Finding fresh angles at March for Life

The 38th annual March for Life was held today, an event for which media coverage is always a contentious topic. The video embedded here is something that came out from a pro-life group after some of the media coverage of last year’s march. As such, the language is rather partisan. But I highlight it to show what, exactly, pro-lifers complain about. Others argue that these complaints are such an annual rite themselves that maybe pro-life leaders should take some of the blame for their public relations problems.

Let’s look at some of the early coverage. First the lede to an NPR “news blog” report:

Marchers are gathering this hour on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., for what’s become an annual event — the March for Life rally and demonstration by those who want to see the landmark Roe vs. Wade Supreme Court decision reversed and abortion made illegal again.

It’s not a big deal, but if it’s the 38th annual March for Life and Roe v. Wade was decided in 1973, when, exactly, did this march become an annual event? It makes it sound like a recent occurrence.

It’s true that the march receives less coverage than its importance in the pro-life movement. So, for instance, there was nothing in the Washington Post print edition this morning, even a warning about road closures or other traffic issues. Or at least I didn’t see anything when I read the paper this morning. Normally for big protests here in town you’ll see more stories leading up to the event. And there were things to cover prior to today’s march — last night there was a Vigil for Life at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, for instance. And the folks that bus in from all over the country are sleeping on church basements and friends’ couches all over the region. Even just the management of the many buses is one of the hot topics in my old Capitol Hill neighborhood. The march itself is just one part of days’ worth of events. But annual events just aren’t considered as newsworthy in the minds of many editors.

Ann Rodgers of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette has a compelling story about the 6,000 marchers from Pittsburgh. Here’s how it begins:

When she became pregnant as an unmarried college student 31 years ago, “I never considered that there was a life being nurtured inside of me,” said the Rev. Peggy Means.

She had an abortion, which she thought of as “a clinical procedure that I needed to get on with my life.”

But today she will tell her story to thousands of abortion protesters at a rally as part of the March for Life in Washington, D.C. Her goal is to urge other women not to have abortions and to reach out to those who have.

The article includes a lot of data and explanation of the march and surrounding events. It even gets into such topics as grace and redemption! Certainly this is not standard for coverage of the march, but it’s a great example of how to write an interesting story about the real people who come to the event. It’s also funny to me that Pittsburgh alone sends 6,000 people but usually the entire crowd size is characterized as “thousands.” While technically accurate, it minimizes the size of the crowd, which organizers claim number in the hundreds of thousands. It’s hard to get an accurate count but “thousands” just doesn’t quite cut it, I don’t think.

I have to say that I enjoyed a brief Washington Post report from the youth mass at the Verizon Center prior to today’s march. That morphed into a larger story about the day’s events. Here’s a chunk dealing with the morning mass:

More than 27,000 young people secured tickets for the morning concert, pep rally and Mass, according to the Archdiocese of Washington. For the first time, a parallel event was held at the D.C. Armory to handle the overflow crowd.

The Verizon Center event was part pep rally, part rock concert, with entire sections of worshipers standing up to cheer wildly for their local leaders as the names of bishops and archbishops on the platform were announced.

The homily was given by the Rev. Mark Ivany, a priest at Church of the Little Flower in Bethesda. He compared the crowd to civil rights advocates of the past, such as those opposing slavery and advocating for women’s right to vote.

“The greatest difference between other civil rights movements and this one is that most of the people affected by Roe v. Wade can’t march on Washington,” Ivany said. “They can’t give great speeches.”

The report has a ton of substantive color. We learn that Washington archbishop Donald Wuerl received a 60-second cheer from the crowd, second only to Archbishop Pietro Sambi, the pope’s representatives. The young people who read wore hoodies and jeans, some read in Spanish, some in English, some accompanied by guitar. The reporter, Michelle Boorstein, mentions a few signs that were hung from the railing:

“I’ve noticed that everyone who is for abortion is already born,” read one. Said another, “A mother’s womb should be the safest place on Earth.”

Before the Mass, 100 priests heard confessions inside the Acela Club, an upscale restaurant inside the sports arena.

I was unable to go down for today’s rally but have covered enough of them to say that this report just sounds so much more accurate than much of what passes for coverage. Unlike what was reported last year by Newsweek, young people are everywhere at the march. Many of them are Catholic. So a story that gets the youth angle and the Catholic angle is key. I also like the way that Boorstein simply quotes what she hears and sees. It seems basic, but it’s just a good way to go about covering an event that, while huge and long-running, is also controversial. It’s also worth noting that Boorstein and Rodgers are religion reporters and that it’s usually a good idea to put a religion reporter on the March beat. That’s because the march, while including people who are not religious, is full of religious people and their language and behavior reflects that. Someone who is not familiar with the prayers and hymns of religious people will have a more difficult time covering the event.

The Post article also focuses on the importance of social media to the pro-life movement. (It’s nice when reporters are able to find fresh angles on these annual events, too.) To that end, I also thought the Post‘s Twitter-tracker in this blog post helped readers get a feel for how pro-lifers commemorate the anniversary of Roe v. Wade.

It’s impossible to cover everything that happens at these events — I would love for a reporter to cover the Lutherans for Life that meet for Divine Service at my congregation the morning of the march — but that probably doesn’t even rank on their wish list. I do hope to see coverage of the vigil at the Chinese Embassy tonight, to protest China’s “one child” policy and the subsequent abortion of untold numbers of girls there.

There are many abortion-related stories that have been written in recent days, although not as many as you might have expected regarding the abortion doctor charged with eight murders. We likely won’t get to them all but I wanted to generally note that the media have covered some of the legislative aims of pro-life groups that won big in recent elections. Such coverage is helpful.

Also worth noting is this Mother Jones profile of a lawyer who fights abortion. While the magazine and its audience or unequivocally pro-choice, the article is fair and challenging. It includes the role religion plays and aims to understand the motivation of the attorney. No matter your personal views, it is well worth a read.

Back to march coverage. I know that many, many readers complain about how the march is covered. Can you let us know what, specifically, bothers you about the coverage and what you think could be done to improve it? Focus on constructive criticism rather than just complaints, please.

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  • Ryan K.

    What I think would provide better coverage is if the media began to cover the actual debate itself. The media is often to simplistic to think the debate is pro-choice feminists and pro-life religious folks.

    Cover the substance of the arguments of the pro-life rally. There are very rational (non-religious for that matter) arguments that pro-life scholars that involve how biology now shows that an unborn baby is a human life. Or for that matter the point pro-lifers in asking why is abortion tragic and should be kept “rare” if it is just a simple medical procedure and does not involve the killing of a life?

    I am not at these rallies and would love for the media to let me know if these arguments are being put forward or part of the gatherings. Most people now just glaze over when the media covers both pro-life and pro-choice rallies because it is the same song and dance; show a large group of people walking with candles, then cut to other people holding signs and then wrap up with a quote about how one participant FEELS about abortion.

    Personally, and I think many people want the media to give us more. In short do better to advance the story instead of the same old thing.

  • Passing By

    I would like to know where to find reliable numbers of marchers. The Anchoress says something about 200,000: is that accurate? The video claims 300,000 and 350,000. The Park Service seems to undercount, so where is the truth?

  • Matthew

    Okay, Mollie, since this is the “Get Religion” blog I am going to be picky. In the fourth paragraph you mention the “CATHEDRAL of the Immaculate Conception”. As far as I know the Catholic Cathedral of DC is called St. Matthew’s. There is, though, the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.

  • Mollie

    By all means, be picky! You are correct and I will update the post. Thank you!

  • Mollie

    Good CNN write-up on the march here.

  • Ryan K.

    That’s just it Mollie, the very fact that CNN puts the article in the “belief” section proves the point I was making. This does expand past just religious convictions, and many have been making these arguments for some time now.

    As long as the media continues to put pro-life articles in the belief category they will be staying in the same old predictable box of covering this issue.

    Many pro-lifers (myself included) consider this to be the ultimate civil and human rights issue, and the media should begin covering it that way.

    There are some parallels here in how the media covers gay marriage as a civil rights issue, but does not seem to do the same with the pro-life position.

  • Mollie


    It’s a really good point you make. While pro-lifers might tend to be religious, the arguments they make for changing abortion policy are not. On a day like today, it’s important to be able to pick up on both sides of that.

  • Denise R.

    The media should state WHY the pro-life people think what they do – what motivates these people to march. The media could try to explain the scientific idea that life begins at conception, since this is what pro-lifers believe. They could show how a completely new human being, different from the mother or father, with its own DNA and pattern of growth, appears. The media might want to mention that pro-life thinking believes it is wrong for one human being to end the life of another human being just because it can. The abortion debate is much more about scientific facts and civil rights, and in reality not so much about religion, but that’s not at all how it is portrayed by the media. Media reporting seems to leave out the essential facts and lean way too far into the “belief” category.

  • Mary

    In honor of the 38th Annual March for Life in Wash DC, Monday, January 24, 2011.
    Please enjoy “Hello Mom, It’s Me” pro-life song by Lloyd Marcus.

  • Pamela Zohar

    38th annual? well, 2011 – 1973 is …..38. It looks like the March began as soon as Roe v Wade was passed, or the year it became clear that it would pass – what’s your point? That there was a pro-life movement before RvW passed? That the passing of RvW galvanized pro-lifers enough to get out and march in the cold?

  • Julia

    the point is that writing that something has turned into an annual event reads like the event has been happening nowhere near 38 years.

  • MJBubba

    Mollie, you quoted the NPR lede: “Marchers are gathering this hour on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., for what’s become an annual event — the March for Life rally and demonstration by those who want to see the landmark Roe vs. Wade Supreme Court decision reversed and abortion made illegal again.”
    This is common spin. The pro-life side is characterized as wanting to make all abortions illegal, which most of us would support, I suppose. However, the real battles upcoming are just to be able to impose some compromises to limit abortion, such as to the first trimester, etc. The un-limited under any circumstance view of the pro-abortion side is never characterized that way by the mass media.
    Also, in light of the video, I noticed that the one photo of the march that they posted features a group in the foreground that appears to be in their 60s and 70s, but, if you look very closely, you can make out that the people in the background are much younger.

  • Joe K

    There is also a broad-based local aspect to the March for Life that I haven’t seen mentioned in MSM. This past Saturday, Jan. 22 in every major city across America concerned citizens held their own local Pro-life Marches coinciding with the Washington DC event. My family of 7 marched in our local sidewalk march and prayer vigil, and I know of 3 other Catholic parishes within a 4-mile radius from my suburban home in Ohio that held marches. It would be interesting to read about the true number participating in the March For Life in all 50 states as well as in Washington DC. For any other human rights cause, this would have already been done a long time ago.
    Any journalists want to take a crack at it?

  • Martha

    According to Rocco Palmo over at “Whispers in the Loggia”, “upwards of 15,000 pack into every possible inch of Washington’s Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception for the traditional Vigil Mass for Life in advance of (tomorrow’s) March”. He doesn’t say when the March started, but “While the Life Mass has invariably drawn a standing-room house since its inception in 1976, in recent years the crowd’s swelled to the point that satellite rites to accommodate the overflow have had to be planned elsewhere on the campus of the Catholic University of America, whose buildings have likewise taken in campers unable to fit in the “Shrine Hotel.”

    So I imagine Pamela would be right that the March started around 1973 or so.

    But I have to ask: given the horrendous story out of Philadelphia about Kermit Gosnell coming so close to this year’s March for Life, did *no* journalistic outlet pick up on that angle or comment or ‘compare and contrast’ at all? Really? That begins to look less like “what can we say new about the same old, same old” and more like a conscious “let’s not rock the boat because we all agree abortion is a basic human right” consensus.

    If I sound like I’m getting fitted for my tinfoil hat, feel free to jump all over me. Forgive the cynicism; Irish politics are currently in even more than their usual state of chassis and we, the plain people of Ireland, are rather angry at the state of affairs :-)

  • Dennis Di Mauro

    Thanks for the shout out for LFL, we missed you yesterday.

  • Elizabeth

    You missed the typically snarky column by Petula Dvorak in this mornings Washington Post Metro section. She went down to the rally on the Mall and found some Bishop Ireton students who really liked the MTV show “Skins”.

  • tmatt
  • Dan

    The press should cover the March for Life for what it is: a dramatic display of the vibrancy of what is by far the largest and most sustained grass roots social protest movement of our generation (and one that is particularly remarkable given the complete lack of support from any major institution in our society apart from the Catholic Church). The excuse for the non-coverage is that this is an annual event. However, when the March is seen for what it really is — part of a powerful and tenacious social movement — that it is an annual event is part of what makes it newsworthy. The press utterly fails to address and reflect upon how the March reflects the remarkable tenacity of the pro-life movement. This is part of its more general failure to address and report upon the pro-life movement as a whole. In its blindness to the pro-life movement the press is missing so much! The pro-life movement is a fascinating and complex grass roots phenomenon, in some ways unique and in some ways quite similar to past social protest movements such as the civil rights movement and the abolitionist movement. There are countless good stories out there that go unreported.

  • JD

    It would be fine to report on the self-understanding of the marchers as being involved in a civil rights movement. However, one should then also report the view of others who consider this understanding to be delusional and offensive.

    Also, beware of false equivalences: There is no debate – at least I hope not – about the status of gay people as full persons and the fact that they are automatically entitled to whatever human rights there may be. There is considerable debate on whether embryos (… I’m sure everyone’s able to complete the sentence).

  • J

    How about some reporting and fresh angles on Roe v. Wade commemorative events throughout the country, and the clergy and people of faith who attend them? Here’s a resource that may be useful:

    Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Considering the slaughter of already born infants in an abortuary in Penn. you would think this year would be a year the media might have given some REAL coverage to the pro-life movement in this country.( Talk about a real lead-in and connection mostly ignored.) Those 8 murdered lives match closely the number murdered in Tucson. Does anyone think the coverage has been anywhere near similar??

  • J

    Many of these comments are way off the point of Get Religion: What is good journalistic coverage? Time to spike some, I’d say. Spike this one after you have spiked those.:)

  • Mollie


    You’re right. I’ve been spiking intermittently but just did another round. Keep comments focused on media coverage, please.

  • Lori Pieper

    To be exact, while this year we are commemorating the 38th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, Monday’s event was the 37th March for Life. The event began in 1974 the year after the Supreme Court decision. I heard this on EWTN’s coverage yesterday. I think the person who noted this was March M.C. Nellie Gray, or one of the others who have been there since the beginning. The first March dew 20,000 people.

    Since one of the purposes of the march is always for marchers to talk to their legislators, I wonder how much coverage this part of the event received? Given all the legislation affecting abortion this Congress is considering, there were potentially some very interesting coversations there, and maybe a good angle for a news story.

  • Marianne Burkemper

    How can the media dismiss and ignore the NEWS? Regardless of how they feel about it, or whether or not they agree with it, don’t they still have a responsibility to report it? Over 3,000 people from the Archdiocese of St. Louis made the pilgrimage to Washington, DC for the March for Life this year. We held a Rally at the Arch where nine busloads of people (Missouri Life Caravan) gathered, prayed and listened to speakers, including a powerful testimony from a post-abortive woman from Silent No More, before boarding the buses for an 18 hour trip to DC! 56 Members of St. Joseph-Farmington, MO Parish carried the lead banner in the March. Two of our Aux. Bishops, many priests and seminarians from St. Louis traveled to DC to celebrate Mass with the pilgrims. When we arrived home, our families said that nothing had been on the news, and this is what we found on page A5 of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch: ” ‘March for Life’ held – Abortion opponents rallied on the National Mall and marched to the Supreme Court to mark the 38th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion.” WHAT!? No coverage of what happened here in St. Louis, let alone the events in DC! This historic “gathering” of over 250,000 people from all over the US has continued, every year, for 38 YEARS! Rallies, prayer services, thousands of people in hotels, hundreds of buses, closed streets… NOTHING! What about the bare FACTS of the March? Why aren’t they reported? If some other group had 200,000 people descend on our nation’s capitol wouldn’t it make the news? What a boon to the economy! The hotels! The restaurants!
    It would be so nice to read the facts… Who, what, when, where and why… basic reporting. It is a sad testimony to the media bias in this country. Those who were at the March know the truth. We will return next year and every year after that until the TRUTH prevails. And every year the secular media will have an opportunity to do their job – to report the truth, the facts about the March for Life!

  • Teresa Lutomski

    Media coverage connecting news stories could be so educational and informative. People who understand the issue know there are links between, for example, abortion and breast cancer and/or fertility (to name just two). New York’s Archbishop Timothy Dolan recently held a news conference with other religious leaders decrying the skyrocketing abortion rate in NYC, which is much higher than in other parts of the country. Less than 1 week later a study was published outlining the disproportionately high rate of child abuse in NYC, as compared to other cities. Nowhere in the media was there any reference to the connection between those two stories, yet they ARE connected. Widespread attitudes in the NYC region tend not to respect life or support a ProLife position. The media could do so much toward educating people about the realities of this issue… if they would only do so.

  • Donald

    @ Deacon: I’d take pro-life people more seriously if they advocated criminal sanctions against the women who knowingly went to pay someone to murder their children. Even if they’re confused and desperate–not necessarily the case, many women have abortions and know exactly what they’re doing–we still prosecute desperate teenage girls who dump their babies into garbage cans. Why not others?

    The answer, I think, is that even pro-life people don’t see fetuses as fully-fledged humans. That, and/or abortion is just part of another campaign aimed at enforcing gender roles.

    @ Teresa: How is there a connection? Correlation–if there is one–is hardly correlation.

  • Passing By

    #27 -

    The connection is that early justifications for abortion claimed that it would lead to a society where children were wanted and thus less child abuse.

    As for prosecuting women having abortions, fine. As in all prosecutions, punishment can be ameliorated according to circumstances and include such as GED classes, parenting education and community service in child care centers. The question, of course, is whether the media would present such prosecutions as draconian and “unfair”, a favorite word in this adolescent society.

    Actually, correlation is correlation- if there is one. You meant, of course, correlation is hardly causation. Which is true, but causation is not the issue here.

  • Francis

    The problem is that the event is simply ignored. Regardless of one’s personal position on abortion. Several hundred thousand people gathering in Washington DC, outside in the cold is a newsworthy item. There are all sorts of rallies of a much smaller nature that receive all sorts of national coverage. In fairness this large event should get at least some mention in the national news. It is also noteworthy that the March for Life is not a flash in the pan, but has been going on every year for over 30 years. If you want to see what the march is really like watch the documentary Thine Eyes at Watch what the major media neglect to tell you.