For the moment, Pastor Terry Jones and the Islamic world appear to have reached a truce. The Florida pastor on Thursday called off plans to burn 200 Korans, saying he would instead travel to New York Saturday to talk with the imam of the mosque near ground zero about moving the Islamic center elsewhere.
But as news of the Koran burning circled the globe during the past week, so did questions about the role of the media in fanning the controversy.
US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton this week rapped the media for giving the Rev. Mr. Jones attention and suggested the media “ignore” his actions on Sept. 11. Deepak Chopra, author of the forthcoming book “Muhammad,” says in an e-mail: "The media has a responsibility to not contribute to rage and possible violence by not making a global phenomenon of what could have been a nonevent by an unimportant pastor."
But can a pastor, no matter how inconsequential, burn the sacred scriptures of another faith without notice in today’s interconnected world?
The Associated Press, at least, appeared to take the criticism to heart. Before the event was called off, AP had announced that it was not going to distribute images or audio that specifically showed Korans being burned.
But the pre-Internet days of a single news outlet guiding media coverage are gone, says Kevin Lerner of Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y, who has studied the history of journalism. Journalism is in a new, democratized era of information-gathering, he says. If a single religious “crackpot” anywhere in the depths of America’s backwoods decides to burn a Koran, and even one person is there with a cellphone to upload the image, then it enters the larger flow of content that travels everywhere, he notes.
“This takes us back to the days before the mass media, when a village could talk its own news without the ‘mediation’ of a newspaper,” he says.
The difference in scale, however, places a new and evolving burden on journalism enterprises. “Their role is changing from one of strictly delivering the news to a waiting audience to one more of curation or helping to guide the discussion that is taking place across the vast digisphere,” Mr. Lerner says.
The real question should be not do we cover Pastor Jones but how, says Stephen Burgard, author of “Faith, Politics and Press in Our Perilous Times."
With religious issues at the heart of so many hot-button topics – particularly during an election cycle – media coverage of religious issues is critical, he says. The real question is: Are the editors who make these decisions about what to cover learning more about the context, perspective, and history that will lead to a better understanding of what is behind stories like Jones?
“Far from avoiding these stories, we should learn about how to be better about how we do cover them,” he adds.
Context and perspective are not new to journalism, points out Hank Klibanoff, a journalism professor at Emory University in Atlanta and a Pulitzer Prize-winning author. But given the speed and breadth of information today, the media in all its old and new forms must make concentrated efforts to achieve what he calls “proportionality.” Journalism by its nature focuses on the extreme, the unusual, and the interesting without necessarily painting in the background context.
Now, he adds, the burden is on all those in the news-gathering business to place a person like Jones in proper perspective. The vast resources of digital information actually enable the kind of contextualizing that used to be much more difficult in a print newspaper, he adds.
“The digital media can provide all sorts of extra information,” he says.
In this case, that would mean links to worldwide reaction from religious and political leaders so Jones's inflammatory behavior can immediately be seen in context.