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

YouTube Preview Image

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:

[Read more...]

‘Moderate’ cardinal does some brash media criticism

As always, the annual March For Life has unleashed waves of debate and criticism about the news coverage, or lack of coverage, of this event.

In this case, one of the most interesting quotes this week came from Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston and it related to the ongoing interest in what Pope Francis meant when he offered that famous — all together now — quotation that said:

“We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible. … The teaching of the church … is clear and I am a son of the church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.”

And, of course, he also said that the church:

“… cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently. … We have to find a new balance; otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel.”

In the mainstream press, this has evolved into a sound bite in which the pope says Catholics are “obsessed” with abortion and it’s time for Catholics to stop marching, stop counseling at abortion facilities, stop teaching their doctrines to their children in Catholic schools, etc., etc.

Enter Cardinal O’Malley, who is usually seen as one of the more moderate or even progressive voices at the top of the American Catholic hierarchy. He certainly has his share of conservative Catholic critics. Also recall that, as the leader of Pro-Life Activities for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Boston prelate also delivered the pre-march homily that annually serves as a kind of state of the union address for the pro-life movement.

Thus, it is interesting that O’Malley, in an interview with The Boston Herald, offered this bit of media criticism about mainstream news coverage of Pope Francis and, in particular, that “obsessed” quotation:

The normal Catholic in the parish might hear a sermon on abortion once a year. They’ll never hear a sermon on homosexuality or gay marriage. They’ll never hear a sermon about contraception. But if you look at the New York Times, in the course of a week, there will be 20 articles on those topics. So who is obsessed?

Yes, there is more:

[Read more...]

Concerning that Milbank column and the WPost news report

YouTube Preview Image

First of all, to those who have written or tweeted on this: Yes, your GetReligionistas saw the Dana Milbank column in The Washington Post, the one in which he goes all Pat Robertson on the March For Life faithful. You know, like this:

James Dobson’s Focus on the Family asked Christians to pray for rain to fall on Barack Obama in 2008 when he accepted the presidential nomination. Various religious conservatives have said that hurricanes, earthquakes and other meteorological phenomena were divine punishment of wayward humans.

So what are we to make of Wednesday’s March for Life on the Mall in Washington? The temperature was 12 degrees at the start of the annual antiabortion event, the wind chill below zero, and participants were trudging about in snow and ice from the previous day’s storm. …

(If) there are weather gods, they may have been making a pointed comment about a movement that has become frozen in time.

The problem, of course, is that Milbank is a full-time liberal columnist and he is on the Post payroll to voice his opinions, not to cover the news. GetReligion rarely focuses on opinion pieces. If guess one could also argue that there is another problem linked to this reality, which is that the roster of full-time columnists on the payrolls (as opposed occasional columnists from think tanks and/or syndicated columnists) in the news-and-editorial departments of the Post contains zero cultural conservatives. Have I missed someone?

The other problem is that the non-satirical point in this opinion column — that the movement to oppose abortion on demand has become “frozen in time” — doesn’t mesh very well with the actual sidewalk-level reporting in the Post about this year’s events. As the main report noted, near the top:

The world’s largest anti­abortion event, held on the anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision, grows younger each year. The Mall between Seventh Street and the Washington Monument was full for a few hours with youth groups from across the eastern half of the country.

Abortion has been legal in the United States for these young people’s entire lives, and the movement’s leaders say the latest generation of activists is creating a more upbeat culture. Graphic images of fetuses and angry sermons shouted through bullhorns were rare Wednesday. Instead, the Mall was filled with people holding placards with such slogans as “We are the pro-life generation” and large images of a smiling Pope Francis. Speakers pumped out dance music.

Although most marchers are Catholic, particularly members of high school and college groups from parochial schools and Catholic universities, organizers closed the event with a well-known non-Catholic — evangelical leader James Dobson, who appeared with his adopted son.

The Post team did, as mentioned in an earlier post, miss crucial content related to the tone and content of the march when it failed to cover the pre-event homily by Cardinal Sean O’Malley, a major voice in the middle of the Catholic leadership spectrum at the start of the Pope Francis era. The advance text of that “state of the union” address to the pro-life movement can be found right here.

But the transition at the front of the march was covered in other ways, including crucial material in that calm and newsy event story on page A2. For example:

[Read more...]

Is pro-life state of the union homily a story? In Francis era?

YouTube Preview Image

As I type this with my cold fingers (starting at about 12:30 p.m.), the sun is out here in Washington, D.C., but the temperature is still a frosty 14 degrees. Suffice it to say it has been a cold morning after a night of wild weather here in Beltway land.

My office in the District’s Northeast quadrant is only about a 10 minute walk from the U.S. Supreme Court. Still, because I’ve been in class all morning, I have no idea how many people were able to make it into the city for the annual March For Life. I imagine that the crowd is smaller than the usual 300,000 or so, in part because the throngs were much smaller than normal last night and early this morning in Union Station (through which I commute).

There will be the usual, and valid, debates about whether the mainstream media did an adequate job of covering the march. If the march was smaller than normal, will that be seen as a fact of the weather or the political climate? Inquiring minds will want to know.

I do know, however, that there was a major story in Washington last night linked to this event. At least, the pre-march Mass at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception should have been a big story for the mainstream press if reporters and editors are serious about the effect of Pope Francis on the pro-life movement and, specifically, how the Catholic Church expresses its teachings about the sanctity of life from conception to natural death.

Why? The speaker at last night’s Mass was Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston. Why does that matter so much? More on that in a minute.

Meanwhile here is a sample of the Washington Post story on the pre-march activities:

The March for Life draws mainly high school and college youth groups, many from Catholic schools, and buses from around the country had already poured out thousands who attended a Mass on Tuesday night at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Northeast Washington. Through the night, priests there heard confessions as people held a vigil in the Crypt Chapel of the huge basilica.

Thousands of abortion opponents, many from outside the region, were in Catholic Masses on Wednesday morning, praying, receiving confession and listening to music before heading for the Mall, where a concert and rally are scheduled to run from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. at Seventh Street. Marchers, as they do each year, will head up Capitol Hill at 1 p.m. to the Supreme Court, where they hold a prayer vigil and are always met by a handful of abortion rights supporters and inevitable debate and discussion. …

Cardinal Sean O’Malley, one of the country’s best-known church leaders — he is also Boston’s archbishop and an adviser to Pope Francis — spoke at the Tuesday night Mass. And movement leaders noted that Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus had rejiggered the schedule of the party’s winter meeting Wednesday morning to allow delegates to attend the march.

First things first. What, pray tell, does it mean for these believers to be “receiving confession” before the march? Penitents will “receive absolution,” but they do not “receive confession.” Might this be a rather obvious typo that made it into the story? Surely this was supposed to have said that these Catholics “received Communion” in numerous settings before the march? Just asking.

Here’s my other question: So Cardinal O’Malley was there, but what did he SAY in this sermon at this highly symbolic Mass? After all, the sermon was on television (which was convenient on such a cold and snowy night). Did editors at the Post actually assign coverage of the event itself?

Now, let’s compare the Post language and factual information about this event with that of veteran Catholic-beat scribe Rocco Palmo at the Whispers in the Loggia website. This is long, but essential:

[Read more...]

Religion ghosts in the politics of abortion? Obviously …

YouTube Preview Image

It happens at least once a year.

A GetReligionista will write a post about media bias in mainstream coverage of abortion (click here for that classic series on this topic by the late David Shaw, media-beat reporter for The Los Angeles Times) and then someone will post a comment saying that abortion is a political, not a religious, issue and that this site should stick to religion. Often, these correspondents will note that the only people who think abortion is a religious issue are crazy fundamentalists and radical Catholics, etc., etc. — an observation that does little to help make their case.

Truth is, lots of people oppose abortion for different reasons. Tomorrow’s annual March For Life will draw thousands of Catholics, evangelicals, Orthodox Jews and the usual suspects. However, those paying close attention will also see banners for pro-life atheists and agnostics, as well as the Pro-Life Alliance for Gays and Lesbians (“Human Rights Start When Life Begins”). Marchers will show up from Feminists For Life, Democrats For Life, Libertarians For Life and a host of other groups from off the beaten journalistic path.

However, it is safe to say that the majority of the marchers will be there for reasons that are based, in part, on their religious convictions. In the United States of America, and lots of other places, that is the statistical reality.

Thus, it was rather strange to see such a faith-free approach used in that New York Times story that ran under the headline, “Parties Seize On Abortion Issues in Midterm Race.” As a reader noted, in an email to this site:

Other than quoting someone from the Faith and Freedom Coalition, there is no allusion that some people see this as an issue of faith or morality.

As a person of faith who is against legalized abortion on demand, this bothered me. It seemed very deliberated on the part of the writer. Most people, however, probably know the basics of the pro-life/pro-choice debate. Does an article mentioning this debate as it pertains to an election have to mention the religious aspect? Or should readers already just know?

That’s a very good question.

Consider the top of the story, for example. Can one address the political clout of those who oppose abortion inside the modern Republican Party without mentioning the “pew gap” or the role played by married, religious women in this cause?

WASHINGTON – When the Republican National Committee gathers for its winter meeting here on Wednesday, the action will start a few hours late to accommodate anyone who wants to stop first at the March for Life, the annual anti-abortion demonstration on the National Mall. And if they need a lift to the meeting afterward, they can hop on a free shuttle, courtesy of the Republican Party.

“We thought it only fitting for our members to attend the march,” said Reince Priebus, the party chairman.

Abortion is becoming an unexpectedly animating issue in the 2014 midterm elections. Republicans, through state ballot initiatives and legislation in Congress, are using it to stoke enthusiasm among core supporters. Democrats, mindful of how potent the subject has been in recent campaigns like last year’s governor’s race in Virginia, are looking to rally female voters by portraying their conservative opponents as callous on women’s issues.

This story does cover a lot of ground, but the reporters are following a strictly political map. At several times it was easy to spot the ghosts that the Times team either didn’t see or made a conscious decision to avoid. For example:

[Read more...]

Water-sipping and pro-life activism. A tale of media coverage.

Last month, we covered the perennial problem of why the March for Life gets the coverage it does (or doesn’t get the coverage it doesn’t get). And various journalists responded that, well, the March for Life isn’t big news, particularly after 40 years, and that the crowds aren’t that big of a deal when compared to a weekend of sporting events. One comment, for instance:

If pretty much the same people do the same thing year after year after year, is it news? Or to what extent is it news? Or what is the news in the event? Particularly if there’s a challenge in linking the event to anything that happened other than the event? These are all journalism questions to be applied to the annual marches by people opposed to abortion rights.

Yep. Big crowd. But fewer people than attended the college football bowl games. Even if you buy the crowd estimates offered by the organizers — and such are almost always hugely puffed for any large event if there’s not been actual data collected — it wasn’t even rounding error in a nation of more than 300 million. What has happened in the US because of these annual marches? What’s different this year compared with last year because of last year’s big march? Unless there are good answers to these questions — and good answers there may well be — it’s not big news.

Two days ago, the President of the United States gave his State of the Union Address (annual event, the words of the address are eerily similar year after year) and a couple of Republicans responded (also an annual event, etc., etc.). One of them drank some water during his speech. I didn’t watch, but apparently it was the most amazingly newsworthy drink of water to have ever happened in the history of the world.

Literally (and I don’t mean that in the Joe Biden sense of the word):

Rubio water-swig replay tally: MSNBC 155, CNN 34, Fox News 12 [VIDEO]

Ahem.

[Read more...]

Pod people: Making progress on abortion coverage

In this week’s Crossroads podcast, host Todd Wilken and I discussed the good and bad of March for Life coverage. You can listen to it here. We revisited some of the themes we first looked at in these posts: “How to write a bland story about the March For Life,” “Foot-long subs vs. March For Life,” and “Savvy PR firm scores NYTimes coup against March For Life.”

One of the problems with the annual discontent over how the signal event of the pro-life movement is covered is that the two sides in the dispute (that is, the pro-lifers and the media) have a very difficult time getting the other side to understand each other.

So I wanted to highlight an interesting conversation on another thread from this week, headlined “We don’t have a free press. Discuss.” I don’t think we all came to agreement on anything, but there were some interesting comments. The occasion of the comments was Professor Anthony Esolen’s jeremiad against the media’s coverage of the abortion debate in general.

Journalist Jeffrey Weiss got the ball rolling with his suggestion that the March for Life isn’t big news, particularly after 40 years, and that the crowds aren’t that big of a deal when compared to a weekend of sporting events. Reader Martha wondered whether the 40 years’ commemoration itself doesn’t make it more newsworthy. She made a comment about how the media find it possible to cover annual sporting events. Jeffrey responded that it’s a “pep rally for the faithful. A large preaching-to-the-choir.”  Reader Patrick pointed out that it’s a massive pep rally, if that’s the case, and one that even 40 years after the initial court decision represents a movement as large as the movement for same-sex marriage. And there were many more interesting comments, too, including Jeffrey’s latest, with wise words for all.

But I wanted to highlight this comment from reader Michael, who is always worth reading:

All the usual comments about media bias and the tired discussion of whether or not the March is news miss what I think is the most provocative part of Esolen’s essay: the suggestion that journalism on the whole makes us stupid (which in turn makes the abundance of stupid journalism rather unsurprising) and that a people who think in journalism (newspeak) will be a people who are ultimately incapable–and worse, uninterested–in thinking. I have my own theories about this, not to mention a few qualifiers, which I’ve trotted out here from time to time, and I wish he had done more to explain why this is so, but clearly he wanted to vent about coverage of the March. I can’t say that I blame him. Yet to me this essay is as much an indictment of the culture dominated by its superficial media as it is an indictment of the superficiality of the reportage. And this seems to me to be much the point of the article: that the two are made for (and by) each other.

[Read more...]

We don’t have a free press. Discuss.

With the headline “Stupid Press, Stupid People: Non-Reporting the March for Life,” you know Anthony Esolen has something to say:

Our founders believed that a free press was essential for a free society.  We believe we have a free press.  But what good is nominal freedom—the government does not censor our newspapers—if the writers are liars, or are ill-educated, or feed the populace a lot of claptrap, or ignore important events because they don’t like the people involved or the cause?  What happens, if the “teaching” of three hundred million Americans is in the hands of people who give headlines to a football player with a fictional girlfriend, or to the sleazy habits of a porn girl turned celebrity, or to “scientific” studies about when your “relationship” is going to end, rather than to anything of substance, anything that requires learning, listening, investigating, and thought?  What happens, particularly, if the only stories about faith come from the category, “Benighted Believers”?

What happens is what we got for non-reportage on this year’s March for Life in Washington.

The issue he raises in the first paragraph is something that’s been on my mind a lot lately. I’d be the first to point out that it’s easy to blame the media. At least a a large part of the blame lies with the people who care more about fictional girlfriends than global concerns. But it’s also true that our media have problems with accurately conveying information and have strong biases that affect their coverage. What’s worse is is that I think that many know this and just don’t care. We have a media that is content to go after some people, certainly (my prayers go with you if you’re a conservative woman in any field, for instance) but don’t seem that interested in how corporate interests helped write, say, Obamacare or all other pieces of legislation. They’ll go after you with the fury of a firestorm if you decide you don’t want to fund an abortion business any more but they don’t seem terribly interested in said abortion businesses. (Did you see much coverage of this riveting documentary out just last week about the abortion doctor who is charged with eight homicides?) They’ll go after you if you don’t share their doctrinal approach to sexuality. But if you do, you’re probably going to be just fine. And on and on. This is not speaking truth to power or being properly adversarial. And is it a truly free press? I think Esolen asks a good question.

The piece, published at Crisis isn’t just about the big-picture problems with how the media portray the abortion debate. He also brings it down the story level, fisking an Associated Press report on the recent March for Life. Let’s go ahead and look at it:

But the Ministries of Truth mostly ignored it.  What they didn’t ignore, they belittled or distorted.  In doing so, however, they revealed their own ignorance.  Here is the AP story, in News-speak, with my comments in brackets:

Thousands of anti-abortion demonstrators

[That’s a lie, right there.  If 650 people show up at a town meeting, and the reporter says that “several” people showed up, that reporter is a liar, and should be fired.  If 6,500 people show up at the State House to protest a bill, and the reporter says that “dozens” showed up, he’s a liar, and should be fired.  If a crowd fills the Rose Bowl, and the reporter calls them “hundreds,” he should be fired.  The March for Life is, year after year, the largest peaceful assembly of people in the nation.  To know this, and to fail to report it, is to be a liar.  Not to know this is to be a moron; no third possibility exists.  Meanwhile, a gun control protest was held in the same place a few days later, and “thousands” were reported to have taken part in it, when the actual number was about 1,000.  The two stories together show an exaggeration of 50,000 to 65,000 percent, in favor of what the reporter favors.]

marched through Washington to the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court on Friday to protest the landmark decision that legalized abortion.

 

[Read more...]