"Koran Burning"

According to the BBC:

Koran protests sweep Afghanistan... Thousands of protesters have taken to the streets across Afghanistan... Three people were shot when a protest near a Nato base in the north-east of the country turned violent.
Wow. That's a lot of fuss about, literally, nothing - the Koran burning hasn't happened. So what are they angry about? The "Koran Burning" - the mere idea of it. That has happened, of course - it's been all over the news.

Why? Well, obviously, it's a big deal. People are getting shot protesting about it in Afghanistan. It's news, so of course the media want to talk about it. But all they're talking about is themselves: the news is that everyone is talking about the news which is that everyone is talking about...

A week ago no-one had heard of Pastor Jones. The only way he could become newsworthy is if he did something important. But what he was proposing to do was not, in itself, important: he was going to burn a Koran in front of a handful of like-minded people.

No-one would have cared about that, because the only people who'd have known about it would have been the participants. Muslims wouldn't have cared, because they would never have heard about it. "Someone You've Never Heard Of Does Something" - not much of a headline.

But as soon as it became news, it was news. Once he'd appeared on CNN, say, every other news outlet was naturally going to cover the story because by then people did care. If something's on CNN, it's news, by definition. Clever, eh?

What's odd is that Jones actually announced his plans way back in July; no-one took much notice at the time. Google Trends shows that interest began to build only in late August, peaking on August 22nd, but then falling off almost to zero.

What triggered the first peak? It seems to have been the decision of the local fire department to deny a permit for the holy book bonfire, on August 18th. (There were just 6 English-language news hits between the 1st and the 17th.)

It all kicked off when the Associated Press reported about the fire department's decision on August 18th and was quickly followed up by everyone else; the AP credit the story to the local paper The Gainsville Sun who covered the story on the same day.

But in their original article, the Sun wrote that Pastor Jones had already made "international headlines" over the event. Indeed there were a number of articles about it in late July following Jones's original Facebook announcement. But interest then disappeared - there was virtually nothing about it in the first half of August, remember.

So there was, it seems, nothing inevitable about this story going global. It had a chance to become a big deal in late July - and it didn't. It had another shot in mid-August, and it got a bit of press that time, but then it all petered out.

Only this week has the story become massive. US commander in Afghanistan General Petraeus spoke out on September 6th; ironically, just before the story finally exploded, since as you can see on the Google Trends above, searches were basically zero up until September 7th when they went through the roof.

So the "Koran Burning" story had three chances to become front-page global news and it only succeeded on the third try. Why? The easy answer is that it's an immediate issue now, because the burning is planned for 11th September - tomorrow. But I wonder if that's one of those post hoc explanations that makes whatever random stuff that happened seem inevitable in retrospect.

The whole story is newsworthy only because it's news, remember. The more attention it gets, the more it attracts. Presumably, therefore, there's a certain critical mass, the famous Tipping Point, after which it's unstoppable. This happened around September 6th, and not in late July or mid August.

But there's a random factor: every given news outlet who might run the story, might decide not to; maybe it doesn't have space because something more important happened, or because the Religion correspondent was off sick that day, etc. Whether a story reaches the critical mass is down to luck, in other words.

The decision of a single journalist on the 5th or the 6th might well have been what finally tipped it.

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