How to Report on Quran Burning and Other Hate Speech

By now it’s clear that the Rev. Terry Jones is a lone voice with a tiny following. On any given Sunday he has 50 worshipers, according to reporters who have attended his services. Far from being the leader of a megachurch, he is an isolated preacher who has scheduled an act of hate speech to commemorate Sept. 11. The world religious community and many others have denounced his plans.

“It’s Terry Jones and his congregation against the rest of the world,” NPR reporter Greg Allen said on “Morning Edition” on Wednesday.

Covering Jones’ small event on Saturday has the potential to cause great harm. The images of radicals in Gainesville may be used by other radicals halfway around the world to justify violence. Burning the Quran in the name of a perverted interpretation of Christianity is an act designed to fuel the discord between groups of Muslims and Christians. Showing images of people burning the Quran furthers that plan. How you choose to cover Saturday’s stunt says something about your values.

One of the great flaws of modern journalism is the preference for dramatic developments and pithy commentary over context. Jones may be isolated in his beliefs, but his actions play out in a world where conversations involving Islam and America are constantly poised to explode. Whether it’s the coverage of the plans to build an Islamic center in Lower Manhattan or reporting on the United States’ interrogation of potential terrorists, misinformation is as common as good information.

Many in Gainesville, Fla., and beyond argue that pointing a camera at Jones is like giving a toddler attention in the middle of a tantrum. Ignore him and he’ll go away. They have a point. Yet part of our job as journalists is to document events. When we ignore acts of hate, no one has the opportunity to react, to condemn them or to proclaim a different belief system.

This may be the most unified the world’s public figures have been on a single issue in recent history. Everyone from the Vatican to Angelina Jolie to Sarah Palin thinks burning the Quran is offensive. Virtually no one is defending it.

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. Meanwhile, the journalists who must wake up next week in Gainesville and face their neighbors are most likely to consider alternatives that tell the story while keeping the spotlight off Jones.

If you are considering covering Jones’ Quran burning on Saturday, consider these alternatives:

  • Don’t go. Unless Gainesville is part of your coverage area, or you work for a wire service, look for other ways to get raw material from the event. There will be plenty of cameras and satellite trucks on hand, as well as amateurs with their Flip cameras. In fact, there are likely to be more journalists than members of the Rev. Jones’ Dove World Outreach Center. Will you have access to other material? Then use it, rather than gathering your own and contributing to the circus-like atmosphere.
  • Give your audience what it needs to understand the big picture. The moment-to-moment developments on Saturday will most likely be dull. But even if there is a confrontation or other drama, volumes of pictures or live video footage aren’t likely to enhance anyone’s understanding of what this really means. In fact, because Jones is so isolated in his beliefs, his actions don’t really mean anything. Making him seem more significant than he is distorts the truth.
  • Be judicious about the material you publish, especially images. Burning anything in protest is meant to be offensive, whether it’s a flag, an effigy or a sacred text. How you use the images can be interpreted as an endorsement or a rejection of the message. Just because you have a lot of material available doesn’t mean you have to publish it.
  • Take a stand. It’s hardly controversial to suggest that Jones is wrong. If you believe that, say so.
  • Cover the reaction, not the fanatic. There are some creative responses to Jones’ lunacy. Mother Jones wrote about a group that is rallying people to send a Quran to Afghanistan for every text Jones burns. Local churches and other organizations have planned dozens of events to draw people away from the Quran burning. Already the response is greater than the event itself. Your coverage should reflect that.
  • Talk about how you will react to confrontations ahead of time. A little pushing and shoving can look like a big kerfuffle depending on how you describe it or crop the image. Have a plan to ensure the events are accurately portrayed, so that production work, like creating a video tease or sending out a tweet, doesn’t mislead your audience or undermine your journalistic purpose.
  • Help your audience understand why this is hate speech, not a simple protest. Hate speech targets an entire group for a particular characteristic. In this case it’s belief in the Quran as a holy scripture. A protest denounces a certain action or set of circumstances, not an entire group of people. Jones has justified his plan by claiming the Quran is “evil” and “Islam is of the Devil.” He and his followers will burn the Quran with guns holstered at their sides. He admits the act is likely to incite violence.

Jim Osteen, executive editor of The Gainesville Sun, has put a lot of thought into his plan for Saturday. He hopes to focus on the community’s reaction to Jones and avoid Jones himself. He wrote in an e-mail to me:

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“We are trying to keep our readers informed without alarming them, or giving this misguided pastor more of a stage than is deserved. We are trying to give coverage to the reasoned voices of our community to show that Gainesville is not a haven of extremism, but a college town of understanding and tolerance. While we can’t escape the reality of what is likely to happen Saturday, we are committed to not sensationalizing the event.”

After all, a handful of people burning Qurans is hardly the biggest story in Gainesville this weekend. You’ll find a much better story, as well as a healthier ratio of journalists to participants, at the Florida Gators vs. USF Bulls football game. Kickoff is at 12:21 p.m.

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