Does the journalist who reported on a Quran burning by a right-wing pastor in Florida last month share some of the blame for the deaths of 24 people in Afghanistan in the wake of that event? And is the fact that they died some kind of indictment of the evolution of digital media, or “Journalism 2.0?” That’s the case being made by Forbes media writer Jeff Bercovici in a blog post published on the site Thursday, beneath a tabloid-style headline reading “When Journalism 2.0 Kills.” But the story that the Forbes blogger refers to says more about Journalism 1.0 than it does about new media, and so does Bercovici’s wrong-headed and contradictory response.
The story in question was about notorious evangelical pastor Rev. Terry Jones, who runs a small church in Gainesville, Fla. and set fire to a copy of the Quran on March 21 in what he said was a protest against Muslim acts of terrorism. Jones had earlier made threats to burn a stack of Muslim holy books last year on the anniversary of September 11, and this eventually became a story of national significance after President Obama mentioned it in interviews and asked the pastor not to burn the books because it might lead to violence against Americans in Muslim countries.
In the wake of the March 21 burning, riots broke out in several cities in Afghanistan to protest the event and more than 20 people were killed, including several foreign aid workers. The demonstrations apparently began after President Hamid Karzai referred to the Quran burning in a speech a few days after the event.
So what does any of that have to do with Journalism 2.0? Was it a blog post that mentioned the Quran incident, or a Facebook video that made its way to President Karzai? No. And yet, Bercovici maintains that this is somehow an indictment of the “shift away from journalism schools and newsroom hierarchies, toward empowered citizen bloggers and crowdsourced reporting” that is promoted by “new-media utopians like Jay Rosen and Jeff Jarvis.” In a message posted to Twitter promoting the column, the Forbes writer said “a college kid’s reporting caused 24 deaths in Afghanistan. Here’s how.”
According to Bercovici, most of the mainstream media had decided not to report on Rev. Jones’s burning of the Quran, because of concern over the potential effect on American-Muslim relations, and because the pastor was clearly just a crank looking for attention. But the journalist who did the only story that made its way to Afghanistan (Steve Myers at the Poynter Institute has a play-by-play of the reporting on the event) was “a 21-year-old stringer working on his own, the sort of freelance pieceworker media companies have been leaning on to make up for the downsizing of their professional workforces,” according to Bercovici.
The problem with this argument, as Steve Myers points out in a comment on it, is that the story was picked up by Agence France-Presse, a foreign wire service with a long history, and a traditional media entity if there ever was one. And according to Myers, it was the wire service that asked the journalist in question to report on the burning, presumably because of the previous publicity about it — they weren’t suckered by some freelancing piece-worker. Not only that, but it was picked up by both Google News and Yahoo News. Bercovici maintained in a message to me that this was what gave the story enough credibility to cause the riots that he blames the author (and Journalism 2.0) for.
So the story is somehow simultaneously an indictment of new media and freelancers who do piece-work, or crowdsourcing, according to the Forbes writer — and yet it was a 175-year-old wire service’s idea to do the story, and it was picked up by two major online news outlets. Why isn’t the AFP to blame for those deaths in Afghanistan? Bercovici also tries to argue that this was somehow a result of “a one-man brand told to attract attention any way he can,” but the writer’s name wasn’t even on the story, which was reportedly (according to Myers) heavily edited.
The reality is that neither the reporter nor the wire service are guilty of anything but reporting the news. Bercovici seems to believe that we would all be better off if the traditional media were able to simply make events disappear by not reporting on them, and if stringers for wire services didn’t muck things up by writing about them anyway. But would that really make things any better? Would it have spared the lives of those workers in Afghanistan? Perhaps. But radical believers of any type hardly need excuses to riot or cause bloodshed. And blaming a 21-year-old journalist for those deaths is a cheap way of taking shots at some perceived flaw in Journalism 2.0.