Friday, November 25, 2011

Kansas City Star needs peace journalism lesson

NOTE: This was an editorial column that I sent last week to the Kansas City Star, my hometown newspaper. I have not heard back from them, so I'm assuming that they are not going to publish it. This is no big surprise since the columnn is pretty critical of a piece published by the Star about a member of the Phelps family/Westboro Baptist Church. For the uninitiated, this is the "Christian" church that hates just about everyone, and has even picketed funerals of gays and servicemen.

I wrote this column the day after the Star's story was published.

When someone is spewing inflammatory, hateful words, are we in the press obliged to report those words?

At a Conflict Sensitive Journalism workshop in Nairobi, Kenya earlier this year, journalists from around the world and I debated this very issue, which was raised by an attendee from Zimbabwe who asked if his newspaper should report the racist, destructive words of that country’s authoritarian president Robert Mugabe. The consensus response was that, as a conflict sensitive or peace journalist, the editor must report those words but then provide the context needed for readers to examine Mugabe’s language and decide for themselves if it incites hatred and encourages divisiveness and sectarianism.

I am hopeful that, at minimum, there was a similarly robust discussion in the editorial offices of the Kansas City Star as the decision was made to publish the story, “An heir to hate” (Nov. 20, 2011).

From the perspective of peace and conflict sensitive journalism, the decision to run this story, and the choices that were made about how to frame the story, were ill-considered.

Among other things, peace journalism asks reporters and editors to make choices that are conducive to peace, reconciliation, and development in their societies. This doesn’t mean abandoning their objectivity—it simply means that journalists should frame their stories in such a way to give peacemakers an equal voice to those who would spew hateful speech. Peace journalists also consider the consequences that occur as a result of their reporting.

This examination of the consequences clearly didn’t occur as editors crafted their approach to telling the story “An heir to hate”, which profiles Megan Phelps-Roper, one of the ringleaders of Topeka’s infamous Westboro Baptist Church.

First, while not flattering, the piece was unbalanced and insufficiently critical of Megan and her fellow hate-mongers. Most of the story is a matter-of-fact presentation of Megan’s life peppered with her quotes reflecting her philosophy. In fact, there are only several paragraphs in the story dedicated to criticism of her hateful beliefs (from the Southern Press Law Center), but these are precious few, and buried half-way through the piece. In the parlance of a Reporting 101 course, the story lacked balance.

Perhaps the lack of balance was a deliberate technique by the editors to give Megan enough rope to hang herself with her own ugly, ridiculous utterances. Assuming this is so, despite the laudable intent, this technique is too clever, too nuanced, to be effective. It’s dangerous, especially in dealing with an incendiary topic like this, to assume your readers will detect such subtleties. It’s just as likely that some will see the piece as tacitly approving of Megan and Westboro, even if this isn’t the intent.

Second, the decision to print this story at all, regardless of how it was framed, was a poor one. By publishing “An heir to hate”, The Star has simply provided a platform for promoting her church and her hateful beliefs, which are too distasteful to repeat here.

The Star’s decision to tell this story is not without its irony. The piece includes, briefly, the tale of one of Megan’s cousins who escaped from Westboro Baptist Church’s clutches, and is now happily married. The implication is that Megan, who is unattached and without any prospects, could escape and find a completely normal, married life just like her cousin. The irony is that by running this story, The Star has added a few minutes to Megan’s 15 minutes of frame, thus seemingly justifying with its media spotlight Megan’s decision to keep preaching hate even if it means that she probably won’t have a husband or family of her own. If Megan can get Sunday-paper publicity for her cause, then she must be doing something right.

In fact, I had been under the impression (perhaps mistakenly) that the media understood Westboro’s thirst for publicity and had tacitly decided to stop covering them. This is the essence of good peace journalism—refusing to give a platform to those who hate. Besides, do the rantings of a few dozen lunatics really constitute news? Many would argue no.

I will soon embark on teaching a peace journalism and terrorism project in Uganda for the U.S. State Department. In my workshops, I will be using “An heir to hate” as grist for a discussion about the symbiotic relationship between extremists/terrorists and the media. Surely, the Phelps gang is no better than other terrorists who seek to manipulate the media for their own purposes. My message to the Ugandan journalists will be to continue to report on terrorists when necessary, but to frame their stories in such a way as to not give “aid and comfort” to those who advocate hatred and violence.

Perhaps The Star would like to send some editors and reporters to my peace journalism and terrorism seminars in Uganda.

Steven Youngblood, associate professor of communications, teaches peace journalism, broadcasting, and reporting at Park University in Parkville, Missouri. He has taught peace journalism workshops worldwide. Youngblood will be delivering a commencement address titled “Inciting Peace” at Park University’s December 10 commencement.

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