Fueling the Fire

Pastor Terry Jones made headlines last fall when he threatened to burn the Quran on the anniversary of 9/11. On March 20 in a small Gainesville, Florida church, Jones oversaw the burning of a single Quran. However, most of the United States didn’t know about the burning until after riots in Afghanistan killed a number of United Nations workers and Afghans. No local news organization and only one correspondent for an international wire service covered the event. Though there was little to no knowledge of the burning in the U.S., the reaction in Afghanistan was criticisms, riots, and killing.

Poynter’s Kelly McBride was among those who advised journalists not to be manipulated into giving Jones the attention he wanted because of fear that it would cause an “international spark.” The Defense Secretary Robert Gates and President Obama stated that this “stunt” would endanger U.S. troops and influence terrorism. This exemplifies the media’s power to either “dampen or amplify” a story especially when they know that participants in the story are trying to use them.

When the Gainesville Sun Managing editor Jacki Levine received a press release for “International Judge the Koran Day,” she states “We felt we would treat it as if we would treat anything else that didn’t seem to have any legitimacy and seemed to be a staged press event. We ignored it.”

Muhammad Musri, an Orlando imam and the president of the Islamic Sopciety of Central Florida, was concerned that the story of Jones would gain traction and cause major conflict both near and far. So he sent out a statement to local and national media stating that they (the media) should ignore Jones’ event. Musri didn’t hear back from anyone. He followed the story of the burning and saw it hadn’t been picked up in the U.S. But when he heard about the April 1st violence that took place in Afghanistan he was shocked.

Turns out the Andrew Ford, 21, had reported on the story last fall for Agence France-Presse and returned on March 20 to report on the burning. Within a couple of hours of filing his story, Yahoo News and Google News had picked it up. From there, Ford’s story spread. It made it all the way to Pakistan. Musri credited this spreading of information without mainstream U.S. media help as an example of self-publishing and social media and group driven agendas.

The author of this article, Steve Myers, states that this situation wasn’t an example of a subversion of traditional media because it doesn’t have evidence of social media revolution. Instead it shows how a “media blackout” doesn’t mean that all media outlets abide by these rules. Myers states, “The difficulty in covering a mead-for-media event like this is that the event itself isn’t necessarily newsworthy.”

Poynter’s Kelly McBride states, “it’s not just a matter of whether the media covers an event, but how proportionate the coverage is to its importance.”

This story demonstrates how the media may have the power to ignore or amplify a story, but their actions don’t represent the entire global media. Information always gets out and when it lands in the right or wrong hands it’s up to them to decide what to do with it. I don’t think I would have ignored Terry Jones altogether, instead I would have covered the March 20 event in order to give the public and foreign medias the real picture of what occurred. I would have explained that not many people attended the event and perhaps mention that this small event didn’t represent the culture and religion on the U.S. I would have gathered sources against the burning and their thoughts on how this act was unlike the people they knew. I think by ignoring Jones’ event the little information that was received in Pakistan made it easy for that foreign media to blow it up into a bigger deal because there were no other reports. Not many people supported Terry Jones, but many people abroad believed otherwise.

Perhaps we need to not ignore events because of fear of rallying hatred, but perhaps do our job of reporting on events in order to get the truth out so that everyone understands the context. Media blackouts may not be the best answer.