Debate at NYTimes: Was the March For Life news or not?

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One of the most difficult concepts in journalism to communicate to people outside the field can be stated in this deceptively simple question: What is news? Or try this wording on for size: Why do some events receive major coverage and others no coverage at all?

Obviously the worldviews of the editors making the call play a role, but so do factors that are hard to explain. For example, are we talking about an event that takes place on a day when there are lots of other stories competing for space, time and resources? A quirky story that takes place on a day when there is very little else going on has a much better chance of ending up on A1 than the same story if it happens the day after an election or the day after a major weather event, and so forth and so on.

Long ago, I received a nasty letter from a reader who wanted to know why it was not news when her evangelical megachurch built a large new family life center, but it was news when a tiny downtown Episcopal parish decided to do a bit of remodeling that involved changing a window. Well, I explained, megachurches build new buildings all the time. The Episcopal parish project was symbolic because it involved making changes in the city’s oldest church. This was literally an historic site and, yes, the window was the original window in that part of the building.

Now, if the megachurch project had led to a battle over zoning laws, it might have been a news story, I explained.

Right, she said, journalists only cover disputes and bad news.

I think you can imagine the rest of that conversation.

Year after year, the March For Life in Washington, D.C. — as well as in other major cities — stirs up debates about this topic. After all, in most years this march is the largest public demonstration, by far, in the nation’s capital.

Ah, but it happens every year and this has been going on for decades. Thus, many journalists argue that there is nothing unusual about it.

Participants rarely buy that response and ask what kind of coverage the same march, year after year, if it was linked to an ongoing cause that enjoyed widespread support in elite newsrooms, instead of widespread apathy, skepticism or even scorn.

Ah, but what about 2014? This year the crowd was smaller than the 500,000 or so the previous year, due to stunningly cold weather conditions (which have also happened in the past, truth be told). So was the march LESS of a story due to smaller numbers or MORE of a story for the same reason?

This time around, the debate received some ink in a very important place, as noted by a Religion News Service scribe:

There is no need to run the entire Times column. By all means, click on the link in the above tweet and read it. However, here is a key slice of the piece by Margaret Sullivan, the newspaper’s public editor:

The Times, in print, published only a stand-alone photograph of the event on Page A17 with a two-line caption on Thursday. (Its website carried a wire story and The Lede blog on Wednesday had an extensive report, written in New York and mostly aggregated from other sources.) …

I asked the Washington bureau chief, Carolyn Ryan, why no staff reporter was assigned to the event. She replied:

We have given extensive coverage to opponents of abortion.

The March for Life was a main element in our front-page story Tuesday about newly energized Republicans efforts, through ballot initiatives and legislation in Congress, to curtail abortion. We ran a three-column, live staff photograph of the event at the top of a national-section page, and an online Reuters story on nytimes.com about the march, highlighting House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s appearance and his projections for legislation in the House. As you know, we do not cover every protest, and tend to focus on the substance of the issue. …

So what is the thread that runs through most of that response? Hint: It’s a word starting with the letter “p.”

The public editor offered this judgment:

My take: The Times should have covered this gathering with a staff reporter in Washington. The march may happen every year, and this one may have been smaller than usual, but it still is a major event, and there were fresh angles available, including the more inclusive approach, the large number of young people involved and the difficulties of participating in the storm. The lack of staff coverage unfortunately gives fuel to those who accuse The Times of being anti-Catholic, and to those who charge that the paper’s news coverage continually reflects a liberal bias. But more important, the event had significant news value.

Any questions?

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.

  • bullschuck

    Please check the link. I think you have an extra http embedded.

    • tmatt

      Thank you for the heads up. Fixed.

    • tmatt

      I cannot get this URL to embed. Most strange.

      Even the NYTs generated permalink does not work.

      http://nyti.ms/M0R0Iu

      • bullschuck

        When I copied and pasted manually, I noticed an extra “http.” It showed up like “http://http//…” Removing the second one took me straight to the page.

        • tmatt

          Right. But I still could not get it to work IN WORDPRESS for some reason. I even tried the NYTimes Permalink code.

          Most strange.

  • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    I find it interesting that the public editor said “The lack of staff coverage unfortunately gives fuel to those who accuse The Times of being anti-Catholic…” She apparently has the short-sighted belief that the pro-life movement is primarily a Catholic one. I thought that myth had been debunked long ago, but apparently not.

    • JoFro

      The Pro-Life March is very much a Catholic laity initiative! In fact, this year is pretty much the first that had an Evangelical Christian as one of the main speakers of the event! The March even starts with a Catholic Mass – perhaps the pro-life movement on the whole is not primarily Catholic, but this March is definitely a more Catholic-led procession!

  • Thinkling

    Ryan’s response strongly supports the thesis that the operative prism here is politics. All those events she described were of the political process and personalities, Cantor, ballot initiatives, etc. So the blind spot to the march, supposedly.

    I am not sure there aren’t other populist protests that would command the same indifference, especially if the same size. But giving Ryan the benefit of the doubt, kudos to her for recognizing that the march really isn’t political at all, in the classic sense of the word of “what steps to take to reach a common goal?” Rather it is more foundational, what even is the common goal?

    I am glad to see fewer “it happens every year” tropes this time around. Every time I hear that I want to reply “so is the SOTU address”.

  • Reformed Catholic

    Using the same reasoning as the Washington Bureau chief, the Times shouldn’t cover the Super Bowl. After all, it happens every year and nothing changes except the years the Steelers or the Ravens don’t make the cut.

    • Andrew Kosmowski

      Or the World Series because the Cubs aren’t in it?

    • Howard

      You beat me to my comment! Except I was also going to add the State of the Union speech.

  • Sr.Athens

    Prolife march is definitely not only for Catholics… Check the news articles!
    Actually, I was waiting for more news… but anyway, if media would not cover or would hardly cover them, I have my own way to get more news.

    • johnnysc

      I think maybe the fact that some protestant denominations do, in fact,
      support abortion may lead to that thinking. I’m not talking about
      individual protestants but the denomination itself.

  • Steve31

    It’s make you wonder what dicussion goes on in a newsroom when they decide to omit a story about ~4-500,000 people marching on DC. Aren’t there any pro-lifers in the newsroom?

    • ponerology

      No, there aren’t….and if by some infinitesimal chance there is a ‘lone nut’ anti-abortion man or woman in the newsroom, he/she hasn’t breathed a word about it for fear of losing the much vaunted ‘position’ with the rag. No one who is openly anti-abortion gets anywhere at the NYT or any other secular paper.

  • Guest

    But the NY Times IS anti-Catholic. One case in point: the gushing over of Harvey Weinstein anti-Catholic screed movie Philomena. About two weeks ago the newspaper in one edition ran four ads on the movie. I’ve seen anything like it before for any movie. You’d think this joke of a movie was right up there with Vertigo and Citizen Kane. One ad also included an excerpt from a NY Times reviewer who said the movie shows cruelty of the Church and its punishment of sex!. Just how stupid do they think we are? Please stop lying already. I’d rather deal with someone who actually has the guts to admit they hate the Catholic Church and what it stands for then someone who lies and says they don’t when in fact all the evidence in the newspaper proves to the contrary.

    • Jerry Engelbach

      Newspapers don’t sponsor ads. They are paid for by advertisers.

  • wc4mitt

    It is not simply the ‘cold weather’ which reduced the number of participants in the March for Life in DC – there was also hazardous traveling warning by car, bus, and plane as well as airport shutdowns for approx 1500 planes or more just @Chicago as well as other Eastern Airports. People who planned for months to attend were unable to do so due to the treacherous weather – not unwilling.

  • Guest

    The Times is anti-Catholic because at no point do they offer support, or even polite respect, for authentic Catholic teaching. The only brand of Catholicism they like is the sort that actually doesn’t practice Catholicism.

    War, big government, aggressive secularism, social engineering, gay marriage, and cultural snobbery: these are the kinds of “issues” that drive The New York Times.

  • ponerology

    The NYT’s excuses as to why there is little-to-no coverage of the anti-abortion March is a very, very thin tissue of lies. NYT is so full of garbage they stink worse than the Arthur Kill in New Jersey in the middle of July. Anyone with any sense in their heads doesn’t believe anything those liars and hypocrites say/write/”report”. (When does a liar tell the truth?) Who runs the NYT and all the rags around the country and round the world?

    And let us stop calling ourselves pro-life and use anti abortion instead. Pro-life gives the enemies of the church fuel against us because they love to bring up the death penalty–and if you’re okay with the death penalty then you’re not ‘pro-life’ are you? Let us use the correct words/terms/phrases and not adopt those of the enemy.


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