Social media users are hammering a newspaper cartoon making a joke about the Samoan measles epidemic. The infuriated include some of the cartoonist’s own colleagues.
An Otago Daily Times cartoonist who saw humour in the deadly Samoan measles epidemic has found himself at odds with both colleagues and his editors. The Garrick Tremain cartoon ran in yesterday’s edition of the ODT, and depicted two women leaving a travel agency. One asked the other what the “least popular spots” to visit right now were, and the other responded with “the ones people are picking up in Samoa.” Criticism on social media has been fierce and widespread.
The current death toll in Samoa’s measles outbreak is 55, with most of the victims being children under four years old.
Speaking to RNZ’s First Up this morning, Tremain said a public apology to the Samoan nation wasn’t necessary, and that it was a “simple, light-hearted joke.” He said he was aware that many had been offended by the cartoon, and questioned the relevance of the fact the most of the deaths had been children. He said he had not anticipated the reaction, and admitted that it was a “very poor piece of timing.”
“I can later regret having done it, but at the time obviously that did not occur to me. I thought it was an innocuous joke that didn’t mention anything about deaths or children, or things that everyone else seems to be so concerned about.” He also criticised a “politically correct atmosphere” that was “suffocating”, and suggested that there are people who wake up every morning looking for something to be offended by.
But included among those who were offended were Tremain’s own colleagues at the ODT. At least three staffers went public with criticisms against the publication of the cartoon.
Journalist Chris Morris, who has worked at the paper for more than 15 years, said on twitter that he has “never been more upset to see the good work of so many committed, caring journos dragged through the mud like this. That cartoon, and that cartoonist, does not reflect our newsroom. Publishing it was the wrong thing to do.”
Other staffers also expressed anger at the cartoon being published. Director of Video News Tim Miller tweeted that while he and other staffers can’t speak on behalf of the wider paper, “what I can say is our reporters go into work each day wanting to tell the stories of our community. The fact this cartoon was published not only disappoints us but makes us angry. We will do everything we can so this never happens again.”
And reporter Daisy Hudson said that the cartoon didn’t reflect the attitudes of the wider newsroom. “If you have a complaint to make, please make it. But please don’t threaten reporters and editorial staff who have no input into the opinion page.”
The Otago Daily Times published an apology online yesterday, and today in print. It noted the insensitivity of both the content and timing of the cartoon.
“We have published many stories about the human suffering caused by the outbreak. They are stories not about a virus, they are stories of real people, real hurt, and real tragedy.
“This should have been our starting point when considering publishing the cartoon. That it was not was a deeply regrettable error in judgement.”
It is not the first time Tremain’s cartoons have provoked controversy. Other works have drawn accusations of playing with outdated and bigoted stereotypes, such as a cartoon last year which mocked efforts to make learning te reo compulsory in schools.
In a piece to mark his 25th year with the paper, he noted that he regularly received criticism, “most often from special interest groups, race relations conciliators and other martyrs to political correctness.”
The trouble with cartoonists is not isolated to the ODT. Today’s NZ Herald features a Bromhead cartoon which draws a line between between the Tūpuna Maunga Authority’s moves to replace mature trees with natives, and Nazi ethnic cleansing. When confronted with a similar situation last year, Stuff cartoonist Al Nisbet found out where the line was – his work no longer appears in its publications.
Today’s ODT featured a cartoon about climate change, drawn by Matt Davies. Tremain’s work was nowhere to be seen. The apology for yesterday’s cartoon is currently the most popular page on the website.