Danish cartoon controversy

research method example: 

remediation, focus group, explication

November  2006

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I am approaching this exercise in a very peculiar way.  While I am trying to be very true to basic focus group research methods, I am simultaneously exploring an experimental approach to its orientation.  Denzon, et al, might categorize this as auto-ethnography.  Others, like Goodall, Bowman, and Conquergood might call it “performance” or “mystory”.

My choice of approach is purely explorational… and I dearly hope it suffices the exercise requirements, because I am pushing, trying to connect dots, trying to find my voice.  I have also attempted this approach for many personal reasons.  I will expand on these in the concluding “reflections” portion of this assignment.

Part One:

I’ve been making things throughout my life; things that communicate, things that make meaning.  University of Calgary allowed me to come and continue this work.  And now, I find myself auditing Comms 601 class with Professor Bart Beaty.  The class, Interdisciplinary Approaches to Communication Studies, is focusing its discussion around the Danish Cartoon Incident throughout this entire term.

Of the 14 first year students attending 601, I alone am seeking a PhD.  I am by far the oldest student, double the age of most, and easily 15 years older than Dr. Beaty.   I am the only visual professional in class; the only student to have already been an Assistant Professor; the only student who makes movies; and the only student who keeps up with Beaty while he holds court in class – indeed, his classes are a kind of courtly performance… performances about Bart.

Beaty does not lack hubris.  Why should he?  He is so intellectually bright it is almost creepy.  I can learn an awful lot from this guy – if he will allow it.  However, while my relationships go swimmingly with other professors, he is seemingly oblivious, rattling away extemporaneously connecting American politics, Roy Lichtenstein, Claes Oldenburg, French conferences, cartoon buddies, football, Disney, newborn babies, and banjoes - and all the while I wonder how to connect with this unique brain.  Can I find a way to get him to think about me - to teach ME?… to notice me, because I am a unique student.  I should be noticed.  Ha.

This is not an easy task, so I try a few things.  In class, hoping to catch his eye, I hand him a print-out of a visual parody (admitted obscure) that I designed the day before, anticipating he will reference the topic in class.  (He does.)  But, I get no response.  I send him emails, on occasion, containing links to videos I have constructed that support or challenge the topics he broaches in class.  But he replies only once: two sentences total.  The first sentence reads, “You have no idea at all.”  What?

Godammit, Bart, I do have some idea.

In the next class, while discussing the Danish Cartoon Incident, Beaty free-associates the song Peace Train by Cat Stevens (Yousuf Islam) in his typically glib, off-handed style.  A light bulb goes off in my head.  I see a video take shape in front of my eyes.  The song is a pathway for me to represent.  And representation is what I do best.

Of course, it should be explained here that my raison d’etre – for everything I do now - is to change the media-world, but I am neither a Marxist worker nor an elite.  I am a builder - a designer.  I have been so my entire life.  I am almost genetically precluded from standing center stage and pontificating.  I prefer to listen and observer, wondering what kind of bridges-of-change I can build today between what I see, what I experience, and what I know.  I am only now beginning to know the Danish Cartoon Incident (DCI).  I am only now beginning to know Beaty.  But I decide to reach out to him once again.  Only this time I will make a new video that attempts to capsulate the languages within this controversy (Danish+Bart?).  I will send this professor another plea, a video of representation, hoping to connect – so I can learn more.  It is a selfish but motivating reason. 

It is an enticement to him to teach me more.  (It never worked, however... and I never spoke to him again after the semester.)

I begin to work immediately after Beaty’s class.  It is 11pm.  For the first time ever, I browse YouTube for visual material.  Surprisingly, there is a ripe yet funky treasure-trove of Danish Cartoon material.  I listen for personal voices, not news clips.  I look for stories, not destruction.  I want raw material, not filtered.  I collect whatever seemingly rings true of the languages I hear in this controversy.  I rip 15 potentially useful video clips. 

I launch LimeWire, a peer-to-peer sharing application.  I hunt for, find, and rip the audio track Peace Train; it will be the scaffold for my construction.  I have the necessary components now.  It is time to begin - and it is always the same – I have no idea what I want to do, what I want to say, or where I am going.  I just begin the art… I begin to build.  I am an architect of this visual communication.

I load the components into iMovie; it is the only software I use because it is easy, simple, free and something anyone can do.  I dump the audio first, then the video clips.  I begin to assemble, to montage, to mix and mash them together.  I am speaking to, and through, the ghastly audio and visual languages of the incident… and to Beaty.  Then, I look up and it is 4:30am.  My construction is at some raw point of completion where I know I should pause, to allow it to ferment. 

But tonight this personal charrette is for Beaty.  My subconscious dare was to communicate something to him after class.  I haven’t slept yet; the challenge is still on.  My head and my insides are alive from building, from creation.  And this video is good enough for my purposes.  I will use it to call his bet - and to raise him another dollar.  Maybe he will recognize this tone of testosterone.  I will send him this raw-rough video now, along with a strongly worded plea – written in a “football voice.”  Maybe this time he will get it (me) – because this new video is uncomfortably strong.  It is taking on a life and a voice of its own.  My videos always do, because my work is always communication… and, because it always embodies some place inside me.  I uploaded the rough video to my server …and I click-to-send.  Beaty now has the video link in email...    Time for bed.

Part Two:

I dream in vivid-livid color and I awake by 8am.  My dreams were oscillating conversations inside what I made.  What was this video actually “saying”?  What was missing?  What is still needed?  One thing is sure, any final adjustments now are for me alone, because I want them.  But how to truly capture the “languages in this controversy.”… that is, ‘truly capture’ to me….

As usual, I preview the rough version to my wife.  It is early for her too, she is still sleepy, but she is almost moved to tears.  She is typically a poor critic, she knows why I create – what it means to me, but I can read her emotions.  I am making headway in presenting these inflamed, ultra radical conversations surrounding the DCI - “conversations” that ultimately killed 139 people. 

I immediately set out again and make adjustments including filling the gaps and sharpening the editing to a finer point.  I add a new clip of a B&W bomb explosion to punctuate the inflammatory “bomb-in-turbin”.  And I add a very extreme still image that I made some time ago during the Abu Ghraib prison news story.  It is a construction that I quickly made back then in a spate of anger, but that never left my hard-drive.  To me it is the most extreme visual in my entire video.  I add it here because I wonder if I need to “balance” some of the other tough visuals with one that mocks the United States’ perspective as well.  (“Fair and Balanced”?  Is it possible?)  This “voice” is not part of the DCI, but the U.S. is undoubtedly involved, emotionally at least, within every angle of these arguments. 

I also add a very small, important, audio clip that I ripped from a TV commercial.  It says, “Let’s Go Girls”.  I run it over a camera-zoom to a young Muslim girl sitting on a man’s shoulders in a protest parade.  I do this to remind myself that Muslim women are not outsiders in the debate; they are integral to the cartoons and to the discussion.  But what are their feelings?  I do not know for sure.  For that matter, what do I know of Denmark?

But my biggest adjustment to the video is adding the Laugh-Track over the cartoons themselves.  It is a heavy-handed reminder that the controversy is about CARTOONS, but why is there no humor?  Was there ever any humor?  After doing these tweaks I begin to see my strong editorial techniques emerging from most every segment.  This is my statement now about trying to encapsulate the DCI using the media components available.  I take full responsibility.

I add one more audio clip: two guitar strums over the German man saying “Radical Muslims” to overtly emphasize that this is a construction, to emphasize that this is interpretation; that this is my perspective of the tones in this debate regardless of any accuracies or inaccuracies.  But is it good?  Is it worthy?  Does it educate?  Does it tell a story?  Whose story, really?  What will I do with this thing now?  I watch the video many times in a row.  It is done.  Whether I like it or not, it is done to me.  I go back to sleep. 

Again I dream, because I always do.  My brain asks, “Where is the positive, Holland?”  Do I simply want to be another “news service”?  Am I simply adding another piece of visual crap onto the same editorial pile?  Or, am I trying to say something?  What will viewers think about this video?  What if there was a HAPPY ending?  What is a happy ending to something like this?  What would a DCI happy ending look like?  I get out of bed and turn the computer back on. 

I finalize a second (and disconnected) ending by grafting on a “feel-good” video clip.  Immediately I sense the powers of manipulation.  This new ending is about peace, love, and harmony.  Who is this new guy?  I don’t know or care, but it is changing the very premise of the video.  It is building something, not just summarizing the DCI.  This, too, is personally compelling.  I like these words.  I like his face.  I prefer this world.  Shall I keep it to create a NEW statement?  Shall I turn this experience into some kind of hopeful expression?  Which ending is better?  I think, deep inside me, I prefer the original ending.  It is harder, tougher, straightforward.  But is my video for me or for the viewer?  It’s no longer for Bart Beaty, that is for sure.  He isn’t even a part of this picture anymore.  I’ve forgotten him.  The video is about me….but then, I’m really tired too.

Part Three:

My next day’s class is 615: Research Methods.  We discuss the upcoming assignment - conduct an interview or focus group.  The angels sing again in my ears… another bridge to build.  I will devise a focus group to examine my video.  I can dove-tail both projects together, and maybe even tie that into some future thesis as well.  It all suddenly makes great sense to me.  However, I’ve never done a focus group… but I am convinced I can design that well, too.

After class, I begin to plot my focus group methods.  I will need TWO focus groups because I want to show BOTH versions of the video.  I will select two groups of three students each.  They must all come from the pool of fellow classmates who attend Comms 601 and 615 with me.  This builds an excellent population to study because:

-  They are MA students. 

-  We are all relatively, and equally, informed on the subject. 

-  It raises potentialities for good discussion. 

-  I know I can locate the participants.

Pondering strategies, I decide it is best to keep the content and premise of the focus groups secret.  My thinking is that if the participants know the session will pertain to the DCI, they will come charged with personal opinions, with “prepared texts” to recite.  I want to “sneak up” on them, in hopes of more candid responses.  And, I decide I must expressly keep myself out of the video discussion.  I will lie and tell them I found the video(s) in the media library.  This is essential for a less biased and open discussion. 

I write up a preliminary handout.  It briefly outlines my intention and encourages the selected pool of students to help me.  The time-slots I have suggested are too wide ranging, however.   But, while standing in the Grad Office with them, we collectively decide I we can do it all day after tomorrow, with back-to-back sessions.  The students seem pleased, maybe even eager to help.  This truly warms me since I have made little effort to seek them out individually prior to this request.  I can’t wait until Thursday.

On Wednesday, I collect the proper Ethics and Consent forms.  It all seems a bit convoluted.  Not difficult.  Just convoluted.  I hate forms, of all kinds.  And these are not friendly.  There are italicized portions that must be deleted, and other italicized portions that seem important and necessary.  There is no spell check capability.  And the text, font size, etc. are poorly laid out.  This designer is not happy with these forms.  If this formality is so vital, and it is, we should have walked through the process once in class.  But I stumble through it all.  Not too bad…. I hope I did it right.  I email the supervisor for advice and confirmation.

Thursday morning, I print 12 copies of the Consent Forms for participant signatures.  I rewrite and rehearse the 5 generalized questions I will ask.  I test the videos to ensure they play on my laptop correctly and that my iPod and microphone work properly.  Screwing up the “performance” aspect of the focus groups would be disastrous.  This to me is not only instinctive; it is engrained from my theatre career.

I arrive to school early to attend an invitational lecture by Haroon Siddiqui (Editor Emeritus, Toronto Star and author of Being Muslim).  Several of my focus group participants also attend.  During his talk, Siddiqui mentions the DCI.  And the last question asked during Q&A is from one of my participants concerning the DCI.  This all happens quite serendipitously, for unbeknownst to them, one hour later, my focus groups will broach these very topics again.  Good luck is always a part of good design, but I wonder if this coincidence will, in some way, bias the authenticity of their reactions.  How would I know if it did?

Part Four:

According to their respective schedules, both groups of participants arrive to my office.  I have arranged the room with 3 chairs facing a small table with laptop and external speakers.  I have already photographed the room for the record.  I have the participants read and sign their forms… I turn on the audio recorder:

-- Opening:

Audio clips preface the brief introductory conversations before the focus groups begin.

Group A

Group B

-- Question #1

Which of the many cultural issues that we discussed in Comms 601 were depicted in this Danish Cartoon Controversy video?  Is your understanding of the Controversy any different now, after seeing it constructed from moving images, instead of just reading about it?

Group A

Group B

By beginning with this question I want to ground our starting point inside our 601class.  But it is actually a pathway for asking a bigger question for me: have MOVING PICTURES told the story to them differently, somehow. There is some confusion in my wording of this question: moving is also interpreted as emotionally moving.  I try to redirect the conversation to Video as compared to Print text.

-- Question #2

Does this video take side in the controversy argument?  Whose voice would you say is speaking through this video?

Group A

Group B

This is a crucial question for me.  How much have I appeared to editorialize in the video?  How is it being interpreted?  And the question of “voice” is another way to tease responses about this.  But I begin to immediately feel that their comments readily align with class discussions(?).  “Islamaphobic.”  Is it?  Are there “phobic” connotations here?  I thought I was presenting radicalized conversations from both sides.  Also, Participant readings of the first German speaker are that he is a News Reporter.  But he is not.  He is just a man with a camera and opinions and ideology to “sell”.  It is clear that simply the framing in that clip (medium close-up) is reminiscent of a news image composition and presentation… although there are no graphic backgrounds, lower-third text, or logos – no news identification at all.  Both groups also react to the radical Muslim “declaring” war, claiming he is the only represented Muslim, although there are several clips of Arabs peacefully protest marching.  “Extreme” is a oft-repeated word in Group A.  The Group B (with the happy ending) sound more suspect, questioning the methodologies behind this (Western) construction of representation. 

-- Question #3

How would you describe your feelings after seeing this video?  Is there one word that sums up your feelings?

Group A: “Frustration.”  “Ridiculous.”  “Biased.”  “Misses the point.”  “Over-extends.”  “Appalled.”  “Angered.”  “Sarcasm.”  “Progressively got worse.” 

Group B:  “I like the end.”  “Attracted me.”  “Not hopelessness – but wow, there is still so much more to do.”  “Actions and words are not matching…. Mortified.”  “Offended me a little bit.”  “Media should have thought of these things.”  

-- Question #4

Would you have made this video differently?  If so, how?

Group A: “Make it more neutral to let the viewer decide, “Present alternate voices, it was all hiding behind freedom of expression.”  “It could have been a satire… about free speech absolutism.”  “I wouldn’t have changed a thing… the film makers were trying to get their point across.”   “I don’t agree with it, but it was their propaganda.”  “It was a commentary on the controversy itself… this is different if you know what I mean….”

Group B:  “I would have taken a more positive spin on it - an opposite spin.”  (When prompted, no one recalls my constructed still image from Abu Ghraib.)  “I would totally go to show how the Islamic world reacted…try to bring out a different picture of Islamic world.”  “But at the same time, not only show the violence.”  “Do a more comparative kind of study.”  “I like this video, I appreciated this video.”  “I would combine many views from many parts of the world.”  “Most people want to live in harmony.”

-- Question #5

Would you recommend this vide video to a friend interested in knowing more about the Danish Cartoon Controversy?  If so, why?  To whom?

Group A: “I think I would.”  “It really brings out emotions and makes you think about the issues…for the shock factor.”  “It is a betrayal on one side.”  “Yes, I would so they could see another side.”  “This video represents both extremes… it could be useful.”  “As long as you get see both radical views.”  “It might spark them to read more into it.”  “It is obviously skewed... that is the flaw with this film.”  “This was very radical, and people just are smart enough not to fall for this anymore.”

Group B:  “Actually … I have two friends… who definitely need to see this.”  “I don’t know.. I guess not.”  “I think Chinese people will not be interested in this kind of news… but I will recommend it to US Congress… and Muslims.”  “For friend, I don’t know, but I really appreciate this film.”

-- Closing:

Group A

Group B

There is mutual gratitude.  The session is over, but Group B continues the discussion on their own.  And each group, in their own way, intimates that they are vocal (at least about this subject), and that they want to be more vocal still.


I have many more thoughts and reflections and questions about this project than conclusions.  I suppose that’s OK, at this point.  After all this is a project for an introductory research methods course, not an interpretive/theory/application course.   That, I suppose, is a sideways admission that I’m not sure how to do the analysis portion.  (Hopefully that will come soon enough.)  Instead, I am focusing on my personal process, and on doing data collection correctly. 

And still, I feel I must somehow conclude with what has happened to me during this project. 

Over the last 18 months, I have made well over 150 small, personal, and observational movies – visual (auto) ethnographies  This is all new territory for me.  My television career had nothing to do with making video; I was a scenic designer.  Moreover, I was always backstage, hired to represent the views of my paying clients.  But I am changing life-careers; I am a virgin once again.  Because, I can no longer sit idle having my work support media outlets I no longer respect.  I am beginning tell my own necessary stories.  Mystories…maybe.  Personal narratives do offer important and evaluative insights through critical interpretation of personal experimentation.  This is not outside the realm of scholarship for it is more than mere autobiography.  It can be seen as an artistic example of auto-performance as methodology… and this can offer dramatically unique and beneficial points of view for cultural and communication pedagogy.

This project was startling for me in that for the first time ever, I documented my actions, emotions, thinking, and the various responses to something I made.  I believe it offers the reader a rare observational viewpoint into media, design, culture and communication.  I thank Dr. Beaty for being the ‘dude” that he is… I owe it all to him… although it is probably best that he never know as much.  I have always had uncanny abilities for finding and capitalizing something to spark and motivate new work.  In this case, Beaty sparked my eagerness, pride, and ego.  I wanted to channel that feeling constructively – by constructing.  You never know from where inspiration will come.

Lastly, and obviously, this presentation of my focus group research is also untraditional.  It too is personally confronting the limitations of typical scholarship.  This may be a rather artless attempt at experimentation, but it is nevertheless valuable for examine alternative vehicles for “telling” the research, while maintaining respect for the integrity of traditional scholarship. 

I truly learned from this experience.


An American

resident of Canada, experimenting with new forms of critical media ethnography in Cultural Farming.



Hard Ending


Happy Ending


to review videos

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