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Serena vs The Cartoon

In September of 2018, during the final match of the US open, Serena Williams was given a violation on the court. Umpire Carlos Ramos accused her of receiving hand signals from her coach while playing against Naomi Osaka. Williams denied the claim and defended herself and her integrity. Williams later missed a point and broke her racquett out of frustration, leading to another violation and the loss of a point. After coming to her own defense again, Williams was given a third violation for verbal abuse. The match ended with a win from Naomi Osaka and boos from the Williams’ fans in the crowd who believed she was treated poorly.


Some believed that Williams behaved inappropriately. Others believed that the encounter between Williams and Ramos would not have occurred if Williams were a man..“Male players have sworn and cursed at the top of their lungs, hurled and blasted their equipment into shards, and never been penalized as Williams was in the second set of the U.S. Open final.”( Jenkins)


Tensions increased after a controversial cartoon was published in response to the highly publicized match. Mark Knight, a cartoonist for Australia’s Herald Sun, drew an editorial piece that centered around the encounter between Williams, Ramos, and Osaka during the US open match. Knight used this cartoon to present Williams’ behavior as a tantrum as her caricature was jumping over a broken racquet, next to a pacifier on the court. The image included a drawing of the umpire asking Williams' opponent if she “could let her win”. Williams’ character was drawn with an exaggerated body size, nose, and lips. The cartoon depicted Naomi Osaka, a Haitian and Japanese woman, as a blonde Caucasian woman. Many who criticized the piece believed that the cartoon was embedded with racist stereotypes, similar to the minstrel show drawings of the Jim-Crow era.


The Herald Sun supported Knight’s work, with editor Damon Johnston stating that Knight’s work was “not racist or sexist” and that the cartoon “rightfully mocks poor behaviour by a tennis legend.” (Johnston). After reviewing a series of complaints, the Australian Press Council investigated the incident to determine if Knight had broken any codes or Standards of Practice. The Council did “not consider that the publication failed to take reasonable steps to avoid causing substantial offence, distress or prejudice, without sufficient justification in the public interest” and ruled that no Standards of Practice were breached.(Australian Press Council)


Often using satire and humor, editorial cartoons are used to tell stories in a manner that is both descriptive and concise. In the media space, informative political and social cartoons are categorized as opinion pieces. An ethical dilemma may arise when a presented opinion aligns with racism or prejudice. The incident with The Herald Sun involved an Australian cartoonist, who believed that his drawings were only exaggerated to place emphasis on Serena Williams’ behavior. While this drawing style may have been a normal process within his craft, a brief review of African-American history could have prevented Knight from presenting the cartoon in this way.


The SPJ Code of Ethics states that it is a journalist’s responsibility to not offend, but to inform and minimize harm. While it is important to honor freedom of speech and expression, it is just as important to identify the moments where an expressed opinion can cause harm. In this case, harm would be defined as an insult to a particular group.


In 2006, A Danish magazine’s cartoon depictions of the Prophet Muhammad were republished. The release of these images led to riots and protests in Islamic countries and resulted in the loss of lives. Nine years later, another cartoon of Prophet Muhammad was published in the French magazine, Charlie Hebdo, leading to another onset of riots and protests by Muslim people (White). These are just two examples of the ways in which an editorial cartoon can incite a violent reaction.


Knight produced a cartoon that negatively portrayed a person who possesses multiple marginalized identities. Williams has black features, which have been used as a tool to mock Black people for centuries.


Racist caricatures of African-American people began during slavery. After the civil war, racist cartoons were used to present Black people as inferior characters that were undeserving of full equality.These caricatures gained popularity during Minstrel shows where white actors would paint themselves black and mock African-American people. Racist caricaturing is still present in our packaging of foods “with images of caring Aunt Jemima and benign Uncle Ben” (Corbould). Mark Knight stated that he had “absolutely no knowledge" of racist caricatures in the U.S.. He also mentioned that he drew Williams “as she [was], as an African-American woman.” (“People”) However, Knight’s depiction of Osaka was not displayed in the same fashion.


Mark Knight’s decision to change Naomi Osaka’s race calls into question the level of creative freedom that editorial cartoonists are given. Knight stated that the cartoon was created to showcase Williams’ allegedly poor behavior, an instance that was unrelated to Osaka’s race. Critics believed that changing Osaka’s race was a tactic used to present Williams as a villain and Osaka as an innocent victim. Mark Knight used his storytelling avenue to alter something that cannot be altered in reality, race. At what point should a line be drawn between creative expression and offensive expression? Though harm may not have been Knight’s intent, his lack of knowledge of racist caricaturing and African-American history resulted in a large blind spot that was later identified by critics.


The Herald Sun supported both Knight and his work. Editorial oversight is seen as a saving grace for published work. However, a review from an editor seems pointless if both the journalist and the editor have the same background and/or point of view. The Herald Sun is an Australian newspaper that reports on news across the world. To prevent publishing historically offensive content in the future, the news organization should ensure that all journalists research the countries and communities that they plan on covering in stories, photos, and cartoons. Though opinion pieces lack the impartiality requirement that is expected from unbiased journalism, all forms of journalism should be informed by fact-based research.


Knight was used to creating pieces using his specific style of cartooning. If he was informed about racist caricatures, he may have made alternative decisions when drawing the US Open cartoon.


Diversifying newsrooms has become a trendy topic of discussion, but issues like The Herald Sun cartoon really highlight its importance. The Herald Sun would benefit from hiring writers and editors who are diverse in race, gender, and sexual orientation. Having a second and third set of eyes from media professionals of various backgrounds would draw more attention to the blind spots that may exist due to implicit bias and lack of knowledge. Additionally, editorial staff at The Herald Sun should build relationships with news organizations outside of the Australian media space. A peer-review system would allow for newsrooms across the world to review soon-to-be published content and identify possible blind spots and sources of error. If a story is specific to a particular region or country, it is important for the writer or cartoonist to find a source from that area to review the content. Writers and editors would then use the feedback, implement useful edits, and determine the proper ways to move forward in terms of publishing,


Freedom of speech and expression is a privilege that is not allotted to all people. With privilege, comes immense responsibility. Many readers look forward to the section of a newspaper or magazine that features a cartoon. Ethical lines are blurred when published content is classified as an opinion piece, which makes it difficult to determine what constitutes a penalty or ethical breach. In the future, news organizations should examine the US Open case, and use it to improve newsroom demographics, which will strengthen the power of editorial oversight.



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