How Do You Cover The Odious? : NPR Ombudsman How should the media cover a group such as the Westboro Baptist Church, known for disrupting military funerals with its anti-gay venom? Especially when they chose to picket Elizabeth Edwards' funeral.
NPR logo How Do You Cover The Odious?

How Do You Cover The Odious?

There is nothing good to be said about the Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas. They hate gays. They disrupt solemn military funerals to spew venom. They display signs saying: "Thank God for Dead Soldiers."

And, they have a website:, which seems to say it all.

The independent Baptist Church believes that dead soldiers are God's revenge for America's tolerance of homosexuals.

Elizabeth Edwards' funeral was held in Raleigh, North Carolina. Westboro Baptist Church members picketed the service. Sara D. Davis /Getty Images News hide caption

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Sara D. Davis /Getty Images News

Not much to like, unless, of course, you share these views. But the group manages to get quite a bit of press coverage. Some listeners clearly were offended when NPR gave airtime to Westboro's threats to picket Elizabeth Edwards' funeral last Saturday.

The Wednesday before her funeral, the church announced its intent to protest. Why should NPR give national publicity to a church that is not affiliated with other Baptist churches, has only about 70 members, and is located hundreds of miles away from Edwards' home in North Carolina?

And yet NPR did.

A similar issue arose when a Florida pastor threatened to burn the Koran at the time of the 5-year anniversary of 9/11 – something that the military took so seriously that it was worried about endangering troops in Muslim countries. The number of news media representatives who showed up outside the church outnumbered the parishioners.

These two incidents raise the question of whether there's a new standard: Can anyone who calls himself a minister get attention if he does or says stupid things?

In the Westboro case, NPR mentioned the church's boycott plans twice on its half-hourly newscasts last Saturday when reporting on Edwards' funeral. She died after long fight with breast cancer.

It was a 48-second news spot at 9 a.m. and 1 p.m. Eastern that riled several listeners.

Members of Westboro Baptist Church plan to protest the funeral of Elizabeth Edwards on Saturday. As NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty reports, the fundamentalist church says she brought on her cancer by doubting God.

The Topeka based church run by Fred Phelps is best known for its view that God hates gay men and lesbians... and frequently pickets military funerals. Now they're turning their wrath on Elizabeth Edwards, the estranged wife of former Vice Presidential candidate John Edwards. They plan to picket her funeral in Raleigh, North Carolina. Her crime? After her son died in a car accident in 1996, she said that God could not protect her boy... and that she was not asking God to cure her cancer. The Westboro website said because of this, she is, quote, a resident of hell.

Here are some reactions to Hagerty's spot:

@LKamms sent me a tweet. "NPR should stop giving air time to the lunatic fringe that pickets funerals of good people. Focus where it counts."

Michael Stoto of Washington, DC wrote: "There is no public interest to be served in giving their message of hate any airing at all, and nor any 'balance' in this report."

David Henry of Buffalo, NY: "This is not worthy of being reported and the only reason they keep up with these outrageous acts of protesting is because the media are reporting it. Come on NPR, you can do better."

Hagerty was assigned the spot for newscasts. She too struggled with whether to do the story or not.

"I went back and forth about it," said Hagerty in an e-mail. "I didn't want to give them air time, yet I also felt it was a news story (an outrageous one). I felt sick reading their material and writing the spot. Literally – I got nauseous."

Here's the press release the church sent out for Edwards.

But there's another aspect to the story. The news media's reporting of Westboro's intentions to picket alerted others to come protect those attending the funeral by forming a so-called "line of love" between the few protestors who showed up and the mourners., a North Carolina community website, posted something about Westboro and soon folks – disgusted by Westboro – were signing up to attend Edwards' funeral.

"Even if it's just me and my one sign in front of them, I will be there. My sign will say something like, "Let your light so shine before men." or "The greatest of these is Love." or "Grace" or "Mercy" or "Hope" or "Love" or "Light" or "Kindness" or "Holding you in the Light" or something like that," wrote Leslie H. "I don't know yet. But I will be there, come Hell or high water."

For that reason alone, it's good that the news media alert the public.

But do the media also feed the protestors by giving them much-desired press and attention? Without a doubt.

What would happen, however, if NPR ignored the protestors? Wouldn't that be censoring the news? And isn't this group newsworthy just for the fact that they also are at the heart of a case before the Supreme Court? [The father of a dead Marine is suing them for intentional infliction of emotional distress for protesting at his son's funeral.]

These are the kind of questions NPR editors struggle with on an almost daily basis.

Dave Pignanelli, a senior editor in Newscasts, felt Hagerty's piece was appropriate. "They have been the subject of lawsuits about past incidents," said Pignanelli. "And since this is another high-profile funeral and they threatened to show up, it is news. Their actions may be distasteful, but it is news. We treated it with as much time as we felt it deserved."

NPR could have done without Hagerty's 48-second spot because it gave a hateful message more attention that it deserved. The protest plans needed to be told if only to warn others. But better, in my opinion, to have a newscaster briefly mention it than a correspondent do a separate spot.

Here's how NPR handled it after the funeral, only slightly mentioning Westboro.

On Tuesday, Westboro announced it planned to picket the funeral of statesman Richard Holbrooke, whose last role was President Obama's Special Envoy to Afghanistan. Will NPR give them more air?