NPR shocked Westboro stories go viral

A celebrity death sort of goes like this: Celebrity dies, people tweet a lot of RIPs. Westboro Baptist Church announces its plans to protest the funeral, people tweet a lot of OMGs.

Westboro, if you recall, is the group that holds signs like “God hates fags,” yes, generally startling stuff if you haven’t seen it before. But they also do this all the time, so it’s pretty expected.

The small group has been doing these kinds of things for quite a while, so it ceases to amaze me. But every time they do it, I guess, you find people who haven’t heard of the group. People are still shocked it exists and I’m still shocked that they’re shocked.

NPR continues to cover (I count three stories so far) a very important story about a 9-year-old boy who held up a little sign that reads ‘GOD HATES NO ONE.’” Here’s the intro from the interview.

Every now and again, we like to tell you more about an image or video that’s captured public attention. Today, we want to talk about a photo. It’s an image of a protest and a counter-protest.

For years, members of the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas have shown up at public events, including military funerals, to spread their message that God is punishing America for the sin of homosexuality. They carry signs with slogans, such as God Hates America and God Hates Homosexuals – although, on that sign, they very often use a derogatory term that we are not going to repeat.

Well, after seeing these signs and these protests, Josef Miles, a Topeka nine-year-old, decided to make his own sign with the message God Hates No One. He stood next to Westboro demonstrator, and his mom posted a photo on Facebook. Well, to date, NPR’s blog post about this has been shared on Facebook more than 100,000 times, and that doesn’t even count all the other ways social media users are passing it around.

When someone explains “It went viral,” it seems kind of quaint. This very dramatic slinky-on-a-treadmill video has a million views and I don’t see any news stories or interviews about its viral-ness.

I realize an interviewer isn’t going to ask super specific question of a 9-year-old boy, but there’s something huge missing from her interview. Was there no thought to ask about his faith or his mother’s faith? Was there any faith motivation behind his desire to send a counter message? It’s so glaring it’s painful.

Back to the big picture, though, what do we do with these kinds of stories? Is there anything more to it besides traffic bait? Westboro stories seem to do pretty well on the Internet, so it kind of feeds itself in a circular pattern. Unless Westboro is doing something unusual, like changing laws or something out of the ordinary, it ceases to be news by its very nature.

Westboro intends to shock, people get shocked, people share the stories, and it’s one crazy cycle. But if we know it’s going to happen, why do we still cover it, especially in multiple ways?

Image of viral signs via Shutterstock.

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  • Julia

    It’s like the outrageous things Larry Flynt says and does.

    I have always disliked the mantra “don’t give them them a platform”. Differing views should be heard.

    But there are some miscreants who are just looking for that spot on camera and we shouldn’t give it to them. The problem is how to discern the folks with no legitimate opinion from those who just have something unpopular to say.

    Are the Topeka protesters the equivalent of trolls who should not be fed? Do some trolls actually have something of substance to say? Where do you draw the line? Who decides?

  • Marcello

    It’s an NPR news story about an NPR news story. Taxpayer-funded navel-gazing self-promotion. Coming up on All Things Considered: a shocking news story about taxpayer-funded navel-gazing self-promotion!

  • @BroTimTim

    Pick me, I know the answer! It’s twofold (at least). First, God’s words on WBC signs pierce EVERY soul to the heart — there are no proverbial “neutral parties” — so they cannot “not” react! Second, God’s servants (by His power alone) are great publishers. “The LORD gave the word: great was the company of them that published it.” Psalm 68:11. Praise goes to God … who owns “viral-ness”

  • Jay

    From what I remember from doing a bit of internet research a few years ago when there was some WBC story in the news, WBC has nothing at all to do with the Baptist denomination and has nothing at all in common with them. The media likes this story because of the weight that the designation “Baptist” carries in crafting stories of Christians [sic] Behaving Badly. They won’t stop returning to it any time soon.

  • Ray Ingles

    Sarah, just out of curiosity, how many GetReligion stories have been shared on Facebook over 100,000 times? Would you mention it if one had?

  • Jerry

    Sarah, I think you made a mistake in your analysis of the story. To me it’s NOT about NPR discovering Westboro but about an important human interest story. It’s an important story in several ways:

    First, people are disturbed by the hatred Westboro peddles and wish they knew how to respond. The first piece was about that question. It’s also a deep question about Christianity and what is expected of Christians. Yes, the focus is on a young boy, but it should spur any number of sermons on the topic of the greatest commandments.

    It’s also a very human story that I think most parents could identify with. It’s a story about a young boy who in spite of feeling afraid stood up for what he believed in. It’s a story about a mother’s pride in her son.

    And it’s a story about how something goes viral. It shows there’s a real hunger for positive stories about people standing up for true values and opposing falsehood and evil. I know I long for such stories personally and the viral nature of the event shows I’m not alone.

    I think it’s also a story about how God works in the world. Here we have a young boy who was inspired to proclaim one of the two greatest commandments that of love for one’s fellow human beings. To me it felt like God shot a ray of heavenly light into the world through the medium of this event.

    And while three web posts might be a bit overkill and it would have been nice to have a little theology, it shows the real value of NPR (and PBS) – that they have the freedom to be the medium for spreading God’s message into the world rather than being shackled to mammon.

  • Will

    Ahem… Jay, there is no “the Baptist denomination”. Yes, the SBC is the largest. But adherents of the ABC and NBC would be greatly put out by suggestions that they are different from “the” Baptists. As would Freewill Baptists, Primitive Baptists, General Baptists, Separate Baptists, Two-Seed-in-the-Spirit-Predestinarian Baptists, and dog knows what else.

    This should show the problem with insisting that the Westboro people are not “real” Baptists. There is no “Baptist Vatican”, and unless Mr. Phelps has been baptizing infants behind the media’s back, one can not point to any “Baptist doctrine” they are violating.

  • Frank Lockwood


    The most interesting, and one of the most touching, tributes following the death of Jerry Falwell was written by his friend and longtime nemesis — Larry Flynt.

    (It ran in the LA Times and you can read it here.)

    Falwell and Flynt were able to connect on a human level. It’s hard to imagine either Falwell or Flynt connecting with the Westboro clan.

  • Jay


    True, I was being loose with my language. There are a couple of Baptist Conventions, though, and most people associate baptist with being a member of one. If a church like WBC is out in moonland and totally disconnected from what most people associate with the term baptist, a responsible religion reporter needs to clearly state that in the article. Occasionally they do, but rarely

  • Jettboy

    With so many “Christians” and “Baptists” claiming that the WBC is wrong or evil or whatever, I have yet to read exactly why they are. How are they any different in words from the mainstream other than methods? Preachers like Pat Robertson, Benny Hinn, Jerry Falwell, and many others of prominence have said much the same things. To prove this, search “[preacher's name] and gays” to see what your preacher of choice has to say and compare it to the Westboro clan. My point is that I absolutely see why the media doesn’t separate them from others while so many beg to not let them in as a legitimate Christian community for their actions alone.

  • carl jacobs

    If you want to know why the media returns again and again and again to Westboro, then read Jettboy’s comment #10. That’s why. It sees Westboro as the unhidden reality that others try to hide. Westboro is a means to expose what the media sees as the truth hidden beneath the rock. And so the media returns to it. Again and again and again. It’s not the news value of Fred Phelps that keeps them coming back. It’s the pedagogical value.


  • Sarah Pulliam Bailey

    Jerry, I still disagree. Westboro isn’t news. They desperately seek attention. When I get to a computer maybe I’ll flesh it out more. Ray, I dont think we would do a news story or interview based on one post. Maybe it represents something larger people resonate with, but that’s a different story than something going “viral.”

    P.s. we had a vulgar comment from the Phelps clan. All such comments will be deleted. We are here to discuss journalism, period.

  • Jerry


    I did not write that Westboro was news but that one boy’s response was news. There’s a difference.

  • http://!)! Passing By

    Jettboy -

    There is a profound difference between “same-sex acts are wrong” or “same-sex desires are disordered” and “God hates Fags”. I have never heard a real Baptist even hint at such a thing.

  • Jettboy

    Really Passing By? Did you do that search experiment? Still, to those who disagree that those acts are wrong there is no difference. Trust me, make that argument to same-sex supporters and you will be lucky if they laugh it off.

  • http://!)! Passing By


    I grew up Baptist, and live in one of the buckles on the Baptist belt. I’ve been around Baptists all my life, and the Westboro people are not typical of Baptists.

    I understand that gay rights advocates don’t see any difference between “same sex attraction is wrong” and “God hates Fags”. Moreover, I understand that the media is predominately supportive of that viewpoint. I’m not.

    Here’s a rather interesting fantasy interview that responds from a Christian viewpoint.

  • Pamela Zohar

    I would like to request that you leave that Phelps-Roper comment UP even though it is ‘off topic’. I think it is rather interesting as a curiousity, at the very least.

    Journalistically speaking of course.

  • Mike O.

    I think Jettboy makes a good point, that what the WBC is saying does not differ much from other christians including other Baptists. Obviously the press is drawn to Westboro for how shocking and in-your-face they are. And while it would be unfair for reporters to describe Christianity solely with the image of the WBC, it would be just as unfair to ignore their uncomfortable similarities they have to less cretinous churches.

    Here is in excellent video that disputes the idea that there are huge doctrinal differences (or as the author of the video puts it “in-kind differences”) between the WBC and others.

  • Deacon Jim Stagg

    I think Sarah’s point is well made. This is news, but what propels the child to show this sign? Where is the coverage of that side of the story? News, maybe, but incomplete at best.

  • Ray Ingles

    Passing By: When I read your ‘fantasy interview’, I thought of this article. It’d be interesting to see how your interviewee would answer those questions, rather than the questions he wanted to be asked…

  • Hal

    Westboro Baptist Church continues to be news. Its hard to fine any condemning WBC and it creates the fuzzy distinction between WBC and the “legitimate Christian community”. WBC represents the prevalence of unchristian hate in our society. WBC is out front and honest in their hate, and WBC is well supported by many, evident in responses here.

    The picture with the kid hits home with the irony of the positions WBC takes to the extreme, which seems like is becoming the norm in some circles. Just saying …