Koran conflagration, redux

In what Mother Jones called “the best journalism-job want ad ever,” a Sarasota Herald-Tribune editor pitched an investigative reporter job by writing (language warning):

For those unaware of Florida’s reputation, it’s arguably the best news state in the country and not just because of the great public records laws. We have all kinds of corruption, violence and scumbaggery.

I thought of that when I came across this Religion News Service story about the U.S. ambassador to Pakistan calling the burning of a Koran at a small Florida church “abhorrent.” And yes, it turns out that Pastor Terry Jones oversaw the burning of the Koran.

Media coverage of this event has been fine. You can read the original Religion News Service report here. I think Agence France Presse was one of the first to report the news. An NPR blog made note of the AFP report. USA Today‘s Faith & Reason blog did also.

The RNS report is the most comprehensive, explaining why Jones doesn’t think he went back on his word about not burning a copy of the book:

The controversial Florida pastor who halted plans to burn a Quran on the 9/11 anniversary last year oversaw the burning of the Islamic holy book on Sunday (March 20) after it was found “guilty” during a “trial” at his church.

“We had a court process,” said Pastor Terry Jones, who acted as judge, in a phone interview. “We tried to set it up as fair as possible, which you can imagine, of course, is very difficult.”

Jones said about 30 people attended the mock trial at his Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville.

Jones considered the “International Judge the Quran Day” to be a fairer way of addressing the Islamic holy book, and denied breaking earlier promises not to burn a Quran.

If the jury had reached a different conclusion, Jones said he would have issued an apology for his accusations that the Quran promotes violence.

“We still don’t feel that we broke our word — that was in relationship to International Burn a Quran Day,” he said, referring to his previous plan to burn a pile of Qurans on the 9/11 anniversary to protest plans for an Islamic community center near Ground Zero. “We would not establish another International Burn a Quran Day.”

What I find so fascinating about this whole story is not that some Floridian is overseeing a trial of a book. By Florida standards, that might be tame news. What I find fascinating is the disparity in media coverage of the non-burning vs. the burning of the Koran.

Do you remember the crazed days of August and September last year? I was hoping for a nice relaxing few weeks of light religion news. Then the media developed a frenetic, obsessive and ultimately short-lived interest in stories about the plans to convert a building damaged in the 9/11 terror attacks into an Islamic Center and Jones’ plan to burn a Koran.

In fact, Jones’ attempted Koran-burning was voted by religion writers to be the top religion story (along with the proposed mosque near Ground Zero). I think every broadcaster within three time zones had a truck sitting outside Jones’ church in the lead-up to the non-burning.

But then he goes ahead and burns a copy of the Koran and we’ve got maybe two original stories on the matter? I’m not exactly complaining. In fact, I’m not complaining. I think that some coverage of the act is warranted. I think the coverage we had back in late summer was embarrassing — both in terms of quality and quantity. But I am wondering what it says about reporting and what we consider a major story.

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  • Dave

    I guess the best stab I can make at an explanation is that sometimes a story strikes a chord that literally takes it around the world in a self-reinforcing frenzy of professional and informal media; and other times it falls flat as a news item. Go figure.

  • Ryan K.

    I am just curious and sincerely asking this question as someone with no journalism background; is there a standard by which journalists and reporters are taught to measure the importance or weight of a story?

    How does Terry Jones and the Koran merit a top billing by journalists as a story? Is this subjective or is there a more to this judgment?

    I am worried that if this really is subjective that picking Terry Jones as a top story only highlights the sensationalistic nature of religion journalism in the USA. Stories of honor-killings in the United States, killing of dozens of Coptic Christians in Egypt are seen of less importance than Terry Jones and 30 people pulling a publicity stunt?

    I am honestly baffled at how journalism works.

  • Dave G.

    Perhaps it was because he burned it. It was done. Much of the coverage last year wasn’t just about him wanting to burn it, but about everyone begging him not to. In this case, he went ahead and it was over. Even if there is a backlash, there’s nothing anyone can do to change that. So one of the main issues of the first wave of coverage – how many major leaders in our country and around the world were almost on their knees pleading for him not to do this one thing – simply didn’t exist. I know that’s the part of the whole story I found interesting last time around.

  • http://www.muchmorethanwords.com gfe

    Ryan K. — As someone who (on certain days) has the job of deciding which national and international stories go in the newspaper, I’d have to concede that the process is quite subjective. Most often I pick stories because I think they’re important for people to know, but sometimes I pick stories because they’re what people are talking about (or nothing about Charlie Sheen, for example, would run on my watch) or merely because I find them interesting.

    In this particular case (and I missed this story until I read this blog a few minutes ago), my guess is that part of what happened is that we have two huge stories going on right now, the Japan earthquake aftermath and the military action in Libya, with a third one, the possible shutdown of the federal government, simmering in the background. That seems to be about all the media like to handle at one time; I don’t remember specifically, but my guess is that when the threatened bonfire was big in the news there were no big stories going on that anyone was paying attention to.

  • Dave

    gfe, that’s why summer used to be called “the silly season” in newpaper parlance, because there were no big stories on the griddle and papers would fill their news hole with flying saucers and two-headed calves. In these days of a 24-hour news cycle and global news of local import, there’s no predictable season of no major news but, as you suggest, there are fluctuations

  • Ryan K.

    Thanks gfe for the insight. I do empathize with the task of trying to decide which stories to cover.

    I guess I just was wondering if in journalism school what is the methodology and principles that are taught for weighing the importance of a story.

    Obviously there are those tired mantras like, “if it bleeds it leads” that are often said as the thought process for how the media picks stories, but I just wanted to see more behind the curtain of what criteria goes into deciding that Phelps and his band of 20 family members, deserves more coverage than an honor killing.

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby

    Mollie,

    Your post was the first I’d heard of this. I’m not complaining either. But I’m with you — it is strange how much of a non-story it seems to be this time around.

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    Okay, it’s a little offtopic, but… the ‘weird news’ website ‘Fark.com’ tags articles with various descriptors; “Sad”, “Spiffy”, “Scary”, “Cool”, “Hero”, “Asinine”, and so forth.

    They have a tag specifically for “Florida”.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Looking at a modern version of an old wisecrack: (If the media didn’t cover the Koran burning–Did it really happen???)

  • Jerry

    I did not find a mention on AlJazeera’s web site which mildly surprised me. When we consider Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Syria, Palestine-Israel and a few other things happening, it’s understandable. Back at the time of the non-event, there appeared to be a thought like: once the Quran is burned, legions of anti-American suicide bombers will attack America and wreak havoc. I think the lack of media attention is as said: when a city is burning, who notices a house fire? Between the Muslim world and Japan, it takes quite an event to make it into the public news arena.

  • Harold

    I think the original incident occurred at a specific time and so the story seemed interesting, given the national debate over Park51 and Islamaphobia (or denial of Islamophobia, as the case may be). So the story seemed significant given the moment in time.

    But now the media has accepted he is a sideshow and there is no larger debate of the moment so it is less significant. Given the larger international issues, the story isn’t as pressing.

  • Jerry

    After looking around a bit more, I do find some stories about the burning but not at the level as before in the US. Before it was an over-reported story, now it may be an under-reported one in the US.

    Mumbai Christians criticise Koran burning in US
    http://in.christiantoday.com/articles/mumbai-christians-criticise-koran-burning-in-us/6130.htm

    Islamic Group Places $2.2 Million Bounty on Head of Koran-burning Florida Pastor
    http://hotair.com/greenroom/archives/2011/03/24/islamic-group-places-2-2-million-bounty-on-head-of-koran-burning-forida-pastor/

    Holy Quran Burning By Terry Jones Creates Tensions All over the Muslim World

    The appalling act of burning the Holy Quran by Pastor Wayne Sapp at the Church run by Terry Jones in Gainesville, Florida, United States on March 20th, 2011 has created a stressed situation between the Muslims and the Christians all over the world.

    http://www.newsi.es/holy-quran-burning-by-terry-jones-creates-tensions-all-over-the-muslim-world/883084/

  • http://theoldadam.wordpress.com Steve Martin

    I’m a Lutheran who was thinking about burning a Bible. Do you think the media would give a hoot?

    They’d probably help me.

    As Chrsitians, we know that the Bible is a book that contains the Word of God. It doesn’t glow in the dark, or levitate, as far it it goes…it is just a book. But the story of the gospel and the Living Word is told about within those pages.

    I seriously doubt that any rioting by Chriostians would occur. No murders. Many would not like it, and that would be understandable.

  • http://poweroffaithprayerandworship.blogspot.com/ Rick Supplee

    It was indeed fairly poor coverage on this story altogether. Hardly any reporters spoke to the absolute absurdity of this pastor burning a Koran. That does nothing for anyone but alienate our Muslim friends. And in my experience Muslim worship services are more spiritual than Christian. So I wish there had been some reporter with the sense to speak to how stupid this event truly was.

  • Harold

    I seriously doubt that any rioting by Chriostians would occur. No murders. Many would not like it, and that would be understandable.

    Well, there has clearly been times in history where Christians would have had exactly that reaction to such an act. In 2011, you are probably right.

    But the coverage of the threatened Koran burning in the U.S. wasn’t about riots, but about the state of threats to religious people in the U.S. at the same time there was significant anti-Islam rhetoric because of the mosque near Ground Zero. That is newsworthy, even if not deserving of the coverage it got.

    If a minister was going to burn the Talmud (or put big swastikas on his building) you can imagine that would be deserving of news coverage, even if the guy was a fringe figure no one had heard of. So why shouldn’t anti-Islamic actions get a similar treatment by the press?

  • http://www.ericcshafer.blogspot.com Eric Shafer

    We did a well-received piece last fall – http://www.odysseynetworks.org/video/odyssey/dialogue-over-threatened-quran-burning – focusing on the Muslim cleric, Imam Musri, who tried to reason with Jones. When we heard Jones had now gone ahead and burned a Koran, we considered revisiting this story, but decided not to give Jones any more “ink” (to use ink in a video way!) It was the same sort of discussion that I believe happens among media whenever Fred Phelps’ family appears – how coverage might be giving a very small finge group more notice than they deserve. I think we made the right decision.

  • Marian

    Thank God there was hardly any coverage. The coverage last year got everyone riled up. Sometimes it’s not an actual event that makes people mad, it’s the talking about the event.
    I know why there was little coverage. Everyone has been busy talking about Japan.

  • patricia, canada

    How many Korans are incinerated by muslims bombing muslims, destroying each other’s mosques and military strikes on muslim strongholds? The whole thing is hypocritical and just plain stupid. Muslims look for reasons to be outraged and the Western media looks for ways to sell advertising. The two hypocrites found each other mutually useful for a while.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    JUST an important follow up. From Asia News –a Catholic Asian news site–the burning of the Koran got much coverage in Pakistan, if not here. Consequently–even though Christian organizations, leaders, and churches roundly condemned the burning–huge mobs gathered in a few Pakistani cities and burned down churches and murdered 2 Christians over it. Pardon my sarcasm, but reading on the internet what Christians regularly endure under Islamic rule and is not reported in this country–apparently such information is news not “fit to print.” Musn’t make people wonder about how much Islam is really a “religion of peace.”
    These burnings and murders not being reported in our country has made for a lot of comments on this site that makes it clear many thought there would be no repercussions as long as the American press did not inform Americans about the Koran burning.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Further footnote: Two weeks before these above incidents two Christians were murdered over religion and it was not reported in the U.S. media.