Is free speech a right in any public setting, no matter how offensive? Specifically, do members of the Westboro Church in Topeka have the right to protest at soldiers’ funerals? That’s what the U.S. Supreme Court will decide.
What we have to decide, in our newsroom at KWCH, is how to cover this story in a responsible way that informs and serves our viewers best. To help guide our decisions on complex issues, our newsroom uses the Journalist’s Code of Ethics, developed by the Society of Professional Journalists:
• Seek the truth and report it
• Minimize harm
• Act independently
• Be accountable
Over the years, KWCH and many other news organizations have chosen not to cover most of Westboro’s protests, since it would only give their platform free publicity. So why report on this, now? Our newsroom believes the public should be informed about any question of fundamental rights—such as free speech—and that all sides of the issue should be presented.
As with all challenging stories, we’ve had many discussions about how we cover this issue. We discussed blurring offensive words and images on the Westboro signs, but part of reporting the truth fully is showing the events we document on camera, undistorted. We also asked ourselves; do we choose not to show Westboro’s signs in our stories at all? Or, is that censorship?
Merriam-Webster defines censorship as “suppressing or deleting anything considered objectionable.” By that definition, we censor on a daily basis. As a news organization, we continuously make decisions about what is appropriate to broadcast, because we know it ultimately ends up in your living rooms. We choose not to broadcast profanity, nudity or images of bodies at an accident; we choose not to broadcast names of sexual assault victims or children in court cases; we make these editorial decisions to minimize harm and show compassion for the people involved.
However, we never censor by intentionally leaving out information that changes your understanding of the story. That’s the key factor in our decision to show the Westboro signs, as we cover the Supreme Court case. Without seeing Westboro’s message and how it’s presented at protests, you can’t have a complete understanding of this issue.
Part of seeking the truth and reporting it means covering stories that make us uncomfortable. It means examining a wide range of values, which differ from one person to the next, and not imposing our own values on others. After we’ve done our job informing you, we let you decide your opinion on the issue.
As news director at KWCH, I write this so you better understand the complex nature of covering a story like the Westboro protests; so you know we carefully contemplate the consequences; that we make decisions independently about our coverage, not based on what our competitors do; and, so you know we hold ourselves accountable for what comes into your living rooms, as much as you do.