4 Dec 2019

Tremain Samoa cartoon a chance to make ODT's journalism more informed

4:28 pm on 4 December 2019

By Richard Pamatatau*

Opinion - The Otago Daily Times published a cartoon which frames the devastating measles epidemic in Samoa as a problem for people pondering an overseas trip.

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The Otago Daily Times offices in Dunedin. Photo: RNZ / Tim Brown

Two arguably white middle-aged women are pictured leaving Trips 'R Us - a fictional travel agency pictured as "THE HOLIDAY SPECIALISTS".

The text from one to another.

"I asked what are the least popular spots at the moment?"

She said "The ones people are picking up in Samoa."

Cartoonist Garrick Tremain and ODT editor Barry Stewart have apologised for the cartoon.

But consider what this cartoon means beyond the offence it has generated to a population dealing with 55 deaths from measles, 50 of them children, three from one family.

Firstly it sets up a binary - us and them. The us is considering a holiday and the travel agent has made light of a destination suffering a measles epidemic.

The cartoonist said it was a joke made by a travel agent.

Tell that to the families burying their loved ones.

Where are the cartoonist's filters and who has been harmed?

He said it was the comment of an agent - there is no such agent - it is his unfiltered voice.

The function of a cartoon is to push boundaries and invite an audience to think about a matter differently. On this measure it failed. Cartoons are at their best when they critique people who stand in their power on a daily basis and therefore expect scrutiny.

The Samoan population in this context and cartoon has no power.

We expect a cartoonist to provide quality material that critiques political figures, their policies, the business community, those at the top of the economic tree, celebrities saying one thing and doing another, the shifty and the shonky.

This cartoon fails that standard and is a stain on a tradition much needed for an informed strong public discourse.

The fault in this situation does not rest solely with the cartoonist.

The editor of the Otago Daily Times apologised; and then apologised again when the text he first provided was seen as wanting.

It was described as "something Siri [The Apple interface] would have generated".

But thank you for the apology - we have to believe you mean it.

What it surfaces is a lack of process. How was the cartoon approved for publication? Was there discussion? Was it critiqued by an informed team?

A member of the paper's team expressed dismay on Twitter and that is to be celebrated. Will it translate into action?

Perhaps the process was one of publish and be damned. If so it is a resounding success. There is damnation.

The editor of the Otago Daily Times said it has rejected work by the cartoonist in the past. What is the relevance of that statement? It has no bearing on what was published.

And if that is the case where is the evidence for these rejections. Journalism pivots on facts and the editor needs to provide them. Otherwise it is whitewashing.

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Garrick Tremain's apology to those offended by his Samoa measles cartoon. Photo: garrick-tremain.squarespace.com

Then there is the parent company Allied Press - a South Island publishing conglomerate helmed by Sir Julian Smith KNZM OBE FinstD.

Does Sir Julian, recently awarded an honorary doctorate by Otago University, and the fifth member of his family to helm the company have a view on this matter. Naturally there must be separation between the owner and its possession but has it touched him?

Would he like to see jokes made about, say, a death in his family?

Is he worried about brand damage, not only to his paper, but the region? Often Auckland gets stick for its behaviour but has this cartoon cemented views on what the South is possibly like - a place of sedimented values and tiny outlook?

As a fellow of the Institute of Directors, which is pushing a diversity narrative, does he see a place for this cartoon, or the continued use of such cartoons given the paper has a track record of offence in these matters.

What this moment offers is a chance for transformation.

Instead of hiding behind an apology the editor can review the paper's processes in an open way and engage with a range of people on how to make things better.

He can invite the Samoan population into his world. He could set up a meeting with the cartoonist and the families of some of the deceased

What's important to ponder is how to take this moment and learn from it to make a journalistic environment stronger and more informed.

That's what could be the outcome from a moment of poor judgement at a sad time.

*Richard Pamatatau is a journalism academic at AUT University. He teaches news, broadcast and public affairs reporting.

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