Quran-Burning Coverage: The Hollowness of "Storytelling" as a Journalistic Value

It's Journalism 101: You have to have a story. Who's the protagonist? Who or what are they up against? And most importantly, what does it mean?

It's been a foundation of reporting for so long that it's come to seem self-evident. But is it?

Story-telling, let's remember, is the essence of fiction. But reality, as most of us live it on most of our days, is precisely not fiction. There is no narrative arc. Nothing ends up meaning anything. Stuff -- even if it's big stuff -- just happens.

If you want to get a story out of that, you have to pluck out characters and events and fit them into some kind of order. You have to act, in other words, not as a reporter, but an author. It's often appropriate in feature writing, but it has also become standard practice in daily news reporting.

And so we get the invention of Terry Jones. In reality, Jones appears to be an obscure bigot with about 50 deluded followers. But in the media, Jones has become the world-famous protagonist of a parable of religious intolerance. (Not to mention the proximate cause of some number of deaths, already suffered or yet to come.)

The only reason for this is that, in a slow month for news, and with the nation gripped by the "Ground Zero Mosque" controversy (itself rife with fictional elements), Jones' threatened Quran-burning made for a good story. Jones, you see, supposedly expresses an emotional truth about "America and Islam" -- an emotional truth that somehow trumps the fact more than 300 million other Americans apparently had no plans to burn Qurans on 9/11.

Here's the time line of Jones' transmogrification, as described in the New York Times:

Mr. Jones's announcement about the Koran burning gained only a little attention at first, with a single short article published by a Web site called Religion News Service. That article was subsequently mentioned by bigger sites, like Yahoo, and by the end of the July Mr. Jones had been booked on CNN, where the host Rick Sanchez called his plan "crazy" but added, "At least he has got the guts to come on this show and face off." *

In other words, Jones was not a story until major media made him a story. Before that, Jones was just a fact: the fact that on the fringe of society, there was a hateful fool doing a hatefully foolish thing.

Some in the media have pointed this out. Dave Weigel at Slate.com: "This is a media story, not a political story... not our first media freak-out about One Man's Quest to Be Stupid".

But others have defended the value of "symbolism". David Folkenflik on NPR, in the context of arguing for caution in handling stories like this:

"But it is a story... The very notion of burning holy texts is offensive to Muslims, as it is to people of other faiths, and yet, you know, it becomes a symbolic moment at which we can talk about these broader issues."

But is symbolism really the business of reporters -- especially those (not including Folkenflik) who wield it with so little sense of proportion? As Robert Mackey pointed out in his New York Times blog The Lede, Terry Jones staged an anti-Islam protest on the 2009 anniversary of 9/11, and it drew 30 attendees and a couple of hundred YouTube views. But, "This year, thanks to the attention generated by the promise of a more televisual form of protest -- the burning of about 200 copies of Islam's holy book -- national and international news crews and their satellite trucks are lined up on the lawn of the church Mr. Jones calls the Dove World Outreach Center."

When emotional truth and factual truth are as out of whack as this, I'm sorry, but I don't believe journalists' motivation is the pursuit of meaning.

It's the pursuit of entertainment.

Stories may or may not be more meaningful than reality. But they are almost always more entertaining. And entertainment draws bigger numbers, and spawns bigger careers for its presenters, whether or not they still call themselves journalists.

The Terry Jones story wasn't news, it was a high-ratings freak show. And appealing to the value of "story" doesn't change that.

*Some have argued that the media justifiably attended to the Quran-burning plan after General David Petraeus criticized it. But Petraeus commented on September 6. Rick Sanchez' interview with Jones aired July 29, and there was plenty of other coverage in the mean time.

UPDATE, 9/17/2010: I realized I might be taken here to be including David Folkenflik among reporters with little sense of proportion, so the relevant sentence now reads, "But is symbolism really the business of reporters -- especially those (not including Folkenflik) who wield it with so little sense of proportion?"