Remember Terry Jones? No? Big mustache, tiny congregation? He put up a notice on Facebook that he was going to burn a Qur'an on September 11 and ended up in every major media outlet in the world? There have been a few media panics since mid-September, so it's okay if you forgot. But it's worth considering how Jones drew attention to the way things work now.

How did the pastor of a church of 30 to 50 congregants, someone who was already known locally as a publicity-hungry crank, become so "relevant" and "culture-shaping" that President Obama, General Petraeus, and nearly every Christian leader imaginable felt the need to weigh in?

Mostly because Jones took advantage of an impoverished media environment that values outrage and eyeballs above all else. Publications that have not been able to con-vince their online readers to pay for articles must instead find as many people as possible to read them for free. The more eyeballs, the more ad impressions, the more revenue. Pageviews have become the metric most synonymous with success in our media landscape.

Once upon a time, we imagined that readers would go to the website of a publication they liked, look at the headlines, and click on what they wanted to read. In reality, search engines drive at least 40 percent of the traffic to news stories, and readers don't particularly care who is publishing them. As investor and blogger Ben Elowitz noted, summarizing several recent reports: "The average U.S. Internet user tunes in [to] 83 different domains per month and a staggering 2,600 web pages per month, and goes to Google 13 times per day just to decide where to go."

That is why we see so many headlines with Justin Bieber and Lindsay Lohan in them. (For those who found this editorial online by Googling one of those names, welcome!) News organizations (and their aggregating rivals) are using Google Insights and other analytics resources to find out what people are searching for; then they assign news stories to capture the ready-made audience.

The drive for traffic has turned too many stories into a version of the Balloon Boy hoax (in which a Colorado couple falsely claimed their son had been carried away in a helium balloon, garnering international attention), complained Washington Post columnist Roxanne Roberts in the Columbia Journalism Review. Indeed, the Qur'an burning bears similarity to that 2009 hoax: The only thing keeping it in the headlines was outrage.

It's An Outrage

At the recent Religion Newswriters Association meeting, panelists discussed how to capture online audiences. The panelists (from The Washington Post's On Faith site, CNN's new Belief blog, and the Huffington Post's religion section) talked about how free opinion pieces had garnered truckloads of pageviews.

The good news: Editors and publishers now know that their readers want to read about religion. The bad news: Editors and publishers now know that those readers are more likely to click on an inflammatory rehashed column on homosexuality, Islam, atheism, or evolution than on a deeply researched report that illuminates important but less controversial issues.

With fewer professional religion reporters on the beat, mainstream religion coverage is falling back to tropes and shop-worn narratives that we thought were being laid to rest, especially, "Religious people sure are crazy," and, "Religious leaders condemn [insert current outrage here]." It's not surprising that Jones's name first spread through a wire service story prompted by a press release from the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a group known for perpetual outrage.

Eventually the news world was overtaken by headlines about the latest person outraged by Jones's proposal. As September 11 drew closer, Fox News and the Associated Press promised to downplay the event. "AP policy is not to provide coverage of events that are gratuitously manufactured to provoke and offend," the news service said—the day after it ran the headline, "Angelina Jolie Condemns Planned Qur'an Burning."

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By September 11, the news trucks had left Gainesville, and pundits were back to debating Sarah Palin and Lady Gaga.

This is the strange media world we all—both journalists and readers—now live in. It calls for more discernment than ever, because the next Gainesville frenzy will come upon us before we know it.

The questions are: Will you reflexively click on that headline to satiate some trivial curiosity? Will leaders again announce their outrage over a non-event? Will bloggers pour fuel on the fire? Will we report on it just to increase pageviews?

We can all do better. To paraphrase Paul, "Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just—read about and report on these things."


Related Elsewhere:

Christianity Today's coverage of the previously planned Qu'ran burning included:

Qur'an Burning: The Neverending Story | Everybody who is anybody has said something about what may be nothing. (September 10, 2010
Militia Group Says Burning the Qur'an is un-Christian | The pastor behind next month's event accuses the armed conservative group of "giving in to pressure and fear." (August 25, 2010)
Evangelical Leaders Pan Qur'an Burn Plan | NAE issues public plea. Richard Land calls it "appalling, disgusting, and brainless." (July 30, 2010)

Previous Christianity Today editorials include:

An Equal-Opportunity Destroyer | How porn damages women—and what churches can do about it. (September 21, 2010)
Let the Sea Resound | We can no longer act like creation care is a secondary issue. (July 30, 2010)
Bearing True Witness | Why we are tempted to embellish conversion stories. (June 28, 2010)