Counseling from a Cartoonist

The University of Pikeville recently welcomed Pulitzer Prize winner, Joel Pett, to speak about the life of a political cartoonist.

Pett currently works for the Lexington Herald-Leader and has received major recognition throughout his career. The journalist is a three-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Cartooning, winning the award in 2000. 

During his time at the university, he offered some advice that may be useful; not only to aspiring journalists and editorial cartoonists, but to life in general.

1. Everyone won’t agree with you. 

“I get paid to express my political opinions. If you disagree with them, that’s not only fine, it’s good,” said Pett.


Since political cartoons embrace headline stories with a mixture of satire, Pett’s often-unpopular opinions have landed him in the spotlight on various occasions. However, the cartoonist believes that worrying about the backlash is a form of censorship in itself.

2. You can’t avoid being offensive.

“People react emotionally and viscerally to cartoons,” he said. “If you think about who you might be offending, you can’t criticize anything.”

During his career as a cartoonist, Pett noted that he has probably offended many people. This seems inevitable in his line of work, as he creates images that pick out the most prominent features of a subject, features that may be more perceived than real.

3. You’re allowed to form your own opinion.

According to Pett, the beauty of political cartooning lies in the fact that you don’t have to create a picture that looks like the subject you’re trying to portray. The main idea is to pick a prominent focus and build the caricature from there.


“It doesn’t have to look like the person; it can be more like the person than they are,” Pett said.

4. Be prepared for feedback.

The cartoonist mentioned the backlash he’s seen as a result of his work, but also notes it as one of the highlights of his career. He told a story about how he once overheard someone refer to a politician based on a caricature he’d created.

The opportunity for reader feedback is more immediate than ever, now that the world is connected. Since there has been a shift in the readership of print media, as news moves to the Internet, Pett encourages those who are interested in print journalism and cartoon editorial to push forward.

5. Follow your heart.

“If your heart is in it, you should do it, and you’ll be good at it. Once you’re good, you’ll find a way to make it work. If it’s just another job to you, you’re just not going to hang with it. If your heart’s in it, keep doing it,” Pett said.

6. You control your future.

The Online presence of journalism and cartoon editorials has opened up a part of the field that was once unimaginable. As stated in an earlier post, newspapers have taken a turn to digital, making their mark on the World Wide Web. While this has opened some issues for newspapers, it has also opened some doors for journalists and cartoonists.

“Now, you can sort of invent your own platform. It makes you the publisher and the cartoonist. But then you’re the center and the self-center. I think young people, because of social media, are in a big fish bowl all the time. And anything you say can come back to you twenty years later, because there’s a record of it. It’s kind of unfortunate,” said Pett.


“I was basically given a ten-year learning curve- and I kind of sucked at this- to do it every day until I got good. And nobody gets that anymore. You’ve got to do it for yourself, which I think is tricky and difficult,” Pett added.

7. Travel.

Pett has traveled the globe, and worked as a freelance journalist for nine years before joining the Leader.


“I usually tell an audience of young people, if you don’t have kids, if you don’t have a bunch of expensive habits, and you don’t really mind living modestly, you can kind of do whatever you want for a long time,” he said.

8. If you truly want to make a difference, start at home.


As a local journalist, what stuck out most to me during Pett’s talk was his advocacy for hometown papers. While international affairs are important and newsworthy, Pett notes that you can make the biggest difference when you focus on the topics that hit closest to home.

“The most important thing you can do is close to home,” Pett said.

Disclaimer: I do not discredit or endorse any of the political views contained in Pett’s cartoons.