If the Florida pastor had gone through with his threat to burn the Koran, should news media have covered the event? And if so, how much coverage should they have given?
This is one of the toughest decisions in the news business. News organizations differed in their plans. Fox, CNN and the AP said they would not provide pictures. The New York Times did not rule it out but indicated it was leaning against publishing pictures.
To come up with the right decision, editors and producers have to conduct a balancing test, weighing two important ethics principles of the Society of Professional Journalists, the main professional association of American reporters. The first and most important principle is Seek Truth and Report It. The second principle is Minimize Harm. In this case, the two principles are in conflict.
Burning the Koran would have been an event, and the journalist’s job is to report the facts of newsworthy events in an honest, reliable and truthful way so that the public has enough information to make an informed judgment. So the first principle would apply.
But burning the Koran clearly would have caused great harm. Already people have died in demonstrations in Islamic counries over the mere threat of this happening. In fact, today (Sunday, Sept. 12), even though the Koran burning never took place, two people died in violent protests in Afghanistan. Had the Koran burning actually happened, American troops would have been at risk. We’ve already seen how, in 2005, an erroneous Newsweek report of a Koran being flushed down a toilet at Guantanamo touched off riots in Islamic countries in which people died. (In one two-day period in Afghanistan, the BBC reported, seven people were killed.) So the second principle also applies.
How do you reconcile these two?
Before the threatened Koran burning gathered public attention (hyped by a Tweet and Facebook item by the pastor and then excessive news media coverage), there would have been little need to cover it. It would have been a minor stunt by an obscure church. But once Gen. Petraeus, Secretary of Defense Gates and President Obama, among many other leaders, had issued public calls urging the pastor to cancel the event, it would have been improper for journalists not to cover it, including providing images of the event. For one thing, there was no guarantee that all news organizations would boycott coverage, and all it would take would be for one news organization to take one picture for it to become viral on the Internet. So any one news organization’s not covering it would not minimize harm.
For another thing, even if no news organizations covered it, some individual with a cell phone camera undoubtedly would have put images on the Internet. The damage would have been done, and riots and even killings of Americans would likely ensue. In this situation, the value of coverage by a serious, credible, professional news organization would be to make sure that, since the story is going to get out anyway, a truthful, reliable, impartial and undistorted account should be made public, to counter any false reports, rumors or propaganda about what exactly happened. And that includes accurate, contextual images of the event.
Just because something is offensive and disturbing does not mean it should not be covered. The AP photo of a monk immolating himself in an anti-government protest during the Vietnam war was highly disturbing but it was important for the public to know that such protests were taking place, and to know what exactly happened.
The third SPJ ethics principle is Act Independently. If news organizations censored themselves because of threats of violence, they would violate that principle. It’s vital that our news organizations be free to act without fear or favor, so that we the public can be confident that important information will not be suppressed and that we can trust our journalists to be fearless and forthright in making sure we get all the facts.
So, a tough call, but on balance I would favor limited coverage, not hyping the story but not ignoring it either.