How not to cover a protest

Thousands of people demonstrated outside California’s state Capitol this past weekend. I assume — and, yes, I know how fraught with potential disaster that course of action can be — that The Associated Press didn’t consider the rally any big deal.

I base my assumption on the relatively short length of the AP story (450 words), the lameness of said story (read on for more details) and the fact that the story ran, as best as I can tell, only on the California state wire and did not move nationally.

My point is not that this story should have been big news. I don’t have enough facts or background to gauge the significance of such a rally in Sacramento. Rather, my point is more basic: If this event was deemed newsworthy — and apparently it was, since AP sent a reporter to it — then it deserved to be covered well. Unfortunately, this story falls short of that mark.

The top of the piece:

Thousands of Christian conservatives spent 12 hours Saturday praying and fasting in front of the state Capitol at a gathering organizers described as spiritual repentance “when there is no hope for a nation.”

The daylong religious event titled, “TheCall to Conscience,” was led by Lou Engle as well as other pastors and speakers to protest gay marriage, pornography and abortion. Many of those attending slapped red “Life” stickers over their shirts and set up blankets and folding chairs facing a large stage with banners that read: “Only One Hope God.”

People close to the front of the stage held up their hands when called to prayer. They jumped and danced to musical performances between sermons. The gathering filled the west lawn of the state Capitol and hundreds of people spilled into the next block, but the rest of Capitol Mall’s five-block-long lawn went unused despite large screens and barricades set up for the occasion.

Offering stations were set up throughout the area.

So many questions that go unanswered: How many thousands? Is it 2,000 or 15,000? What is meant by fasting in this case, and what is the spiritual significance? Could someone explain what is meant by spiritual repentance “when there is no hope for a nation?” Who (for readers who don’t recognize the name) is Lou Engle? (If I was in a really surly mood, I’d even ask: What’s a Christian conservative?)

It’s not awful, but the reference to people holding up their hands when called to prayer made me chuckle. Wonder if that’s ever happened before in an evangelical-leaning crowd? The jumping and dancing to musical performances between sermons, meanwhile, made me wonder how high they were jumping and what kind of dancing they were doing? What kind of music was playing? Bon Jovi or Mercy Me?

Sarcasm aside, how many people did organizers expect to show up? And how short of projections was the crowd, assuming it fell below expectations? These would appear to be actual journalistic questions that the reporter could have asked.

Finally, the vague “Offering stations were set up throughout the area” needs some sort of explanation, doesn’t it? Were they collecting money to pay the speakers and performers or to stage more protests?

In writing about the recent Glenn Beck rally in Washington, Tmatt posed this question: “Hey, what was said at the rallies?” Apparently, the AP staff in California didn’t bother reading that post because the Sacramento protest story doesn’t bother with any of that kind of minutia, relevant as it may be.

This is the first actual quote in the AP story:

Ken and Antoinette Rodrigues, who described themselves as born-again Christians, drove in from Fremont to attend Saturday’s rally after their daughter-in-law saw it over the Internet.

“It’s a little more blunt than I anticipated, not that I’m opposed to that, but the things they are speaking, it’s bold, very bold,” said Antoinette Rodrigues, 48. “But I feel that it’s very appropriate and timely.”

OK, let’s move past the fact that — out of thousands of demonstrators — the first people quoted apparently aren’t representative of the crowd as a whole. Let’s focus on what the quote actually says: It’s a little more blunt than I anticipated. What exactly is a little more blunt? The things they are speaking, it’s bold, very bold. What things are they speaking? (Oops, forgot, the story doesn’t include any of those.)

I could go on, but you get the point: It’s just that kind of useless, vague story. It’s almost as if the reporter goes through the motions rather than give serious treatment to the rally and the demonstrators.

For a much better, albeit not perfect, approach, the Sacramento Bee gave Page 1A prominence to the rally.

The Bee story tackles some of the specific questions asked above, interviews political analysts on what the rally means for California and even includes the perspective of protesters who rallied against the demonstration. Imagine that.

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About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby

    I’ve deleted several comments. This is a weblog to discuss journalism and media coverage of religion. If you want to debate the issues, this is not the site to do so.


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