Who’s Responsible? Thinking About Florida’s Terry Jones

I’m late to this story. About two weeks ago, Jeff Bercovici indicted Jay Rosen, Jeff Jarvis and “citizen bloggers and crowdsourced reporting” in his take (Forbes Mixed Media) on the Terry Jones Koran-burning story. (I read it because one of my students Tweeted the link.) Bercovici wrote his column about two weeks after Jones lit a match in Gainesville, FL.

I’m so off-balance by the flaws in Bercovici’s arguments that I don’t know where to begin, so I’ll take them in chronological order.

First, Bercovici calls Rosen and Jarvis “new-media utopians” in the lede and, in the comments, he implies that they “celebrate the collapse of the old structures of journalism.”

I don’t know what Bercovici means by “new media utopians” but that term is not how I would characterize either Rosen or Jarvis. “Utopian” can mean someone who “idealizes perfection” so I suppose “new media utopians” might, then, idealize “new media” (whatever that is).

Both are media critics; they criticize different aspects of mainsteam media but neither are celebrating a collapse of journalism schools (from the lede) nor have they argued that there is something inherently utopian in digital media technology. As far as the implication that they oppose “newsroom hierarchies,” I am compelled to ask: what do you mean by that phrase, Bercovici? Also, show me where Rosen has used the term. I searched PressThink; it is found only in comments by others.

One of the problems (or luxuries, I guess) of using emotionally loaded terms that have no generally accepted definitions is that a writer can make sweeping generalizations that are hard to refute …. and that can generate brisk click-throughs (4,764 views as of this writing versus 485 and 955 for the posts on either side).

Second, Bercovici criticizes a “college student at the University of Florida” for reporting that Jones burned a Koran in his church on March 20, 2011. Bercovici argues that the reporter probably wrote the story because he was “hoping to attract some attention and maybe some internship offers.” Moreover, he says that this AFP wire story resulted in the deaths of 24 people in Afghanistan. In other words, the story was straight self-interest (had no news value) and that self-interest resulted in two dozen deaths on the other side of the globe.

A question or two for Bercovici, who presumedly has an editor:

  • Who did you call at AFP to find out why they ran this story on their service?  Given that there is no comment from AFP, I’m deducing that you contacted no one. And your editor — that master of journalism-that-doesn’t-kill that you describe in your column — didn’t ask why not or suggest you hold the presses, so to speak, until you did so?
  • When and how did you try to reach the UF student who wrote the story? Given that there’s no quote from him, and you hat-tip a reader, I’m deducing that you didn’t contact him. I guess one of the basic rules of journalism — contact someone who is being criticized in a story before it goes live — doesn’t apply to opinion writers. Or maybe it was deemed unnecessary since you didn’t call him by name? In any event, what did your editor say? Or, are you a blogger without an editor (your implied criticism of the UF journalist)?
Rather than perform an act of journalism, Bercovici threw mud and then belatedly acknowledged the legwork of one of his readers, Steve Myers, a journalist with Poynter who had covered this story in great detail the day before Bercovici’s post (April 6). I say “belatedly” because Bercovici linked to Myers near the top of his post but, it seems, didn’t actually read what Myers had written.

Clarification: As Myers makes clear in the comments below,  the student was asked by his editor to cover the event.

If anything, the Quran burning story shows the impact of Journalism 1.0, not 2.0. This news was carried through legacy distribution channels. The student was not a citizen journalist or a blogger, but a stringer who was asked to report on the event for a wire service. And far from being a “one-man brand,” the stringer’s name wasn’t even on the story, which he told me was substantially edited.

As for the student going against the flow to seek attention, you assume incorrectly. Andrew Ford, the student, told me that the Miami bureau chief for AFP received the press release and asked him to cover the “trial” and burning. Ford had covered some of the events at the church last fall, so they already had a relationship.

It’s fair to ask AFP how it made its decision. I tried unsuccessfully to reach the editor before my story ran. Today I sent him another message asking for more info because others have asked me about AFP’s decision-making process.

Not quite so simple as accusing a student journalist of behavior that you assume [in other words, “made up”] is an accurate portrayal, eh?

Third, Bercovici repeats a claim made by the London Guardian on April 1:

Provincial police spokesman Sherjan Durrani said the demonstrators poured out of mosques in the city [Mazar-e-Sharif] in the early afternoon, shortly after Friday prayers where worshippers had been angered by reports that a Florida pastor had burned a copy of the Qur’an.

I call this a “claim” because there is no evidence given, just the opinion of a local official. Who translated that English story and why did it take almost two weeks to “spark” the violent protest? What happened between Sunday March 20 (March 21st, according to The Guardian) and Friday April 1?

No legwork from Bercovici, but a lot from Myers. The story hit Pakistan on March 22 (along with U.S. embassy condemnation); demonstrations three days later seem to have resulted in two Christian deaths.

Turning to Afghanistan: according to the Seattle Times, it was the president, Hamid Karzai, “whose comments about the Quran burning brought it to the attention of many Afghans.” The internal political response is as predictable as Beltway rhetoric between U.S. Republicans and Democrats:

The Taliban said in a statement that the United States and other Western countries had wrongly excused the burning of the Quran as freedom of speech and that Afghans “cannot accept this un-Islamic act.”

[…]

Both Afghan and Western officials cited mounting evidence that insurgents had seized the opportunity to infiltrate crowds of demonstrators in both Kandahar and Mazar-e-Sharif, concealing themselves among those who otherwise might have marched relatively peacefully.

The protests also appear to be fueled more broadly by resentment that has been building for years in Afghanistan over the operations of Western military forces, blamed for killing and mistreating civilians, and international contractors, seen by many as enriching themselves and fueling corruption at the expense of ordinary Afghans.

And Myers notes that groups with their own agendas drove the story:

Musri, who never saw Ford’s story, attributed the spread overseas to self-publishing, social media and groups driving their agendas:  YouTube, FacebookUstreamsatellite TV, websites of the church and its spinoff group,Islamophobic blogs, and leaders in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Libya andLebanon.

But Bercovici would have us believe that one 300-word story, written in English no less, was catalyst enough, all by itself.

Sweeping generalizations with emotional triggers, like Bercovici’s column, drive me a little batty because rebuttal not only requires reason but it also requires more words than the original fabrication (fewer than 600 words, btw). The fact that Bercovici is supposedly a journalist (“I’ve been covering the business of news, information and entertainment in one form or another for more than 10 years“) makes his behavior in this case all the more egregious.

Good fodder for an ethics and reporting discussion with my students, though.

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Updated to correct a typo, fix formatting, and add a link. I also fixed a grammatical pothole.

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3 thoughts on “Who’s Responsible? Thinking About Florida’s Terry Jones

  1. We’re a group of volunteers and opening a new scheme in our community. Your web site provided us with valuable info to work on. You’ve done an impressive job and our whole community will be thankful to you.

  2. Oh, and you can delete this, but at some point in the story my name becomes “Meyers.” You should give that extra E to someone who really needs it!

  3. Kathy, thanks for reading and dissecting. You pull the issues apart well.

    The only part I disagree with is how you cite Musri’s belief of how this news spread – various social and digital media. He did say that, but I didn’t see much evidence to support it. I think the story did spread from the AFP story, which presumably (here is the hole in my knowledge) was seen by political leaders in Pakistan and Afghanistan, such as Karzai. But of course I disagree that you can simply “blame” the story for the ensuing violence.

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