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Mainstream media adds the volume, but does social media almost guarantee story overplay?

He was on the front page of 50 newspapers on Wednesday. He is featured on numerous websites. He has triggered demonstrations and recriminations the world over.

Yes, Terry Jones is attracting the type of media attention normally reserved for global leaders. This Florida pastor’s on-again off-again plan to burn the Quran has media covering his every statement.

But should they? And are they legitimizing this obscure man and his dangerous agenda of hate?

Count Mike Thomas of the Orlando Sentinel among the journalists questioning the wisdom of covering a religious leader with a following of fewer than 50.

“I ask you: If a sad little man burns some Qurans in the woods, and the media aren’t there to film it, is it news?

Of course not.”

A New York Times article asserts that a similar incident in 2008 on a street corner garnered no attention at all.

But in this instance, journalists argue that once President Obama,  Gen. David Petraeus, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and others around the world started commenting about the issue, it became an event that demanded coverage.

But this reasoning underestimates the power of social media. If Gen Petraeus or others had not inserted themselves into this event, would the media have followed? If Terry Jones had simply placed a “grainy video on YouTube,” as Thomas writes, would anyone have noticed?

Who knows? But the likelihood of the dramatic, the hateful and the extreme remaining ignored on the Internet seems pretty low.

The mainstream media gives itself too much credit (or perhaps blame is a better word) for Jones’ 15-minutes of fame. Their coverage doesn’t give him the microphone, but it certainly obliges him by turning up the volume dramatically.

The entire incident raises intriguing questions: If the media had ignored Jones, how much attention would a “grainy video on YouTube” received? And more importantly, do the evolving platforms of digital communications and media coverage promise to add volume to the fringe to a dangerous and undeserved extent? 

Update: Salon.com reporter Justin Elliott details how the story circulated in media in the Muslim world for several weeks prior to the U.S. mainstream media’s blasting coverage. Include global media to the additional media platforms with huge influence on this story.

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