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Burned by the Qur'an Burning

Our media culture values outrage over truth. We can do better.
Burned by the Qur'an Burning
Image: Joe Raedle / Getty Images

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 ...

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