Next to his illustration of a female black toddler, Michael de Adder penned the words: “Injuries to expect before they are two.” Arrows pointed to various spots on the little girl’s body, describing various bumps and bruises that children normally get, such as a “boo boo from a high chair” and a “mark from a tricycle.”
There was an arrow pointing to her head as well. “Head laceration from a medium-caliber bullet,” it read.
This was an editorial cartoon published in the Toronto Star on Wednesday July 18 – just slightly more than 24 hours after the deadly shootings that occurred in Scarborough at a Danzig St. block party, where a 22-month-old was among those injured in the gunfire.
But who does the “they” in de Adder’s cartoon refer to? Black toddlers? Is that a racial implication? While that may not be what de Adder’s intentions were with the cartoon, it is certainly how a number of Star readers interpreted it.
The Star apologized for the cartoon and removed it from its website. In that apology, the Star wrote: “Some told us in letters to the editor, emails and phone calls that by portraying the child as identifiably black and using the word ‘they,’ it fed into racial stereotypes at a time when emotions were running particularly high.”
It continued: “The intended point of the cartoon was to say how unacceptable it is for a child – any child – to face such an injury along with the routine bruises that come with growing up. The word 'they' was intended to refer to children, but it could easily be taken as a reference to black people in general.”
So why say “they” when “children” could have – and apparently should have – been used instead? Turns out, de Adder originally had “children” in the copy, but replaced it with “they” for aesthetic reasons.
On his blog, de Adder described the process he went through when making that particular cartoon. He had a male toddler drawn originally, with “Injuries to expect before children are two” written. It was at this point when he changed 'children' to 'them.' An hour before deadline, it was released that the injured 22-month old was a black female, and he changed his drawing accordingly to the final version that has become so infamous.
He wrote on his blog “if I could go back in time and stop me from changing "children" to "they" I would,” and in an interview with OpenFile, he noted that he’s never shied away from drawing cartoons about homophobia, race or native issues. “It’s my job to comment, I just try harder to not offend in those situations.”
But offend, he did. “If I tackled another issue that's similar to this I will have both eyes wide open and all my senses attuned to make sure something like this doesn't happen again,” he told OpenFile. “Every cartoon has a message, and if that message is muddied in any way for any reason, the cartoon has failed.”
The cartoon — its racial implications intended or not — is merely part of a larger debate about the media coverage of the Danzig St. shootings (which we looked at last week).
A segment on CBC Radio’s The Current yesterday morning looked at how the media has handled the coverage of the Danzig St. shooting through the eyes of a community activist and two Toronto-based journalists. This included commentary about de Adder’s contentious cartoon.
“Absolutely, it’s a tragic and awful thing, but this is sensationalist,” Kim Crosby, co-director of Toronto-based The People Project, said on the show. “It isn’t bringing light to an issue. Everyone knows and agrees that babies shouldn’t get shot.
“But to bring attention to it like this makes it a very racialized thing and I don’t know how you could say that it doesn’t do that,” Crosby continued. “This is an enormous tragedy and you’re trying to capitalize off an enormous tragedy and make this social commentary that is actually just really lazy.”
Morgan Campbell, a Toronto Star journalist, touched on the point that de Adder made in his interview with OpenFile: he failed to deliver the cartoon’s message in a clear manner. “In our job, in our industry, it’s our job to communicate clearly,” he said yesterday on The Current. “And if I don’t communicate clearly, I can’t blame you [the reader] for not understanding what I’m saying.”
It’s possible that the message of the cartoon has begun to get lost in the racial controversy that surrounds it, but Campbell said there are other ways de Adder could have worded the cartoon to provoke the kind of thought this subject deserves.
“If he had phrased that as a question, people would look at that drawing completely differently,” Campbell said. “If he had said ‘Should our children have to expect this?’ … Then people would start pondering how far this gun thing has gone.”
That said, not everyone seems to think that the Star should have apologized for the cartoon. As The National Post managing editor and columnist Jonathan Kay said (cheers to OpenFile Toronto for pointing us to this tweet):
This is ridiculous. The Star should not have apologized for this Mike de Adder cartoon. Nothing to apologize for thestar.com/opinion/correc…
— Jonathan Kay (@jonkay) July 23, 2012
— Benjamin Oliphant (@BenOliphant) July 23, 2012
In a more recent post on his blog, de Adder points out that there seems to be a misconception that “cartoons” can be synonymous with “funny” or “joke.”
“Anybody familiar with newspapers know that editorial cartoons have more in common with the opinion pages than the funny pages,” he wrote.
“Editorials can be dead pan serious. So can editorial cartoons.”
So as a cartoonist, he must be able to balance the seriousness of the topic with the tone of his cartoon. In serious instances such as 9/11, an accident involving a van carrying the Bathurst High School basketball team in New Brunswick and Ernie Combs’ (Mr. Dressup) death, he decided it was better to draw serious cartoons that risked being overly emotional and sappy than risk the opposite.
“Last week judging by all the complaints I received I could have done the same,” he wrote about the Danzig St. cartoon.
What do you think? Given the sensitive nature of the topic, the age of those involved, and the cartoonist’s response, was the Star right to apologize?