Protesters outside the Otago Daily Times in the wake of the Garrick Tremain cartoon about the measles epidemic. Photo: RNZ (Tim Brown)

In the age of social media, content travels quickly.

And, judging by the swift reaction to Garrick Tremain’s depiction of Samoa’s measles crisis last week, so does condemnation.

On Twitter, Tremain’s Otago Daily Times piece was dubbed insensitive, offensive, and racist.

The cyber fury soon turned into regular fury, with protests outside the ODT office. The editor, Barry Stewart, apologised and announced a review of Tremain’s future with the paper.

Tremain himself was initially less apologetic.

“In this politically correct atmosphere that we’re now being bloody suffocated by, you have to be aware there’s a growing number of people who wake up every morning and their first intention is to find something to be offended about.”

So how then do other cartoonists, who so often walk the fine line of social acceptability, deal with the “suffocation” from those who apparently live to be offended?

“Being contentious – there’s no value in that. You want people to think and you want to stimulate some sort of debate,” says Rod Emmerson, the New Zealand Herald’s editorial cartoonist.

If he’s drawing a piece he suspects some will take umbrage to, he makes sure he knows why he’s pursuing that angle and is prepared to defend it, before it goes to print.

“The footprint of your newspaper no longer finishes at the foot of the ranges or the service station 300 kilometres up the road,” he says.

“You need to go out there and have a look at what people are actually thinking,” he says.

“There would be some cartoonists, a small group, that probably wouldn’t put the effort in that you need to these days and they would be probably relying on a 1980s, 1990s way of approaching a story.

“We’ve all moved on, but they haven’t moved with it.”

The editorial cartoonist for Stuff newspapers, Jeff Bell, disagrees with Tremain’s notion that political correctness is hampering cartoonists.

“I feel like the biggest problem there is is that Tremain’s possibly just gotten a little bit out of touch with how society has moved forward. I don’t think that’s about political correctness, I just think it was a bad cartoon.

“I don’t think at all that cartoonists are overly restrained by political correctness I just think there’s a lot more sensitivity on certain issues.”

With his own content, he says he trusts his own instincts and values, and often runs ideas by his partner to check he’s hit the right note – a process of “reading the room”.

“It’s important for cartoonists not to get too much in a bubble, not to get too much in their own headspace. You’ve got to be out there talking to people, getting a sense of how people feel about issues and the boundaries of acceptability.”

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