Hey reporters! You can run, but you cannot hide. Sooner or later, the tiny flock of activists known as the Westboro Baptist Church will show up in your zip code. We've had some interesting GetReligion discussions through the years about the people behind the signs, including a thread focusing on the question of whether mainstream journalists should simply ignore them.
The problem with that approach, of course, is that these protests affect real people -- such as the grieving families of soldiers killed in action. The Westboro crew is also raising important First Amendment issues, for better and for worse. It's kind of like trying to ignore the Neo-Nazis as they march through Skokie, Ill., the suburban Chicago home of scores of Holocaust survivors.
So a small cell of Westboro Baptist members showed up the other day and the Indianapolis Star put the focus of the resulting story right where it needed to be -- in the statistical insignificance of the demonstrators. Here's the top of the story:
The protesters were outnumbered by the counter-protesters -- by about 200-to-5 -- ... at North Central High School.
As five people from the self-proclaimed Westboro Baptist Church gathered on the north side on East 86th Street about 3 p.m., a crowd of about 200 gathered on a sidewalk on the south side of the street outside the high school.
The Westboro group earlier had announced plans to picket the high school to protest a performance of The Laramie Project, a play about the slaying of a gay man in Wyoming and its effect on the community. About 22 Indianapolis police officers also had gathered at the school.
In other words, it was business has usual. However, I do want to note the journalistic strangeness of the phrase "self-proclaimed Westboro Baptist Church." What's that all about? There are legions of different kinds of Baptists, from national conventions (think Southern Baptist Convention, etc.) to totally independent, we-answer-to-God-alone congregations that range from megachurch size all the way down to congregations in which the leaders can count the membership on one hand.
Who or what is a "Baptist"? A Baptist is someone who says he or she is a Baptist. Surely there is someone on the Star staff who is part of an independent Baptist flock and can explain this to the copy desk? I guess every simple independent congregation in American is "self-proclaimed" to one degree or another. What's the point?
The rest of the story consists of quotations from counter-protesters and others who were there to oppose or control the Westboro crew.
I do have another question: Did the editors who assigned this story specifically instruct the reporter and the copy desk to omit any quotes at all from the protesters?
I realize that the Westboro people tend to say the same things over and over. However, it does help to let the public know what they are saying, thus illustrating the views that are at the heart of the First Amendment cases that continue to swirl around them.
So what's the goal? Here's some questions I would ask, if stuck on the sidewalk covering these people. What are their doctrines? What scriptures do they use to justify their outrageous tactics? And we already know that they are rejected by the religious left and secular authorities. So what do evangelical and even self-defined fundamentalist Christians in the area think of these views? How do patriotic conservative Christians feel about this "God hates America" crowd?
Call other voices in the middle and on the right. Please.
Put everyone on the record, on the left and right.
What is the journalistic case for only quoting one side of this particular story? What is the journalistic case for only quoting the "usual suspects," when it comes to talking to those who oppose the Westboro folks? Just asking.