How to write a bland story about the March For Life

As expected, the journalists at The Washington Post were pretty careful with their coverage of this year’s March For Life. As I wrote the other day, in a challenge to GetReligion readers:

I would imagine that the Post team will be rather careful in its coverage this year, after receiving rather stark criticism from its own reader’s representative. I predict some photos and even videos that capture the size of the crowd. I expect quotes from the young women who are the backbone of the event, year after year. …

As you read the coverage … pay special attention to the variety of voices who are interviewed on both sides. Were you impressed with the quality of those allowed to explain what this event, what this day, meant to them and to America? Was the language loaded and packed with “scare quotes” and labels? Did you hear from liberals who oppose abortion, as well as the political (as opposed to cultural) conservatives who support abortion rights?

In other words, I wanted to see more coverage, but I also wanted to see coverage that was more complex, that featured voices that journalists rarely include in this ongoing national debate.

I was seeking a more complex journalistic picture, not a picture that ignored one side or the other.

However, one long-time GetReligion reader saw things differently, even though Thomas Szyszkiewicz was moderately pleased with what the Post served up, this time around:

Actually, the Washington Post coverage was pretty decent this year: No “counterbalancing” opinions, no unattributed commentary — just straight reporting of the people who were there and even noting that most of the people were young. Even the photo gallery was good — only two out of 23 photos were of counter-demonstrators. … [A] good and fair job. … Overall, though, a vast improvement on past years.

Actually, that isn’t the kind of journalistic coverage that your GetReligionistas seek to promote, week after week, year after year. No “counterbalancing” opinions? Why not? There are plenty of crucial voices out there on the pro-abortion-rights side — voices on the left and the libertarian right, for starters. Those voices are part of the story.

Meanwhile, I do appreciate the salute to copy that is free of “unattributed commentary,” but there is no need for one-sided copy on an issue as complex as this one.

That doesn’t mean that journalists can’t cite the best version of the facts that they can assemble. There are ways to describe the size of a crowd of marchers and ways to count and describe the much, much smaller number of counter-demonstrators.

The main Post story attempted to do that — a bit. Here are a few samples, with my commentary:

Buses from around the country, mostly chartered by Catholic schools and organizations, brought groups of people to the Mall for a pre-march rally in which politicians, religious leaders and activists decried the 55 million abortions they said had been performed since the Roe v. Wade decision.

Wait a minute: There are no estimates from the cultural left and right over the number of abortions performed in the past 40 years?

I realize that the numbers will be on the low side, compared with the reality, but what are the numbers offered by public health-care professionals, as well as the marchers? Back to the Post story:

Despite a bitter, Arctic cold that descended over the region, Friday’s crowd was large. Police no longer estimate crowd size, so it is difficult to judge how many people attended. The march permit was for 50,000 people, though organizers said the attendance was several times that number. People at the rally were concentrated on the Mall between Seventh and 12th Streets, and the march up Constitution Avenue stretched for at least five blocks.

If I had been reporting at the scene (I was nearby on The Hill, but in a class), I would have asked veterans of many marches for some comparisons with earlier years.

You are looking for symbolic details. A key stat that I think captures the scene: Pick a spot at a major intersection near the U.S. Capitol and time how long it takes for the marchers to go by. In the past, it normally takes about 2 hours for everyone to pass by. What was the length of this mass of people — in time on a clock — this year?

Many who participated came in groups, identifiable by the banners they carried or the matching scarves they wore. Chartered buses dropped off people several blocks away, and they approached the Mall on foot, often carrying placards, crosses and flags bearing the name of the college, high school or diocese they represented.

Were there any unique or unusual groups? Yes, the typical groups are more important. But what groups made it that stood out from the norm? Were there any groups that revealed the complexity of the movement?

Were there national level religious leaders present? Who represented, let’s say, the Mormons? The Southern Baptist Convention? Who marched, from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops? Was there a group from Georgetown University? How about Notre Dame?

In other words, there are some good quotes in this story. There is some good information.

But, in the end, this news story is oh, so, predictable. This is one of the largest demonstrations that takes place in the nation’s capital, year after year. What was different and unique this year? What was surprising? Who was there for the first time? Who was missing? Did any major cardinals or archbishops march? Were worship services — listen for the Orthodox hymn “Memory Eternal” — held in front of the Supreme Court, once again?

Trust me: I know there are people who attended with opinions on these questions.

As the old saying goes, God is in the details. Journalists are supposed to seek these kinds of details — on both sides of the story.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Martha

    I’m impressed that they did mention Pope Benedict’s tweet, but amused by the “seemed to be” language (yes, maybe those young people and teenagers were actually middle-aged people in disguise).

    Not a bad story, considering. Bland at least is better than “foam-flecked zealots trying to ensure women will die in agony on hospital floors”.

  • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    tmatt, the event was the March for Life, not the March for Choice. The point of my comment was that the WaPo and their MSM colleagues had previously made this as much as they could about the pro-abortion side. That’s why I said, “No ‘counterbalancing’ opinions.”

    To me, there are plenty of other opportunities for reporting on the alleged complexities of this issue. When you’ve got at least half-a-million gathered in D.C. for the 39th year in a row, and the coverage in the previous 38 years has ranged the tiny gamut from non-existent to acknowledgement and endorsement of the presence of counterprotestors while ignoring the participants in the main protest, counterbalancing opinions, in my opinion, are superfluous.

  • http://2natures.blogspot.com/ Arimathean

    NPR’s story on the March for Life concluded with “Memory Eternal”, which was intoned from the stage by one of the Orthodox bishops.

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