Terry Jones syndrome: Guidelines for responsible news selection

Stephen WardThe question “Should the media cover a little-known pastor’s Koran-burning plan?” has been widely debated. Stephen J.A. Ward
asks a larger question: “How is news selected?” He offers guidelines to
help editors respond responsibly to a Terry Jones and a soon-to-follow
host of copycats.

As America approached, nervously and disunited, the ninth anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attack, the pastor of a small Florida church bathed in a global media spotlight.

Rev. Terry Jones and his small Dove World Outreach Center had announced in July their plan to burn copies of the Koran to proclaim the evil of Islam. By September, the pastor’s unholy plan was top of the news around the world, sparking riots and prompting widespread criticism.

On one day alone, Jones’s blatant media manipulation garnered front page coverage in over 50 USA daily papers. Moderate Christians and Muslims can only dream of such widespread coverage of their ideas.

The questions asked repeatedly on media programs were: “How did this little-known pastor get so much news coverage? Should the media have given him a global platform for his questionable views and potentially harmful actions?”

Let’s ask a larger question: How does any story become top of the news? How is news selected? Media scholars have itemized many factors, such as: the event’s novel or dramatic nature; involvement of prominent people; cost of doing the story; editor’s judgments about what is interesting for readers; and whether the story connects with larger trends.

To this list we can add two relatively new factors: creation of a global media world inhabited by countless online websites, bloggers, and commentators; and the existence of many political groups that will use this global media to attack opponents and provoke riots.

Many of these factors elevated the Koran-burning plan to global status.

What should become news?

Besides these facts, there is an ethical side to news selection: What events should receive extensive coverage? What guidelines can help newsrooms respond responsibly to a Terry Jones and a soon-to-follow host of copycats? 

In the Jones’s story, the question of responsible news selection must consider two different time periods: In the summer, when the plan was first announced; and in late August, when the story had gone viral. In the early weeks, newsrooms should have ignored Jones’s plan. And there was no justification for selecting Jones’s announcement as an important news story. At the very most, the announcement merited an initial  items on the controversial pastor from Gainesville, Florida. However, the decision to run a small, initial item needs to be balanced against the fear that even modest coverage might spark a global reaction.

Here, you can read the Guardian‘s breakdown of how the story went viral, including YouTube videos and stories posted very quickly as the news spread.

But what should responsible editors do when the media system turns the story into an ugly global incident, with leaders predicting that a Koran burning would incite violence?

Caught inside this media maelstrom, responsible editors cannot ignore the story. So, what guidelines can help the beleaguered editor who resents giving Jones more publicity?

Some principles.

There are no easy answers. Yet editors can consult the following principles:
Democracy needs intelligent news selection

A democracy whose media is distracted by sensational events is headed for trouble. A media that does not — or will not — distinguish between trivial and essential news, or between genuine news makers and media manipulators, creates a society that is under-informed on the crucial issues that define its future. 

Journalists should ask to what degree their news selection is based on a sober assessment of what really is important – developments in the political, economic, legal, and social arenas of the body politic.

When a Terry Jones gets too much air time, or when Paris Hilton’s latest faux pas trends on Twitter — and the blogosphere is abuzz — this is exactly the time when journalists must push back in the opposite direction. They must question a news selection that feeds this media circus. Of course, media should cover pop culture and the merely novel; but the media’s news selection should not be hostage to alleged news events or entertainment values.
Go hard on manipulators

New selection should be guided by who is seeking media attention and why. Jones guessed correctly that a book burning would get attention. He loved appearing before the cameras and toying with reporters. Editors have every right to work against a manipulator’s media strategy. It is not the job of journalists to provide unthinking coverage of events that are gratuitously manufactured to provoke and cause harm.

Swim against the flow by doing good journalism

Even if a story is too big to ignore, journalists and newsrooms are not helpless victims of a faceless “media world.”  They can do three things when confronted by a Terry Jones.

Practice proportionality; avoid the drama: Reduce the quantity of coverage and reduce the prominence of the story. For example, in the lead up to Sept. 11, the Associated Press announced that it would reduce the number of stories it would do on the Jones affair, and would not distribute images or audio that specifically showed Korans being burned.

Relentlessly provide context: Widen the story by avoiding a narrow focus on the event in question. For example, in the case of Jones, do not follow his every move. Also, explain who Jones is and the size of his church. Note his previous attempts to get media attention and question whether his views are affirmed by many Americans. On a number of days, the New York Times reduced the impact of the Jones story by folding the event into larger explanatory stories of how Americans were approaching the 9/11 anniversary.

Be a catalyst for informed discussion: Deepen a story like the Jones plan by including other voices, such as moderate Muslim leaders and interfaith associations that are rallying against Jones. Use this moment to bring intolerant views about Islam out into the open for rigorous review. Rather than try to pretend that people like Jones don’t exist, use this shabby affair as an opportunity to spark a more reasoned and intelligent discussion of religion. Meet intolerant, uninformed speech with tolerant, informed speech.

Are these principles of responsible news selection too old fashioned to operate in a world of global media and instantaneous online commentary?  They better not be. Our pluralistic democracies will be neither informed nor peaceful unless a core of journalists and newsrooms remain committed to responsible news selection.

In a media-linked world, this is no time for journalists to play follow the leader – or follow the most irresponsible. 

I say, let’s follow our principles.

Stephen J. A. Ward is the James E. Burgess Professor of Journalism Ethics in the School of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and an adjunct professor at the University of British Columbia (UBC). He is the founding chair of the Canadian Association of Journalists’ (CAJ) ethics advisory committee and former director of UBC’s Graduate School of Journalism.