Westboro Baptist Church keeps popping up in GetReligion territory thanks to its ability to capture attention through protests and lawsuits. Of course, the news yesterday that the Supreme Court ruled in the group’s favor is impossible to ignore.
Assuming readers don’t necessarily know what Westboro is, it can be difficult to find a short headline that gets to the point. Here’s what the Los Angeles Times went with: “Supreme Court sides with churchgoers who picketed military funeral.” The descriptor “churchgoers” is about as vague as you can get. Print editions may have space constraints, but editors could consider search engine optimization and come up with clearer headlines online.
Most of the coverage focused on the Supreme Court decision, reporting the majority and minority opinions. Space is limited, but it would be nice if reporters would slip in a sentence or two explaining who Westboro is and what they believe. Barbara Bradley Hagerty gave a “peek” inside Westboro in her round-up for NPR.
The Phelpses and their church are isolated in more ways than one. Few news organizations have profiled them. One exception is Bill Sherman, the religion writer for newspaper Tulsa World. He visited them in their compound in an upscale neighborhood of Topeka. He found them polite, normal people–and a model of success.
“They’re college educated. They’re well-spoken. The daughter herself argued before the United States Supreme Court,” Sherman says. “They’re not what I expected.”
This took me back to Bill Sherman’s Tulsa World piece that explains how the congregation is mostly made up of Phelps’ own family.
Phelps, a Topeka civil rights lawyer during the 1960s through the 1980s, has 13 children. Eleven are lawyers, and nine are directly involved in the church and the ministry. Four of them practice in the law firm that Phelps founded.
Most of his children – as well as 56 grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren – live in the compound or within a block or two of it. The school-age children attend public schools, where they make good grades. Most of the adults hold professional jobs. Some of Phelps’ children are estranged from the family and have spoken publicly against it.
The church is fenced and gated, but contrary to some rumors in Topeka, its services are open to the public, family members say.
Phelps still preaches a 45-minute sermon every Sunday to a congregation of about 70, nearly all of them related to him by blood or marriage.
This kind of context gives people a picture that this isn’t like your average church around the corner. Overall, it would be helpful to explain that Westboro is an independent congregation with no ties any Baptist conventions or networks.
When the arguments came before the Supreme Court, Terry noted that the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and 21 news outlets filed friend-of-the-court brief supporting the church’s right to hold protests.
After yesterday’s decision, Poynter promoted Kelly McBride’s column on how to cover hate speech. She drew on earlier ideas when she wrote a planned Quran burning in Florida.
When you give hate speech too much attention, or the wrong kind of attention, you cause more harm than good. Here are some of the common negative affects of hate speech stories that miss the mark:
You alienate your audience and they turn away.
Like rewarding a toddler who throws a tantrum, you encourage the speaker to keep talking.
You embolden others to share their hate speech, so they too can get attention.
You create a climate, both virtual and real, that fosters screaming instead of civil dialogue.
You inadvertently pile harm onto innocent individuals who are the target of the speech.
Many of these points may be true, but they feel a bit too utilitarian when journalists can’t always try to predict the outcome of coverage. A basic question local newspaper editors should ask is, “Is this really news? Westboro protests at lots of funerals, how does this particular one make it different.” Westboro is considered outrageous by many, but it’s unclear is how McBride decides what consists of hate speech and who decides whether it’s worth covering.
We’ve looked at a few slices of the coverage, but feel free to let us know if you have come across particularly good or bad stories.