10 September 2010

Quran-Burning and News Judgment

What makes news? And how do editors decide whether to cover some events and not cover others? The plan, now suspended, by the leader of a small Christian church in Florida to burn copies of the Quran makes a good case study.

As the New York Times and other news outlets have noted, another fringe church, this one in Kansas, actually set fire to a Quran in 2008 and captured the event on film. But the news media ignored that incident.

What is the difference between then and now?

The Times offers this analysis: first, unlike 2008 incident, the planned Florida event coincided with a larger political controversy over the proposed building of a Muslim community center near the site of the September 11th terrorist attack in New York. Secondly, the pastor of the small Florida church benefitted from a traditional late summer news lull and the demands of a non-stop cable and Internet news cycle to promote his extremist views about Islam.

This raises a number of questions, among them this central one: should news organizations cover the Quran burning if it happens?

A senior executive at a Fox News, one of the major U.S. cable news networks, said in an interview that his organization would not cover the event.

Michael Clemente, senior vice president at Fox News, said this:

"He's one guy in the middle of the woods with 50 people in his congregation who's decided to try, I gather, to bring some attention to himself by saying he's going to burn a Quran if he gets the permit. Well, you know what, there are many more important things going on in the world than that. I don't know what they will be this weekend, but I am sure they will be more important than that."

Clemente said there will be no live coverage, "video" or "still pictures."

The Associated Press said it would cover the event, if it happened. But it said it would not distribute images that specifically show Qurans being burned.

AP executive Tom Kent explained in a statement that “AP policy is not to provide coverage of events that are gratuitously manufactured to provoke and offend. In the past, AP has declined to provide images of cartoons mocking Islam and Jews. AP has often declined to provide images, audio or detailed descriptions of particularly bloody or grisly scenes, such as the sounds and moments of beheadings and shootings, displays of severed heads on pikes and images of hostages who are displayed by hostage-holders in an effort to intimidate their adversaries and advance their cause. Decisions are made on a case-by-case basis.”

Bill Keller, the executive editor of The New York Times, said in an e-mail message that the newspaper had “no policy against publishing things that might offend someone — lots of people are offended by lots of things — but we try to refrain from giving widespread offense unless there is some offsetting journalistic purpose.” He added, “A picture of a burning book contributes nothing substantial to a story about book-burning… The freedom to publish includes the freedom not to publish.”

As for VOA News, which has been and will continue reporting on the story, VOA Director Danforth Austin has said it is “hard to imagine a circumstance under which running video or a photo of a Quran burning would be justified.” He said VOA would make a final decision only after viewing any video or photo that does become available.

Chris Cuomo, a news anchor at the U.S. ABC network, believes news organizations have made a big mistake by publicizing the event. He wrote: “I am in the media, but think media gave life to this Florida burning ... and that was reckless.”

If no one had reported the Florida pastor’s plans, would there have been any protests like the ones seen in Afghanistan or denunciations by U.S. and world politicians and religious leaders? Probably not.

But once a single news organization decided to report the planned event, could other news organizations ignore it? Think about it. Tell us what you think about the role and responsibility of the news media.

Eds Note: We apologize for the lengthy break since we last posted. We’ll try to do better in the future.

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