How the Quran burning story skipped the U.S. as it spread from Gainesville around the world

One of the most intriguing elements of the news about the Quran burning in Gainesville, Fla., on March 20 is how it skipped the U.S. and took hold overseas. That journey is particularly important to this story because those people abroad, particularly Muslims, were really the target audience.

I describe the general path of this journey in my story focused on what this episode says about the media’s ability to shape the news. Here’s a more detailed look at that path, with added information about how some media organizations grappled with the difficult decision of whether and how to cover this event.

The pre-coverage

On Jan. 1, Gainesville pastor Terry Jones posted a YouTube video announcing “International Judge the Koran Day,” a theatrical trial of the holy book. He asked people to vote via Facebook on how they’d like the Quran to be “punished”: burned, shredded, drowned or shot.

Gainesville Sun Managing Editor Jacki Levine said the paper decided to ignore the event because it seemed to be a stunt.

Other media appear to have shared the sentiment. In a January report on Jones’ plans, a Jacksonville, Fla., TV station noted its misgivings. “When Jones called a news conference to announce his new plan, the question for WJXT and other news media: should it be covered at all.”

News 13, an all-news station in Central Florida, ended its story with a description of how it had debated the responsibility of reporting on Jones:

“Ignoring what could become another event in Central Florida that ignites international outrage would not be responsible of us.

“However, giving an open microphone to a religious leader whose views and actions advocate intolerance would not be responsible of us, either.”

Muhammad Musri, a Central Florida imam, decided after being contacted for a few of those initial stories that he would try to prevent a media circus like the one last fall. He sent a statement to local and national media:

“Personally, after having been thrust into the center of the last ‘Koran Controversy,’ and witnessing the confusion, I hope the professional media outlets will use good judgment in their reporting of this current ‘Incident’ to diffuse and neutralize its potential impact abroad.”

Musri said he was never contacted again by media after that. Levine told me she wasn’t sure if the Sun received his statement, but even if it had, it wouldn’t have influenced the editors’ decision.

The Associated Press also learned of the event beforehand and decided not to cover it. Tom Kent, deputy managing editor and standards editor, told me:

“Our policy is not to provide coverage of events that are gratuitously manufactured to provoke or offend. And we saw this supposed trial in that category. In the past we’ve declined to cover [events] or provide images mocking Islam, mocking Jews and so forth.”

Not every news outlet was notified. Damien Cave, the former Miami bureau chief for The New York Times, told me that he never got any releases. He wrote about the church last fall, so if Jones wanted publicity, he said, he would have expected to get something.

Cave told me that if he were still working in Florida (he has since taken an assignment in Mexico City) and had received a news release, he would’ve thought about the repercussions of covering the event. Perhaps he would have attended but not committed to write anything; he would have had to discuss it with his editor.

The “trial” and burning

The Sun did send a reporter to the church on March 20, Levine said, but its journalists haven’t been allowed on the property since the paper first started covering the church.

“We didn’t find out right away that he had done this,” Levine said of the burning. She didn’t want to discuss exactly when the newspaper found out, though she did say, “In retrospect, a brief inside [the newspaper] would have been appropriate.”

The Sun, a New York Times-owned regional paper, first reported on the burning after the rioting in Afghanistan, with several stories on April 1, almost two weeks after the Quran was burned.

A Christian, Coptic-language satellite TV station broadcast the trial live, though it didn’t air the burning itself. That part was streamed via UStream.

In the couple days after the event, stories were posted to the websites of the church and its spinoff group.

The story spreads

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. He filed his story late that night.

Within a couple of hours – early Monday morning – Ford’s story was on Yahoo News and Google News.

Ford told me he tracked his story in the first 24 hours to see how far it spread. Of the 27 links he sent me, just seven are American sources: New York magazine, NPR, USA Today, the New York Daily News, Creative Loafing, Google and Yahoo. Religion News Service also reported on it Monday.

Closer to home, two employees of WSKY-FM, a news and talk radio station in Gainesville, noticed the AFP story, which Program Director T.J. Hart said came “out of the blue.” The host called the church and got Jones on the phone for an interview on Monday.

The next day, WFTV-TV in Orlando, an ABC affiliate, aired its report on the burning.

A reporter for WFTV called Musri on Monday seeking comment. Musri said he told the reporter that he had chosen to ignore the burning. A spokesman for the Council on American Islamic Relations responded likewise, telling Religion News Service that Jones already had his 15 minutes of fame.

There’s an odd disconnect in some of those stories from the first several days. Florida media picked up an AP report stating that Jones was planning to appear at a demonstration in Dearborn, Mich. The briefs describe Jones as a Florida pastor “who drew international criticism by threatening to burn a copy of the Quran on Sept. 11,” but say nothing about the fact that he already had done so just days before.

The news made an impression in Pakistan. On March 22, a story was published there with the headline, “Holy Quran desecrated in Florida church.” From there, Pakistani and Indian news outlets reported on denouncements by Pakistan government officials, complaints to the UN, and a bounty placed on Jones by a Muslim extremist group.

The U.S. embassy in Pakistan issued a statement on March 22 condemning the burning and stating that it “does not reflect the general sentiment of respect toward Islam by the people of the United States.”

Demonstrations were planned for that Friday, March 25, in Pakistan. A Christian news service reported that two Christians were killed, Bibles were burned and a few churches were attacked. (I found corroborating reporting by another Christian news outlet.)

The next hot spot was Afghanistan, where President Hamid Karzai condemned the Quran burning and said it was intended to incite religious tension.

The U.S. government weighed in again on March 25 at a State Department briefing on Libya. A release from the U.S embassy in Libya (there is no date on the release) describes American laws protecting free speech, noting that people can’t be prosecuted for burning an American flag.

On April 1, mullahs brought up the burning during Friday prayers in the Afghan city of Mazar-I-Sharif, and a crowd incited by their comments turned violent, killing UN workers and Afghans.

The New York Times noted the burning on April 1 with a pair of stories about the violence. (It’s unclear whether the Times’ reference to comments Karzai made on “Thursday” refers to what he said on March 24 or another statement on March 31; I haven’t seen other reporting of a statement on March 31.) The AP did the same thing, reporting on the burning in the context of the riots.

This is when the story moved back to the U.S.

President Barack Obama addressed the issue on April 2, after the violence in Afghanistan.

UPDATE: This story has been updated to note that the U.S. embassy in Pakistan issued a statement on March 22 in which the U.S. government condemned the burning.

This is not intended to be a comprehensive list of all the places that this story appeared, but if you believe I’ve left something out or misrepresented the coverage in some way, please contact me.

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  • http://www.poynter.org Poynter

    I missed that. Thanks for pointing it out.

    Steve Myers

  • http://twitter.com/MyHollyTree Robin

    Go to the US embassy in Pakistan’s website and then to press releases. You will find it there.

  • http://twitter.com/MyHollyTree Robin

    Hi, great job, but you left off one condemnation. The US embassy in Pakistan posted a statement on their website on March 22

    PRESS RELEASES 2011

    U.S. Embassy Condemns Burning of Copy of Holy Koran
    Deliberate Destruction of any Holy Book an Abhorrent Act

    March 22, 2011

    Islamabad — The U.S. Embassy condemns the burning of a copy of the Holy Koran in the State of Florida, United States. This is an isolated act done by a small group of people that is contrary to American traditions. It does not reflect the general sentiment of respect toward Islam by the people of the United States.
    “The deliberate destruction of any holy book is an abhorrent act,” said Ambassador Cameron P. Munter. “The U.S. commitment to freedom of religion and freedom of expression goes back to the founding of our nation and is enshrined in the Constitution. We absolutely reject religious intolerance in any form.”