Burning the Koran: If you can't beat them, ignore them?


Well, here we go.  The media is right now stampeding toward Gainesville, Florida (USA), to secure a front row seat at The Burning of the Korans, organized by the Dove World Outreach Center, to coincide with the anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.  

The journalistic problem here is that this has long since ceased to be an actual news story with a "normal" life cycle, and it has become a very strange media black hole, sucking all sound news judgment into its maw.  As far back as July 28, I argued that the story and the coverage of it was already a bit of a mess, and I don't think coverage has improved. 

Over the last few weeks, this tiny congregation has managed to secure denunciations from the European Union, the United Nations, U.S. General David Petreus - oh, and actress Angelina Jolie - which is quite a list of enemies to amass when you consider the church has only 50 members and has broken no laws. 

Frankly, the problem is that the coverage has focused on, in effect, shaming the church instead of carefully explaining the church's ideas.  And few if any journalists have bothered to report critically and honestly on the far more sinister - and entirely separate - possibility that offended Muslims will become violent simply because of the manner in which the Dove Center rejects their ideas. 

The story is now organized and perpetuated only by the law of media competition.  Journalists cover the story because other journalists are covering it. 

If journalists aren't willing to do the hard work here, then it's time for them to simply avert their eyes, as unrealistic as that might be. 

My colleague Mollie Ziegler Hemingway, over at GetReligion, disagrees:

I think it’s true — this is news, whether [critics] like it or not. A topic should rarely — if ever — be censored by the media. The question is really about how we cover it.

That's fair enough.  But the more coverage that the church gets, and the poorer and more sensationalistic the coverage becomes as reporters run out of new things to say, the harder it is for the public to accurately "place" the church relative to the religious mainstream. 

This also worries Howard Kurtz at the Washington Post.  He wrote this morning that media have taken the story too far:

Why does the world need to follow the antics of one obscure book-burner in Florida? You can say we're just covering the story, but our combined megaphone has made it into an international story. And this isn't like overcovering Lindsay Lohan's jail sentence. This is a tinderbox right now.

Kurtz went on to quote Al Jazeera's coverage of the story, which said the Koran-burning event was "unprecedented" and a "ferocious attack" on Islam.

To be clear, I would never argue that a religion story shouldn't be covered.  And the Dove Center story WAS a story at one time.  It has now simply become a caricature of a news story, and that is the point at which careful reporters should opt out. 

Kelly McBride, who works on media-ethics issues at Poynter Online, gave reporters some tips on sensibly covering the events this weekend.  While McBride thinks it's important for journalists to cover such "acts of hate", she says that this story is fraught with journalistic danger:

Journalists and bloggers must explore choices that could minimize harm, while still upholding their duty to document universally offensive points of view...Unfortunately, in today's hyper-competitive environment, it seems that journalists who must travel the farthest to get to Gainesville, Fla. are most likely to fall into the traps that exacerbate the harm.

McBride goes on to list some approaches that will help reporters avoid these traps. Her very first tip? 

Don't go. 

Religion NewsRichard Potts