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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 9:17pm]
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