Is a 21-Year-Old Journalist to Blame For Burned Koran Killings in Afghanistan?


There’s a media story behind the tragic murders of 24 people in Afghanistan, killed amid riots against United Nations works and citizens of Afghanistan on account of the Koran burning ceremony held by Florida pastor Terry Jones. At his small southern church, Jones burned the Muslim holy book on March 20 to little fanfare because he’d been threatening to do so since the fall of 2010. Eventually, though, the news made its way to the Middle East and violence predictably followed. At today, Steve Myers traces the news from Florida to Afghanistan, while at least one media writer blames “Journalism 2.0” and implicates a 21-year-old reporter in the foreign deaths. More inside Press Clips, our daily media column.

Violent Consequences: Agence France-Presse, or AFP, a popular wire service, reported on the Koran burning even though much of the media, especially internationally, did not, with an informal media blackout called for in order to prevent violence.

The kid who did cover it, Andrew Ford, did so for AFP because they asked him to, and the story spread from there, eventually sparking the expected violence. At Poynter, Myers has a more detailed look into how and where the story traveled specifically.

But at Forbes, Jeff Bercovici writes that the way journalism works now helped to cause the killings, under the explosive headline “When Journalism 2.0 Kills.” He argues that without a close relationship between writers and learned editors, Ford had no way of knowing that he had moral and ethical obligations not to cover the Koran burnings, and that while the old system of guilded newsrooms might have included an editor who could have prevented Ford from writing the story, the new media environment made everyone act more recklessly. But in conclusion, Bercovici takes a pretty big jump:

Well, there’s something to be said for guilds. They’re a pretty good way of passing along values. If AFP’s student stringer had been treated like an apprentice craftsman whose job was to avoid making any big mistakes while learning from his elders rather than a one-man brand told to attract attention any way he can, 24 people in Afghanistan might still be alive right now.

But Myers, in his own comments system back at Poynter, provides some valuable context that complicates Bercovici’s theory:

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.

Myers continues:

It’s fair to ask AFP how it made its decision. I tried unsuccessfully to reach the editor before my story ran. …

To your larger point, I wish the cause-effect relationship of reporting were as simple as you describe it: we report, they react. News orgs must think about the impact of their reporting, but they can’t know for certain what will happen. And they should strive to report such stories in a way that doesn’t simply give voice to extremists. …

I’m not going to argue that our reporting has no effect. But to say that because he reported it, people died — that’s a vast oversimplification.

It’s doubtlessly a complex situation, spanning cultures and media channels, which makes pulling a lesson like “Journalism 2.0 Kills” come across as a bit crass. A discussion about the amateurization of even “legacy” journalism is important, but ascribing a death toll to it feels like a leap.

Another Out at AOL: The same AOL editor who embarrassed herself in last month’s Moviefone snafu by writing on the site that “it is in our best interests to stay on good terms with [movie studios],” possibly revealing a lack of editorial honesty or independence, was fired yesterday for an additional slip-up.

The Huffington Post and AOL’s new partnership has gotten its fair share of bad press already for its handling of freelancers (both paid and unpaid) but Moviefone editor-in-chief Patricia Chui just made things worse when she wrote to her staff, in part, “You will be invited to contribute as part of our non-paid blogger system; and though I know that for many of you this will not be an option financially, I strongly encourage you to consider it if you/d like to keep writing for us, because we value all of your voices and input.” That’s not good for their image!

Though cuts are coming across the company ever, and the Moviefone boss could’ve lost her job anyway, this pair of oops events certianly contributed to getting Chui fired. All Things D has all of the offending writing in full.

And Another!: At the Awl, though, another ex-AOL-er has the tale of how he was let go after a “two-year tenure at AOL… over 350,000 words in approximately 900 posts.” The notice came straight to his inbox, after a few weeks of fretting:

This was met with a blanket termination, with zero notice, in the form of an email that didn’t even include my actual name. Freelancers know they are just a number, but AOL really went out of their way to demonstrate that. Rest assured!

That’s HUFFINGTON Post: Lastly in Arianna-ville, she gave the Wall Street Journal some insight into how she’s running things at AOL, asserting her own dominance by noting, “Basically everything that happens to me becomes something that is integrated into the sites,” and urging her editors to act the same way. She also praised AOL’s local bloggers, saying that if “the Huffington Post had such local resources to tap ‘we might have discovered ecstasy before it hit the national scene.'”

Paid for Paywall: When New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. insisted that the $40 million estimate for the cost of the new website paywall was “vastly wrong,” he declined to give the actual figure. (It was at that same appearance that he admitted the new reader policy was “harder” for poor people.) Today, Paid Content estimates that the paywall actually cost about $25 million to create, market and implement.

Another Journalist in Danger: Clare Morgana Gillis, a writer for The Atlantic, has been reported missing in Libya, captured by Colonel Muammar’s Qaddafi’s forces on Tuesday afternoon amid the civil war. Like in the case of the four New York Times journalists recently captured and fortunately freed, many groups are working together to negotiate for Gillis’s release, along with the three other who were with her.

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on April 7, 2011

Archive Highlights