Make us your home page
Instagram

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

How did the media lose control of the Koran burning story?

A small army of journalists have a beat a path to the doorstep of Florida minister Terry Jones, a man who has united the world in its estimation that he's a marginal figure, possibly a bit nutty, threatening to burn the Muslim holy book today in an obvious bid for attention.

But even as Jones decides whether he will make good on his threat after days of conflicting statements, journalists question whether they have allowed a single man to hijack the world's news agenda.

At the Gainesville Sun, executive editor Jim Osteen said the newspaper first reported on Jones' plan to burn copies of the Koran back in mid-July, to little impact. Now, Osteen's office is deluged with 100 interview requests, ranging from the BBC to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

"I've been in this business for 30 years, and I don't think I've seen anything like it," said the editor.

Osteen saw interest in Jones build as major media outlets zeroed in on his YouTube videos and Facebook page while covering the debate over the proposed Park51 Islamic cultural center and Mosque near Ground Zero in Manhattan. That attention ignited Monday when protests ignited in Kabul and Gen. David Petraeus, the commander in Afghanistan, warned that burning the Koran could bring harm to troops overseas.

"It's the perfect storm of timing and new media and old media and 24-hour cable channels all bringing out their worst traits (in coverage)," said Osteen. "We're trying to do our job without frightening our readers, but how do you do it without sensationalizing things?"

Experts say the story may have started in social media. Blog comments, YouTube videos and Facebook posts laid the groundwork for an explosion of public interest once a mainstream media outlet paid attention.

Wayne Sapp, an assistant pastor at Dove World Outreach Center, posted a YouTube video dated July 17 complete with footage of a Koran burning. Two days later, the Council on American Islamic relations distributed a bulletin, including links to Sapps' video.

A few days later, the Religion News Service offered a story on the plans and on July 29 CNN's Rick Sanchez interviewed Jones after a producer saw material about the Koran burning stunt online, according to a spokeswoman for the news channel.

"Stories like this percolate in social media and the come to boil when the mainstream media pick them up," said S. Robert Lichter, director of the Center for Media and Public Affairs, a Washington D.C. think tank that tracked the story's evolution. "The bad news is, it's hard for the media to keep something like this out. Because the media is all of us."

But news outlets choose not to cover suicides or name the victims of sexual assault. Couldn't mainstream news organizations choose not to cover people such as Jones? (We did it in 2008 when a controversial Kansas church burned a Koran with little attention.)

Fox News Channel made headlines of its own Thursday by doing just that; declaring they would not cover the Koran burning at all today, though they have featured this issue in past news coverage. "He's just a guy looking for airtime," said Michael Clemente, senior vice president at Fox News. "He's a guy who represents very few people doing something that's pretty outrageous."

Kelly McBride, who teaches and writes about ethics issues at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, which owns the St. Petersburg Times, cautioned against ignoring such divisive figures totally, citing the way some newspapers ignored racist Ku Klux Klan activity in the 1950s and 1960s. Instead, McBride suggested thoughtful local coverage worked best, while national news outlets should be more careful with images stoking international media narratives about American intolerance.

"When Obama and Petraeus respond, they're not just responding to the national press," she said.

At the St. Petersburg Times, editors didn't begin considering staff-written stories until the world begin to weigh in.

"We knew that a small-time minister in Gainesville was planning to burn copies of the Koran, but didn't think it was worth a story," said Mike Wilson, the Times managing editor/Enterprise. "But when Afghans burned Jones in effigy and Gen. Petraeus publicly scolded him, it suddenly became worldwide news."

The Associated Press and CNN have said they will not distribute images of a burning Koran should Jones make good on his threat today.

But Osteen wondered if the national media crush would have been so great if outlets had looked first at his paper's past reporting on Jones' church, which has a history of provocative anti-Islamic acts and a small congregation.

"It seems some of the national news media does this 'shoot, ready, aim' thing without talking to the local newspaper," said the editor, who corrected the Wall Street Journal for calling the Dove Center a megachurch. "Getting perspective from the beginning is one way to make sure these things come out accurately."

Times researchers Natalie Watson and Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report.

How did the media lose control of the Koran burning story? 09/10/10 [Last modified: Friday, September 10, 2010 8:17pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times

    

Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

Loading...
  1. Justin Timberlake in Super Bowl halftime show for first time since 'wardrobe malfunction'

    Celebrities

    Justin Timberlake has finally been invited back to the Super Bowl halftime show, 14 years after the "wardrobe malfunction" with Janet Jackson caused a national controversy.

    Singer Janet Jackson covers her breast as Justin Timberlake holds part of her costume after her outfit came undone during the halftime show of Super Bowl XXXVIII in Houston in 2004. The NFL announced Sunday, Oct. 22, 2017, that Timberlake will headline the Super Bowl halftime show Feb. 4 in Minnesota, 14 years after the "wardrobe malfunction" with Janet Jackson cause a national controversy. [Associated Press]
  2. Here's what happened when 30 high school sophomores gave up their phones for a day

    K12

    LUTZ — They were everywhere at Steinbrenner High School. Teens with panic-stricken faces, furiously slapping one thigh, then the other.

    Grace Hayes, 15, left, and Kai'Rey Lewis, 15, talk and text friends after having a discussion about smartphone technology in Tiffany Southwell's English Literature class at Steinbrenner High last week. Southwell asked theme to give up their phones for a day and write about it. For Lewis, the ride home that day "was the longest bus ride in my life." [OCTAVIO JONES   |   Times]
  3. Cuban media treats visit by Tampa City Council as historic event

    Politics

    TAMPA — Delegations of one kind or another have been traveling from Tampa to Cuba for years, even before President Barack Obama took steps to normalize relations between the two countries in December 2014.

    A Tampa delegation to Cuba this week was featured prominently in reports by the state-run media in Cuba, including Granma. From left are Tampa City Council vice chair Harry Cohen, St. Petersburg City Council Chair Darden Rice, Tampa philanthropist David Straz and Tampa City Council Chair Yolie Capin.
  4. As the curtain rises on the Straz Center's biggest shows, the spotlight is on parking

    Transportation

    TAMPA — The Broadway Series, the most lucrative shows of the year for the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts, start this week, and this year the center wants all the drama to take place on stage, not during the drive to the theater.

    With downtown Tampa getting busier at night and on weekends, city officials and administrators from the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts have been working on ways to unsnarl traffic and help visitors find parking when there are lots of events at the same time. CHRIS ZUPPA   |   Times (2009)

  5. OCTAVIO JONES   |   Times 
Casimar Naiboa pleads for help to capture the killer of his son, Anthony Naiboa. Naiboa, 20, was shot and killed near 15th Street N. and E. Frierson Avenue after getting off the wrong bus in Seminole Heights. A peaceful march that began on east New Orleans Avenue was held during the candlelight vigil for the three victims who were killed in the recent shootings in the Seminole Heights neighborhood in Tampa on Sunday, October 22, 2017.