What Makes a News Story Huge? What We Can Learn From Terry Jones & His Threat to Burn a Quran

By on Monday, September 13, 2010

The self-flagellation and examination over how a story about a fringe pastor in Florida threatening to burn the Quran attracted mega-media coverage has begun. What perfect storm made this story so huge, when so many other stories are just noticed for a day and then gone?

The outrage factor – You had a vocal person threatening to do something, in public, that was blatantly offensive to most people – complete with a banner in red letters, plenty of notice so the media and opposition could get organized, and a photogenic wild-looking man prone to uttering sound bytes.

The emotional tie-in – On top of that, pastor Terry Jones was threatening to do his despicable act on a day that stirs emotions for Americans – September 11, 2010 – the 9th anniversary of terrorist attacks on the United States that took the lives of the thousands and radically altered our lives and perceptions of security. And his action played on our fears – while discrimination against Muslims in the United States has been soundly condemned – it has often taken on subtle forms since the September 11th attacks. His proposed act and statements were so blatantly offensive – they stirred our fears and caused us to question who we are as a society. If our culture could produce a crackpot like Terry Jones, then how tolerant are we as a society?

Statements by public figures – When the President, Secretary of State, commanding General in Afghanistan and other public leaders are issuing statements – the story is going to attract attention.

The rise of opposition – The threat to burn a holy book was so vilely offensive, that this act was bound to stir emotions and cause others to “oppose” it, generating other events – some in the community and elsewhere- that would trigger media coverage.Known for its progressive nature, people in Gainesville, Fla, where the pastor and his church are in residence, were horrified that their community would be known for such intolerance – eliciting comments from community leaders and additional protests throughout the community for media to cover.

The presence of visuals and a willing interviewee. The images accompanying the story showing the sign with an offensive message, and the pastor’s willingness to provide continual statements on September 10th to the media, fed the coverage as well. Had he locked himself in a house in the woods and not spoken to the press, and never given interviews, the coverage could have been minimized to some extent.

The tie-in to a national debate – As the country discusses the proposed building of a mosque near Ground Zero in New York – the proposed actions of a renegade minister in Florida were linked to a national discussion – and cited as an egregious example of the intolerance that dwells among us. There was no shortage of talkative people happy to go on news shows and condemn Terry Jones and his plans to burn a Quran.

The absence of other major news stories to fill the void, with wall to wall coverage descending into sensationalism – While things happened in the world over the last week, there were few mega-stories with the staying power and visuals to replace this one. Had a story the level of the Haiti earthquake disaster or Hurricane Katrina come along, it would have diluted or evaporated completely the attention on Jones. The media¬† self-selects stories that are compelling and bound to trigger reaction – the story about Jones and his plans fit the criteria perfectly. So is something wrong with the selection criteria? Oh yes. It’s way too easy for fringe elements like Jones to hijack news coverage. Media coverage gave a crackpot credibility and poured gasoline on a raging fire of outrage. Personally, I hope that this incident encourages news directors to re-evaluate their decision-making process – while it’s in the public interest for stories like this one to be reported – they don’t deserve sensationalistic wall-to-wall coverage.

The use of social media – While major news outlets like the Associated Press indicated that they would not distribute images of a Quran being burned and would exercise restraint (funny how AP didn’t feel that way about distributing images of a dying US service member in Afghanistan), social media means that images and outrage can be shared, whether the media cover an event or not.

News stories reflecting on the whirlwind coverage:
Did the media elevate the Florida Quran-burning story?  Kevin Baron, Stars & Stripes
The Quran burning coverage conundrum, Brooke Gladstone, National Public Radio
One nut, given a global pulpit by the media, John Farmer, New
Social media inflames news coverage of Quran burning, Jake Coyle, Associated Press

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