The Satirical Journalism of Editorial Cartoons

By: Sarah LeBlanc

If you’re wondering what the print version of a news satire program like The Daily Show or The Colbert Report is, look no further than the editorial cartoon.

Unfortunately, the often overlooked editorial cartoon received some unwelcome attention last month for a racially suggestive remark coming from a portrayal of the White House’s somewhat comical Pokémon-fanatic intruder on September 30.

Screenshot of Jerry Holbert's cartoon in the Boston Herald taken from the Washington Post's website.

Screenshot of Jerry Holbert’s cartoon in the Boston Herald taken from the Washington Post’s website.

The October 1 cartoon that ran in the Boston Herald exaggerated the progress of the intruder and placed him in President Barack Obama’s bathtub. However, the real controversy was caused by the intruder’s comment to the president: “Have you tried the new watermelon flavored toothpaste?”

In case this remark didn’t instantly set off any alarm bells, the problem with this comment isn’t the closeness of the intruder. It’s the historical and racial suggestion in the word “watermelon.” Cartoonist Jerry Holbert has since profusely apologized, but the question of why watermelon was chosen as the toothpaste flavor was immediately challenged as loaded with a racial connotation.

Though the flavor was changed to raspberry in client newspapers, editors at the Herald chose to publish the comic without revisions.

Editorial cartoons are famous for satirizing political and social situations or failures and they often rely on stereotypes to exaggerate their point. The problem with Holbert’s illustration stems from the apparent miscommunication of the meaning behind the intruder’s comment and the failure to understand the offensive racial stereotype included in his cartoon.

Should editorial cartoons really be taken this seriously? As a form of graphic journalism, these cartoons still communicate a valuable, if not bold, statement on the political, social and economic situation of society. However, the tendency to put too much weight on the intended meaning of these cartoons can cause the artist’s message to be misunderstood.

Screenshot of Matt Bors’ depiction of Michael Brown in Medium's The Nib on August 18, taken from the Washington Post’s website.

Screenshot of Matt Bors’ depiction of Michael Brown in Medium’s The Nib on August 18, taken from the Washington Post’s website.

Earlier this year, Matt Bors’ editorial cartoon also caused controversy when its satirical remark that teenager Michael Brown “was no angel” was included in a New York Times article. The August 18 cartoon played off stereotypical generalizations of Brown as a troublemaker, making declarations that are commonly only acceptable in the critical and satirical medium of the editorial cartoon.

Do you consider editorial cartoons as a form of journalism? Are there some topics that shouldn’t be satirized? Let me know in the comments below.

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11 responses to “The Satirical Journalism of Editorial Cartoons

  1. I think editorial cartoons are a valuable part of journalism–just like OP/ED pieces. However, like opinion articles, editorial cartoons should be written with care, good taste, and after a fair amount of research. Voicing your opinion is fine–and it’s an important part of newspapers today–but it shouldn’t be done to harm or misrepresent a person or issue.

    • I agree with you. I think both readers and cartoonists should make the effort to research the topic and make sure that the information isn’t biased and that they’re still getting information based on facts, even if extremely exaggerated.

    • I agree, Lauren. They were essential to the historical paramount of newspapers dominance and I think they are the fluff that breaks up hard news. They should be taken with a grain of salt and realize that no cartoonist would never (hopefully, although I can’t speak for everyone) intentionally insult or discriminate.

  2. I agree with Lauren. Although these editorial cartoons are meant to be satirical, there should also be some good taste used as well. Like you said, the cartoon makes a point, but some take an unnecessary step too far. The cartoon should raise public discussion about the issue at hand, not about the cartoonist’s insensitive or untrue creation.

  3. I love editorial cartoons because I see them as a fun method of journalism. But an issue I always see with them is that artists use them to point fingers and overly voice their opinions. I think that when cartoons are used for journalism, they need to be informational. They should revolve around the news, and what is going on. Not the artists opinions and hidden agendas.

    • I don’t think they should revolve around the artist’s opinions or hidden agendas either, and I don’t think that’s what Holbert was doing here, but I see your point. They are a more entertaining form than simple print writing journalism, but I think there’s a time and a place for their satiric take on usually current events.

  4. I think editorial cartoons are valuable in any reporting outlet, although I agree they need to be done in good taste. The messages that they can convey can be very powerful and influential, and often times show a satirical, under-represented side of certain situations. I do, however, think the reader needs to be informed about whatever issue the cartoon revolves around to understand fully what it’s trying to say. Being well-informed is vital for editorial cartoons, as it’s easier for someone to misconstrue the intention of the artist when they don’t know all the facts. By no means should cartoons be taken in the same light as news stories, but they are a refreshing, satirical and funny outlet to go alongside it.

    • I completely agree with you. I think it’s a unique form of expression but the artists have to be careful not to satirize sensitive topics. I like that you brought up that the reader should be informed, because I think that’s also something that could lead to a misunderstanding between the reader and the cartoonist.

  5. I think that the editorial section of a newspaper is a place for free expression; however, there is a sense of tastefulness that should come along with editorial columns or cartoons. I think that making sure people are informed on the subject matter is important. Raising a question to the public is the main purpose of these cartoons, but they should educate readers on a current topic rather than relay a personal opinion about something, which could easily be misconstrued.

  6. As you said in your post, editorial cartoons are the cartoon versions of satirical news shows like the Colbert Report and The Daily Show. They are a great way to simplify and characterize what is happening in the world and how how the media is handling it. They are an important part of journalism and I don’t think they need to shy away from topics as long as they are telling the truth and doing it in a way that isn’t too offensive.

  7. I agree that editorial cartoons are a version of satirical news shows, but that doesn’t mean they can be offensive. I believe that you can make a funny joke or have your point come across without insulting or offending people.

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