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Guidelines on how to report on Koran burning and other hate speech

Outburst: Pakistani men protest in Multan in Punjab province September 10, against plans by Pastor Terry Jones, an obscure US Protestant church leader, to burn the Koran on the anniversary of the September 11 attacks. Jones, facing an outpouring of concern from US leaders and anger from Muslims worldwide, said on Friday he did not plan to burn copies of the Koran on the anniversary of the September 11 attacks.

Even as the Indian home ministry issued an advisory urging the Indian media to help maintain communal peace and harmony in the wake of reports of a pastor in the United States threatening to burn the holy Koran, PoynterOnline.org has recommended guidelines on how to report the incident.

Union Home Minister P Chidambaram had issued a statement on Thursday saying, "While we await the action of the US authorities, we would appeal to the media in India – both print and visual media – to refrain from telecasting visuals or publishing photographs of the deplorable act. We would also appeal to the media to exercise great restraint over the next couple of days and help in maintaining communal peace and harmony."

Pastor Terry Jones of the tiny, little-known Dove World Outreach Centre in Gainesville, Florida has since backed off the threat to burn copies of the Islamic holy book on the anniversary of the September 11 attacks on Saturday.

Kelly McBride who writes on ethics issues on PoynterOnline wrote, "One of the great flaws of modern journalism is the preference for dramatic developments and pithy commentary over context. Jones may be isolated in his beliefs, but his actions play out in a world where conversations involving Islam and America are constantly poised to explode. Whether it's the coverage of the plans to build an Islamic center in Lower Manhattan or reporting on the United States' interrogation of potential terrorists, misinformation is as common as good information."

Though the advisory was essentially for the American media, it does provide elementary guidelines about how to report such incidents:

  • Don't go. Unless Gainesville is part of your coverage area, or you work for a wire service, look for other ways to get raw material from the event. There will be plenty of cameras and satellite trucks on hand, as well as amateurs with their Flip cameras. In fact, there are likely to be more journalists than members of the Rev. Jones' Dove World Outreach Center. Will you have access to other material? Then use it, rather than gathering your own and contributing to the circus-like atmosphere.
  • Give your audience what it needs to understand the big picture. The moment-to-moment developments on Saturday will most likely be dull. But even if there is a confrontation or other drama, volumes of pictures or live video footage aren't likely to enhance anyone's understanding of what this really means. In fact, because Jones is so isolated in his beliefs, his actions don't really mean anything. Making him seem more significant than he is distorts the truth.
  • Be judicious about the material you publish, especially images. Burning anything in protest is meant to be offensive, whether it's a flag, an effigy or a sacred text. How you use the images can be interpreted as an endorsement or a rejection of the message. Just because you have a lot of material available doesn't mean you have to publish it.
  • Take a stand. It's hardly controversial to suggest that Jones is wrong. If you believe that, say so.
  • Cover the reaction, not the fanatic. There are some creative responses to Jones' lunacy. Mother Jones wrote about a group that is rallying people to send a Koran to Afghanistan for every text Jones burns. Local churches and other organizations have planned dozens of events to draw people away from the Koran burning. Already the response is greater than the event itself. Your coverage should reflect that.
  • Talk about how you will react to confrontations ahead of time. A little pushing and shoving can look like a big kerfuffle depending on how you describe it or crop the image. Have a plan to ensure the events are accurately portrayed, so that production work, like creating a video tease or sending out a tweet, doesn't mislead your audience or undermine your journalistic purpose.
  • Help your audience understand why this is hate speech, not a simple protest. Hate speech targets an entire group for a particular characteristic. In this case it's belief in the Koran as a holy scripture. A protest denounces a certain action or set of circumstances, not an entire group of people. Jones has justified his plan by claiming the Koran is "evil" and "Islam is of the Devil." He and his followers will burn the Koran with guns holstered at their sides. He admits the act is likely to incite violence.
Date posted: September 11, 2010 Last modified: May 23, 2018 Total views: 180