Bercovici Is Wrong on “Journalism 2.0” Causing Afghan Murders

Forbes’s Jeff Bercovici would like you to know that those UN workers murdered in Afghanistan after a Florida Koran-burning were killed by Journalism 2.0.


He tweeted this:

When Journalism 2.0 kills: A college kid’s reporting caused 24 deaths in Afghanistan. Here’s how.

Here’s his headline:

When Journalism 2.0 Kills

And he writes:

Twenty-four people in Afghanistan, including seven U.N. staffers, have been killed in riots sparked by Florida pastor Terry Jones’s public burning of a Quran.’s Steve Myers looked into how the rioters even knew of Jones’s stunt given a widespread and mostly effective media blackout meant to avert violence. The answer: A college student at the University of Florida filed a report for the wire service Agence France-Presse, which syndicated it all over the world.

There are all kind of logical flaws here that Bercovici’s mythic Journalism 1.0 editors presumably would have caught.

The big, whopping one is that it’s unclear what “Journalism 2.0” had to do with this at all. The college student was a stringer for AFP, which is about as Journalism 1.0 as you can get (as in, older than the AP). Bercovici tries to get around that by saying the stringer is “the sort of freelance pieceworker media companies have been leaning on to make up for the downsizing of their professional workforces.”

If the student had been working in a newsroom at one of those much-derided legacy newspapers, it’s likely an editor with a little more experience would have explained those reasons: that the only way Jones’s stunt would be a big story was if a cooperative press made it into one; that playing a part in that cycle could carry disastrous and very foreseeable consequences.

But he wasn’t. He was a 21-year-old stringer working on his own, the sort of freelance pieceworker media companies have been leaning on to make up for the downsizing of their professional workforces. Had he posted the story to his personal blog, it would have gone unnoticed, but because it carried the imprimatur of an established news organization — the seventh most influential news outlet in the world, in fact — it carried weight, just as a phony user-generated report of Steve Jobs’s death was able to move the stock market because it carried the stamp of CNN.

Well, maybe. But Bercovici doesn’t have any proof of that, and I have a sneaking suspicion the AFP had stringers before the news industry’s business model got upended. I, for one, was a stringer for The New York Times a decade ago when I was in college and the paper still looked invincible. That’s because the paper presumably didn’t see the need to have an Oklahoma bureau, just as the AFP doesn’t staff someone in Gainesville, Florida. As far as we know, the AFP ran the stringer’s story through its normal editorial process. Bercovici doesn’t say it didn’t.

Moreover, even if Bercovici did have proof on the AFP and stringers or AFP’s changed practices, that doesn’t mean that ye olde Journalism 1.0 wouldn’t have run the story. Indeed, I’m sure it would have. The story surely wouldn’t have spread across the globe as quickly, but that’s a different matter.

Bercovici’s point is about the perils of moving “away from journalism schools and newsroom hierarchies, toward empowered citizen bloggers and crowdsourced reporting,” which this story doesn’t show whatsoever. And anyway, the old hierarchical newsrooms were all over this Terry Jones stupidity last September. Remember that? As if Journalism 1.0 never sensationalized stories.

Most gobsmacking here, though, is that Bercovici blames journalism for the murders of twenty-four people. That’s a crock. The Florida preacher incited them and the Afghan mob killed them.

Blaming journalists and journalism for the murder of innocents by wackjobs halfway across the world is beyond the pale.

UPDATE: Poynter’s Steve Myers has an update of his original post that’s addressed to Bercovici and is worth reading:

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.

As for the student going against the flow to seek attention, you assume incorrectly. Andrew Ford, the student, told me that the Miami bureau chief for AFP received the press release and asked him to cover the “trial” and burning. Ford had covered some of the events at the church last fall, so they already had a relationship.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum. Tags: , , , ,