoms of expression and religion, self-censorship, and duty to inform.
“You have to go on your gut feeling, and stick to it,” Mall advises. This mantra is especially true for political cartoons, where a picture is worth a thousand words – and inevitably different ones to different readers.
“It’s just like evidence,” says Mall. “People watch an accident take place and you may have five people witnessing, and you will have five different accounts.”