If a Quran burns in the woods…

As I posted the other day, I had a feeling that Gen. David Petraeus’ statement on the plans of a Florida preacher to burn the Quran was more intended for the management of news organizations than it was the Florida preacher. A memo issued by the Associated Press today would appear to confirm that the message got through: Don’t show images of someone burning the Quran.

From: Kent, Tom

Sent: Thursday, September 09, 2010 11:53 AM

Subject: Standards Center guidance: Planned Sept. 11 Quran burning


As you know, a group known as the Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Fla., has announced that it intends to burn copies of the Quran on Sept. 11.

In the runup to this event, we’ve seen a rush of stories, photos and video from points around the world. Let’s keep our coverage in proportion. Although many are speculating on the effect the Quran burning could conceivably have, at the moment it’s a proposal by a tiny group that may or may not happen.

We plan ONE main spot story on this issue a day. The News Center will coordinate where this story will originate from. Routine spot news — for instance, comments about the plan by political or other public figures — should be funneled to the point handling the main story. We should avoid a profusion of separates beyond what any newspaper, website or broadcaster would actually use. This includes stories, photos, audio and video that repeatedly make the same point, for or against the burning. Consult the News Center if you have questions on this.

The concept of this planned event is offensive to many Muslims worldwide. National leaders and spokesmen for other religious denominations have also found the plan repugnant.

Should the event happen on Saturday, the AP will not distribute images or audio that specifically show Qurans being burned, and will not provide detailed text descriptions of the burning. With the exception of these specific images and descriptions, we expect to cover the Gainesville event, in all media, placing the actions of this group of about 50 people in a clear and balanced context.

AP policy is not to provide coverage of events that are gratuitously manufactured to provoke and offend. In the past, AP has declined to provide images of cartoons mocking Islam and Jews. AP has often declined to provide images, audio or detailed descriptions of particularly bloody or grisly scenes, such as the sounds and moments of beheadings and shootings, displays of severed heads on pikes and images of hostages who are displayed by hostage-holders in an effort to intimidate their adversaries and advance their cause. Decisions are made on a case-by-case basis.

From time to time, a member or customer will insist that we distribute offensive material to them so they can make the decision about whether or not to publish it. We’ve had to make clear that a decision to distribute, for us, is the same as a decision to publish for them. We must adhere to our own standards.


For the record, I agree with the decision. But if it’s AP’s policy not to transmit images that are designed to offend, how do we explain this image it transmitted earlier this week?

This is the difficulty of being an editor and having to define what is offensive. An editor in this case had determined that the burning of an effigy of President Obama, and standing on the American flag were a legitimate emotional reaction, not something designed to offend someone.

What about this one?


These are all tough calls, and I’m glad I don’t have to make them (anymore).

The flaw in the decision, however, is it strips the decision from the editors of newsrooms worldwide. The Associated Press provides materials to newsrooms, which employ editors to decide whether it should go in the local paper or on the local Web site.

Overall, the AP, as you may know, is a fairly conservative (not in the political sense) organization when it comes to journalism. Its standards are high. It is as mainstream as media gets. The memo evokes memories of past discussions in the early days of News Cut — What standards should non mainstream media have on this story?

(h/t: Romanesko)

  • Curt C.

    The journalistic difference betwixt showing pictures of Americans burning Korans and Arabs stamping on our flag is imaginary, it’s just a double standard. It also showcases Western arrogance and cowardice at the same time. We can print imagines offensive to Americans because we’re assumed to be civilized enough that we can handle viewing them. The same respect is not given to Muslims, who are viewed by the media as being too savage to be able to do the same. We must cover our offending images with burkas lest they inflame the scary scary Muslims.