AP: Media Voice of Reason?

Last month, the AP ran a “fact check” on the “Ground Zero Mosque” story and cautioned its reporters against the use of that particular phrase while covering it. Try “near ground zero,” you know, for accuracy and such.

Today, AP standards editor Tom Kent has once again taken a strong position on an Islam-related story, declaring that the wire service will keep stories on the proposed Quran burning “in proportion,” and that the AP will not distribute images, audio, or detailed descriptions of the Qurans being burned. Notably, Fox News says it will not cover the Terry Jones bonfire at all, FNC’s Michael Clemente saying: “He’s one guy in the middle of the woods with 50 people in his congregation who’s decided to try, I gather, to bring some attention to himself by saying he’s going to burn a Quran if he gets the permit. Well, you know what, there are many more important things going on in the world than that. I don’t know what they will be this weekend, but I am sure they will be more important than that.”

Kent said much the same thing, with some more measured AP-style language, in a memo to staff. Here are some excerpts, via Poynter (our emphasis):

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.

…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.

This is not censorship; it’s sensitive editorial control and reasoning, pushing back against a PR stunt and running in the other direction of a media pack all too ready to pounce on a flame. At least it would have been if it had have come at the beginning of the week. Coming this late into the game from the AP it feels like the wire is saying, “Do as I say, not as I do.”

Like just about every other outlet happy to be distracted from a depressing economy by a colorful and crazy hate-mongering preacher, the AP has been reporting pretty feverishly on Terry Jones’s Quran burning. In just the last three days the AP has run stories on Afghans protesting the burning, Angelina Jolie condemning the burning, the legality of the burning, Jones’s increased security, and president Obama’s calls for the burning to be cancelled. To an extent, they are all legitimate stories. But for the AP to turn around now and say it will be proportionate and sensitive in its coverage seems a little hypocritical.

Anyway, it looks like we won’t have to worry about it for too much longer. I just got this alert—from the AP—on my iPhone:

Breaking (5:09 p.m. EDT): A Christian minister in Fla. cancels plan to burn Qurans on Sept. 11, heeding public outcry.

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Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor.