Say what!? A Phelps story even Joe Friday would approve

YouTube Preview Image

Bad journalism makes for good GetReligion posts.

See “‘Fred Phelps has been excommunicated’ and other gossip” and “Do journalists need to crank up the Phelps vitriol? Really?”

Those excellent posts by Jim Davis and Terry Mattingly highlight the media’s sins in reporting on the dire health situation of Phelps, founder of the famous — for all the wrong reasons — Westboro Baptist Church.

Our tmatt, in super-punctuation mode, urges:

So journalists, please just quote people. That. Will. Be. Wild. Enough.

How wild is this? I’m going to praise a reporter for using a technique straight out of Journalism 101 to report the Phelps story.

Here’s the straight-news lede — inverted-pyramid style — atop CNN Godbeat pro Daniel Burke’s report (hint: he just quotes people):

(CNN) – Westboro Baptist Church, the Kansas congregation known for picketing funerals with anti-gay signs, called reports that its founder, Fred Phelps, is near death “speculative.”

“Fred Phelps has health issues,” the church said in a statement Sunday, “but the idea that someone would suggest that he is near death, is not only highly speculative, but foolish considering that all such matters are the sole prerogative of God.”

Nathan Phelps, the estranged son of Fred Phelps, posted a Facebook message Sunday saying his father was “at the edge of death” at a hospice in Topeka, Kansas, where Westboro Baptist Church has long been a controversial presence.

Nathan Phelps also said his father had been excommunicated from the church. “I’m not sure how I feel about this,” he added. “Terribly ironic that his devotion to his god ends this way. Destroyed by the monster he made.”

Westboro declined to say whether or not its patriarch has been excommunicated. The church’s statement said that “membership issues are private” and that eight unnamed “elders” lead the Westboro congregation.

A church spokesman declined to respond to follow-up questions.

Burke attributes the disputed details to named sources and leaves it to readers to determine each party’s credibility.

In his post, tmatt suggests:

Meanwhile, it’s crucial for readers — journalists and news consumers alike — to grasp just how wild the doctrines of the Westboro crew really are, when compared with Christian orthodoxy.

The CNN report provides this crucial background:

Despite its “Baptist” name, Westboro is not affiliated with any larger church denomination. Most Christians criticize the congregation’s harsh anti-gay rhetoric and penchant for pursuing the limelight at inappropriate moments.

Now, had I been the editor, I might have followed the “at” before inappropriate moments with “what the critics see as” just to avoid any hint of opinionated reporting. Then again, CNN arguably proceeds to back up that claim (but now I am editorializing):

According to the church’s website, it has picketed more than 53,000 events, ranging from Lady Gaga concerts to funerals for slain U.S. soldiers. Typically,  a dozen or so family members — including small children — brandish signs that say “God Hates Fags” and “Thank God for Dead Soldiers.”

Westboro’s website keeps a running tally of “people whom God has cast into hell since you loaded this page.”

As my colleagues have already pointed out, this is an extremely difficult story for journalists to present “Just the facts, ma’am.” But, lo and behold, Burke and CNN do a pretty nice job of that.

Talk about really wild and different.

But now, back to the crazy stuff …

About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • Julia B

    Good for CNN.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X