Trouble keeping score in abortion coverage

innocentsThis has been a week like no other in Washington. Following the deluge of visitors for the inauguration of President Barack Obama, another deluge of visitors crashed the mall yesterday for the 36th annual March for Life. I was able to attend both events.

There’s a bit of history with media coverage of pro-life rallies. You can read the infamous David Shaw investigative essay in the Los Angeles Times for more details. He builds his piece around the shockingly disparate coverage received by pro-choice and pro-life rally participants by the Washington Post back in 1990. While the Post had front-page coverage for days of the pro-choice rally, it had barely noticed the massive pro-life rally in its own backyard:

The rally was the lead story on the ABC, CBS and NBC evenings news programs that day, and it was at the top of Page 1 in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe and several other major papers. The New York Times published three separate stories on the rally.

But the Post consigned the rally to its Metro section and covered it with just one, relatively short story — less than half the length of the primary New York Times story.

In some cases — notably the Washington Post in the last couple of years — coverage of pro-life events has improved. In other cases, not so much.

Each year pro-life march participants joke — a lot — about how their numbers are laughably under-counted. They’ll know, say, that they themselves came in a caravan of 5,000 people in rented buses from Pittsburgh but they’ll read the paper the next day describe the entire crowd as consisting of “thousands.”

Crowd estimates are a thankless task and anyone who has seen the estimates for the Obama inaugural crowd ranging from 800,000 to 1.8 million can understand that. But the headline for this Associated Press video of this year’s March for Life actually had me gasping:

Scores March Against Abortion

Scores? As in groups of 20? Really? Really? I literally have nothing to say about that headline. A GetReligion first: a headline so unfair and inaccurate that I’m left without anything to say.

So that’s an example of the legendary struggles the mainstream media have with reporting on pro-lifers. Another is the general blackout. It’s hard to find any good mainstream coverage of the march. If you want to go to the Catholic, Protestant or pro-life media, you have plenty of options. With mainstream media? Not so much. Perhaps that will improve throughout the day.

I rather enjoyed, on the other hand, this Washington Post story about the day’s activities, although it describes the crowd as “thousands” large. Still, a team of reporters fanned out to contribute to the story and it shows. The big difference this year, other than the increased size, was the targeting of speeches and signs to Obama. Here’s the lede:

The inauguration of a president who supports abortion rights fired up the annual March for Life yesterday, with activists warning of new, more liberal legislation and urging President Obama to view abortion as a civil-rights issue akin to slavery.

Signs read: “Yes we can — eliminate abortion.” One speaker took the microphone and called for anti-abortion “community organizers,” a job the president held in Chicago. Another taunted Obama with references to one of his heroes.

Looking east at the thousands of marchers gathered from Fourth to Seventh streets on the Mall, Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.) said Obama needed to be reminded “that the reason we built that monument to president Abraham Lincoln is because he saw the humanity in a slave that the Supreme Court said was not human.” Nothing could make Obama less like Lincoln than “forgetting that the unborn are also little children of God,” he added.

lfl“Taunt” is the wrong loaded word to use to describe Franks’ quote but the larger vignette captures the overall scene. Many speakers spoke of their hopes and prayers that President Obama would change his mind about the issue.

The tightly written story that’s on page A2 describes other pro-life activities taking place before the march. It mentions the Freedom of Choice Act but not President Obama’s promise last year that signing it would be his first act as executive. It does note the strong statement in support of abortion rights that he gave yesterday.

The story also mentions the youthful vibe of the march and the inclusion of various politically progressive groups. It ends with a nod to a small contingent of abortion rights supporters that counterprotested.

There’s even a brief — but good — photo gallery accompanying the story. Please send us links to the other major media coverage of this massive pro-life event.

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  • bob smietana

    How about scores as in “a great many.” Or how about, “Large numbers: Scores of people attended the rally.”

    Not exactly a legendary struggle there.

  • Greg Popcak

    You wrote, “How about scores as in “a great many.” Or how about, “Large numbers: Scores of people attended the rally.”

    Perhaps. But one Fox affiliate I saw reported 300,000 marchers (average attendance over the last several years has been 200,000 so that increase is significant in and of itself). That’s certainly a “large number” but I still don’t think that such attendance is best described as “scores.”

    Another AP story I saw reported, “thousands” which I suppose is a little better, but frankly still smacks of an intentional underestimation.

    Here’s a modest (and only half-serious) proposal. Perhaps, next year, marchers should traipse past (or through) the lobby of the WaPo or a few of the broadcast media outlets (maybe use the bathrooms, stop by the vending machines…) so that reporters can be given a chance to get an accurate head count since they can’t be bothered to actually go and see what’s happenning on the Mall for themselves. For bonus points, while the marchers are there, maybe they can chant, “Call. Us. Pro-life! *Clap-Clap-ClapClapClap*” over and over as a way of finally getting journalists to use the appropriate appellation instead of the biased preference, “anti-abortion.”

    just sayin’….


  • tmatt


    Anti-abortion is Associated Press style.

    The key is to watch to see when the press slides back into the spin term pro-choice.

    You should see these pairings, in MSM coverage.

    Anti-abortion and pro-abortion rights. That’s the normal style, post-Shaw LA Times expose.

    Or you may see this pairing, “pro-life” and “pro-choice,” in quotes, as the labels the two movements choose for themselves.

  • Brian Walden

    I know you guys don’t usually look at TV, but one tactic I often see used on the local news is a tight shot of two or three marchers followed by a tight shot of two or three pro-abortion protesters. They purposely make it seem as if there weren’t that many marchers and that there were significant numbers of protesters when, at least when I was at the march, there were very few (maybe 1 for every 100 marchers for a generous estimate).

    I wasn’t there this year, maybe with the new administration there were more protesters this year.

  • Brian Walden

    Picture 11 in the gallery you linked to claims to be of a boy being blessed during confession. I realize that at big events like that they usually set up a makeshift confessional area with several priests (maybe even scores if the event is large enough) where anyone can see the people confessing.

    But should the media be taking pictures of that – especially since everyone knows how seriously the Catholic Church takes the secrecy of confession. Publishing pictures of the sacrament seems to come close to crossing a line that could have very serious penalties attached to it.

  • Stoo

    “Scores” would be too ridiculous an underestimation to be intentful; everyone knows the pro-life movement in America is huge and can mobilise big marches. I’m going to chalk that one down to ignorance.

    “Thousands”, I would agree, could imply a bit of wishful understatement.

  • Peggy

    In the WashPost article, I was surprised that the USCCB staff person, McQuade, endorsed the “new progressive pro-life movements” (first off, as if no one else is pursuing such means of curtailing abortion) because the movements, as named in the article are those which supported Obama. Doug Kmiec of this group caught great grief (about which he’s since complained) for his twisted logic (as far as many were concerned) in claiming a Roman Catholic could morally support Obama. [Big topic on Catholic blogs.] Many bishops were publicly quite upset that Kmiec and others used “Faithful Citizenship” document by USCCB to justify voting for a pro-abortion candidate for “grave reasons.” So, I am surprised that a USCCB staffer wold endorse that group. But, then again, USCCB lay staff are reputedly left of center politically.

  • Chris Bolinger

    “Scores” would be too ridiculous an underestimation to be intentful; everyone knows the pro-life movement in America is huge and can mobilise big marches. I’m going to chalk that one down to ignorance.

    That’s ignorance at a stunning level. Should someone that ignorant be covering the story or, for that matter, writing for an MSM publication? When all else fails, choose the most reasonable explanation: It was intentional.

    I wonder if it would be feasible for a group that truly marches (and does not just gather) to issue to every marcher an RFID tag such as those used in road races. If all marchers pass a point with an RFID reader, then anyone interested in an accurate count of the marchers will have one.

  • Mollie

    Like a 10K or marathon!

    I sort of can’t believe anyone would defend the use of scores for an AP report on the march. Even if we were to somehow believe that the common use of “twenty” (e.g. “Four score and seven years ago . . .”) should be “a great many,” that’s not journalism. I had a great many people in my house this week. President Obama had a great many people watch his inauguration. The term doesn’t mean anything. Although scores would better describe my houseguests and not President Obama’s inaugural crowds. Guess which one the March for Life was closer in size to?

  • Stoo

    When all else fails, choose the most reasonable explanation: It was intentional.

    Would that feel more comfortable to you? Nice to villify those liberal journalists?

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  • Dave

    As anticipated in a comment on an earlier thread, Obama did not issue his reversal of the Mexico City rule (aka the global gag rule) on the day of the march for life. He’s not out to rile folks unnecessarily with symbolism.

  • Bern

    AP headline ridiculous and unmathematical to boot. For shame!

    Taunt is indeed a “loaded” word; however, it can fit if the speaker adopted a tone that some of the anti-abortion sites have reflected. I didn’t hear the speech so can’t judge if the writer was as off-base on that as the AP on the crowd count.

  • Greg Popcak

    Hi Terry,

    Thanks for the response. Now that you mention it, I do believe I knew that “anti-abortion” was the appropriate label according to the AP Style Manual.

    But to me, that just shows how institutionalized the religious bigotry is.

    Imagine the appropriate outcry that would erupt if some reporter wrote, “This week, America celebrated the inauguration of its first Negro president.” For obvious reasons, that would be awful. But if that same reporter defended himself by saying “but that’s the term the style manual says I should use!” then that would be exponentially worse, because it would boldly display the institutional nature of the bigotry displayed.

    More and more, I’m starting to like my tongue-in-cheek suggestion. Next year, instead of wasting our time visiting our representatives (who are always conveniently absent from their offices), let’s march on the offices of WaPo and the DC broadcast affiliates.

    We.Are.Pro.Life (*clap-clap.ClapClapClap*).

    Let them try and ignore that.


  • Jerry

    My local paper, the Contra Costa Times, ran an AP story by Brian Westley that said “tens of thousands” attended.

    As an aside, there’s a story by one of our esteemed hosts, Terry, in my paper as well. It is about how Americans are moderates about abortion: “shades of grey”. Unfortunately neither the regular paper or web site had a link to the study itself (waving accusatory finger) but did have links to here so that might drive a bit more traffic this way).

  • Chris Bolinger

    You’re right, Stoo. It clearly was an innocent mistake borne out of stupefying ignorance. I’d much rather have MSM writers and editors that are unbelievably incompetent than ones that are liberal.

  • Denise

    The picture in my edition of the home-delivered Washington Post today (I live in Norther Virginia)was a grainy black and white photo that in no way showed the crowd. The other laughable part of the story was that it listed Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good and Catholics United as groups leading the pro-life movement. The USCCB staffer, Dierdre McQuade did not endorse these groups. This is the reporter moving directly from McQuade’s comments to her own.It is the reporter, not McQuade who is giving these two shills for the Democratic Party an endorsement as pro-life. In addition, it was quite gratuitous for the reporter to mention the one pro-abortion counter protest was organized by a girl from a Catholic high school. They named the girl but not the high school. If she had been a student at a public school or a secular private school would they have included that identifying fact as well?

  • Peggy


    Thanks for your post. I suspected also that the reporter inappropriately tied McQuade to the progressive groups–which were also advocating sex ed, contraception, to reduce abortions. Not a Catholic solution! Funny how the reporter didn’t try to interview Nellie Gray whose headed this group and lead the March events, I think from their inception. Fr. Frank Pavone would be a good interviewee as well, having fought the fight for many years also. There are many other leaders in the movement who could have been interviewed. But the reporter gratuitously focused instead on the “minority view,” undermining the message of the March.

  • Mollie

    I have no problem with the inclusion of protesters in a story about the March but I will note that many of the people marching commented on the relative lack of protesters this year versus previous years — the opposite of what the Post story said.

    I didn’t see any protesters this year while I saw tons in previous years but it just points to the difficulty of covering a huge, chaotic march. You can’t be everywhere.

  • Gerry Shuller

    “Scores” – perhaps they saw folks from the famous “gentleman’s club”.

  • TerryC

    As for the count of marchers it was requested that marchers call a text number to allow the organizers to get a better count of the size of the crowd. I had to show a couple of adults how to send a text message. The announcer actually asked young people (of which I am not one) to help adults text. I don’t know if they’ll release that number or not.

  • Susan Peterson

    I was there, but didn’t hear the information about texting to a certain number. And I don’t think anyone in my group did.

  • Mary Ann

    A FOX news clip during the march had a Father Frank Pavone sound bite (good), but I couldn’t get a grasp of crowd size from the camera angle. I admit to being shocked FOX aired *that* much.

  • R.S.Newark

    You missed one when you failed to notice the lede photo on the Post web site which showed proabortion signs of protesters rather than those of the prolife group. Some hate.

  • Julia

    Just in the past month or so I am seeing “for abortion rights” and “against abortion rights”/ “for restrictions on abortion rights” in MSM print and TV.

    I wonder where that’s coming from.

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  • Unconvinced2

    sorry Greg Popcak, but wouldn’t calling them “pro-life” be more biased than calling them “anti-abortion protesters”

    I mean, that is exactly what they are. They are protesting against abortion. Calling them “pro-life” would imply that their paper belived that pheotus’ were sentient or imply that the paper supported the movement or thought abortion was murder. However these problems arn’t as big as they seem because people tend to hear the name and attatch theirown meaning. It’s not like calling them “pro-life” is going to make people who hear it re-examine their ideas about abortion.