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Journalism

Charlie Hebdo Is Every Reader's Business

What are you doing with the news that you mindlessly consume this week?

For those who love a good laugh, this is an exceedingly grim week. The massacre at satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo has violated in the worst possible way the amorphous compact between press and public, a compact that has allowed opinion, debate and expression to flourish in a First World country.

There has always been violence towards the press, even before Wednesday's horrific event which left 12 people dead. But this shooting, with its graphic visuals and loud thunderclaps of Kalashnikov gunfire, this is the watershed moment that will force its way into the calculation of risk and reward that journalists and editors already make on a daily basis about any story or opinion that they place under their publication's masthead.

In what will become an outmoded calculation of risk, there is a constant weighing of the likelihood of lawsuits, the possibility of irate calls from the powerful, or of deep-pocketed corporations pulling ads. They are unpleasant, but they are par for the course. But now that someone has brought guns to a war of words, the industry will have to make editorial decisions from a far more primal place. No one likes to die, not even people drawn to one of the most pathological professions in existence.

I don't doubt that some publications will respond by pushing back, just as others will beat some kind of retreat. The Atlantic has urged newspapers everywhere to put the cartoon that was part of this tragic narrative on their front pages. It will be "a mark of resolve in the cultural struggle" that cost the staff of Charlie Hebdo their lives, the magazine says.

In the industry's response over the coming weeks, very lofty principles will be at stake - the defence of a free press and the bolstering of "tolerance, pluralism and the right to offend", in the words of The New Yorker. How much right anyone has to offend differs wildly between countries; this right is sometimes girded by a collective decision not to open up a pre-determined can of worms in some larger national interest. These constrictions are the press's job to navigate, and so they do. You cannot, however, navigate the cold metal end of a gun, and that changes everything.

So, as everyone looks to the media to prove their dedication to the cause in this trial of gunfire, the tables bear turning. Readers need to prove that they are worthy of this "cultural struggle". It has always fallen to the Fourth Estate to say what others have lacked the time, courage or intellect to express, but in this era of free news, anonymous comments and passive Facebook scrolling, readers are less worthy of the news than they have ever been.

Take the comments section of the most uncontroversial or uplifting of stories, for example. That unlikeliest of spaces is frequently turned into a slugfest of base behaviour and curdled bigotry. What is wrong with us, that we are unable to behave like adults about the things we read? And even if you have left the comments section unmolested, what good is your passive (and non-paying) consumption of the news, this defence of the great bastions of critical thought and lively debate that are only as relevant as the people they are aimed at?

Some of the problem lies in how news has become so very commoditised. In a maelstrom of information and dime-a-dozen opinions, there is no mental room to spare for the financial and personal cost that had to be incurred to produce a story - a story that you, the reader, probably didn't even bother to finish reading.

As we are apprised of this great and tragic personal cost this week, let us be more than the unthinking and gaping maw into which all kinds of information - from Sibor rate hikes to the size of Kim Kardashian's behind - indiscriminately flow. Subscribe to something. Read an article all the way to the end. Think about what you have just ingested. And if you want to act on what you have read, do something that leaves this mortal coil a marginally more tolerable place.