When does an event become newsworthy? Does media coverage in itself make an event newsworthy? Can news organizations and journalism be blamed for giving a made-for-media event the attention it was looking for?
These and other similar questions arose from the coverage (or the non-coverage) of evangelical pastor Reverend Terry Jones, who runs a small church in Gainesville, Florida, burning a copy of the Quran on March 20.
The story is well summed up by Poynter's Steve Myers, who wrote an article analysing the media's ability to shape the news.
Last fall - Myers reassumed - pastor Jones was over the news with his threats to burn the Quran on the anniversary of the terrorist attacks of September 11 2001. US President Barack Obama even asked the pastor not to do it. He initially desisted, but on March 20 he followed through. As the New York Times reported on April 1, according to Afghan and United Nations officials, "stirred up by three angry mullahs who urged them to avenge the burning of a Koran at a Florida church, thousands of protesters on Friday overran the compound of the United Nations in this northern Afghan city [Mazar-i Sharif], killing at least 12 people."
As Myers noted, the Quran burning event was thinly attended and, far from the media spectacle of last September, no local news organizations and just one correspondent for an international wire service covered it. Myers looked at a detailed path of the story here. Several news organizations hesitated over whether to cover the event or not, and in the US it was largely ignored.
In fact, on March 20 the only person in the church working for a news organization appears to have been Andrew Ford, a University of Florida student stringing for Agence France-Presse.
Myers reported how the news spread: Ford filed the story late that night and next morning it was on Yahoo News and Google News. He tracked the story for 24 hours and out of the 27 links he recorded, only seven were American sources. A story was instead published in Pakistan and then Pakistani and Indian news outlets reported on Pakistan government officials condemning the Quran burning. Demonstration were planned for that Friday in Pakistan.
"Local media didn't dictate international coverage of an extremist whose actions don't represent his community, his culture, or his religion. Yet an international wire service, relying on a single stringer, put this story in front of government officials who seized on it", Myers wrote.
Myers said he discussed with Poynter's Kelly McBride the ethical considerations of the coverage. It's not just a matter of whether the media covers an event, but how proportionate the coverage is to its importance, she argued.
"If the burning of a single Quran by a fringe pastor dominates the news and people die in the ensuing violence, does the media share blame? If the media doesn't cover the story and people still die, did they fail to inform their audience of an incendiary event?"
Last fall, McBride wrote an article advising journalists not to be manipulated giving Jones the attention he was looking for.
Jeff Bercovici on his blog Mixed Media' on Forbes wrote an article addressing the story, with the headline "When journalism 2.0 kills". "If AFP's student stringer had been treated like an apprentice craftsman whose job was to avoid making any big mistakes while learning from his elders rather than a one-man brand told to attract attention any way he can, 24 people in Afghanistan might still be alive right now", he wrote.
What gave the story enough credibility, in Bercovici's opinion, is that it received the blessing of the seventh most influential news outlet in the world.
Myers answered him in the comments below: "If anything, the Quran burning story shows the impact of Journalism 1.0, not 2.0. This news was carried through legacy distribution channels. The student was not a citizen journalist or a blogger, but a stringer who was asked to report on the event for a wire service. And far from being a one-man brand', the stringer's name wasn't even on the story, which he told me was substantially edited."
The cause-effect relationship of reporting is however not so simple, Myers commented. "I'm not going to argue that our reporting has no effect. But to say that because he reported it, people died -- that's a vast oversimplification."
Mathew Ingram on Gigaom also responded to Bercovici's article. "The reality is that neither the reporter nor the wire service are guilty of anything but reporting the news", Ingram commented. "Bercovici seems to believe that we would all be better off if the traditional media were able to simply make events disappear by not reporting on them, and if stringers for wire services didn't muck things up by writing about them anyway. But would that really make things any better? Would it have spared the lives of those workers in Afghanistan?"
Ryan Chittum on the Columbia Journalism Review also noted that it's hard to argue that this case has anything to do with journalism 2.0. He wrote that "Bercovici's point is about the perils of moving "away from journalism schools and newsroom hierarchies, toward empowered citizen bloggers and crowdsourced reporting," which this story doesn't show whatsoever. And anyway, the old hierarchical newsrooms were all over this Terry Jones stupidity last September. Remember that? As if Journalism 1.0 never sensationalized stories".
"Blaming journalists and journalism for the murder of innocents by wackjobs halfway across the world is beyond the pale", he concluded.
So, how much power do media blackouts or, on the contrary, media coverage have over events? Should news organisations be blamed for their decisions to report or not report?