Savvy PR firm scores NYTimes coup against March For Life

We’ve received quite a few complaints about the religion angle the New York Times chose for its story on the March For Life. And I’d sure as heck like to join in.

But before I do that, I want to point out that the Times also ran a straight news story covering the march and, unlike any year I can recall, it actually ran in the print edition and not just as a brief mention on a blog post. The story that has outraged so many folks is the primary story on the march that ran in a more prominent position than the straight story. In fact, it ran above the fold of the national news section, headlined “In Fight Over Life, a New Call by Catholics.”

The lede:

The March for Life in Washington on Friday renewed the annual impassioned call to end legalized abortion, 40 years after the Roe v. Wade decision. But this year, some Roman Catholic leaders and theologians are asking why so many of those who call themselves “pro-life” have been silent, or even opposed, when it comes to controlling the guns that have been used to kill and injure millions of Americans.

More than 60 Catholic priests, nuns, scholars and two former ambassadors to the Vatican sent a letter this week saying that if marchers and politicians truly want to defend life they should support “common-sense reforms to address the epidemic of gun violence in our nation.”

A caption for the piece read:

Anti-abortion protesters flooded the National Mall in Washington on Friday for the annual March for Life. Many Catholic leaders and theologians are asking why many of those who call themselves ‘pro-life’ have been silent when it comes to gun control.

You’ll notice that marchers are only called “pro-life” in a scare-quotey sense to cast skepticism on their claims. You might also wonder if the Times broke precedent to cover the massive march so as to be able to criticize it with this more prominent story, but we can’t really know the answer to that question.

We’re a family site here so I’m going to be careful here:

Are you [bleeping] kidding me? Are you [bleeping] kidding me?

What? This is the religion angle for the massive, hundreds-thousands-strong March for Life that marks the murder of 55 million unborn children over the last 40 years? We’re going to turn it into something nebulous (no specific gun controls are even discussed) related to the media’s current political cause du jour?

And it gets worse.

Believe it or not, this is basically just a press release from the same savvy, highly funded PR firm that has been rolling reporters for the last year. One is beginning to think they enjoy the ride.

The group that put out the letter is … drum roll please …

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Foot-long subs vs. March For Life

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The Associated Press has a Twitter feed with nearly 1.6 million followers. Those followers received two tweets about a gun control rally and march in Washington, D.C. this weekend.

“Gun control march in Washington to feature Newtown residents, pastors, parents and survivors of gun violence,” read one.

“PHOTOS: Thousands march for gun control on National Mall in Washington,” read another.

Considering the relatively small size of the march (Some said “nearly 1,000.” Others, as noted above, said “thousands.”), it makes one wonder how many links to stories and photo collections were sent out for the massive 40th anniversary March for Life.

The answer, of course, would be zero. Really, the AP Twitter feed never found it worthwhile, in its steady stream of tweets, to even mention the March for Life, much less link to a photo gallery of it.

My family and I participated in the March For Life and, smack dab in the middle of it, we didn’t really have much of a perspective of its size. It was extremely cold — just brutal conditions — so I kept my head down and my hands in my pocket. I knew that the number of Lutherans for Life, which was our contingent, was significantly larger than any previous year. If you watch the video above, which comes not from a mainstream media source but from Roman Catholic broadcast network EWTN, you can get something of a feel for how many people move past one bend in the march over the course of 8 minutes.

Our Lutherans started marching at 1:20 PM and we didn’t make it past the Supreme Court until 3:30 or so. The march goes on at that pace for quite some time.

And yet while only giving the briefest coverage to this massive march — or neglecting to give any at all! — many networks gave tremendous coverage to that gun control rally. Both rallies were described by some outlets as featuring the exact same number of attendees — “thousands” — even though the pro-life rally was exponentially larger (I don’t quite know what it means, but perhaps it’s worth considering that people who seek protection for unborn children are called “anti-abortion” while people who seek to limit 2nd Amendment protections are called “supporters of gun control” or “advocates of gun control.”)

Some readers complained about the lack of coverage on CNN. I don’t know if anyone has done a comprehensive analysis, but when I got home from the march, I watched for coverage of the commemoration of the 55 million unborn children killed via abortion in the last 40 years but only saw some serious attention paid to a dolphin that had gotten trapped in waters in Brooklyn that day and had died. If you wrote it as fiction people would say it was too over-the-top.

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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?

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Time for the “March for Life” media debate (updated)

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It’s that time again — time for the annual debate about media bias in mainstream press coverage of the annual March For Life.

This has been going on for ages. When I was in graduate school at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign in the early 1980s, many of the media-bias studies that I read — studies done by both critics and defenders of the press — included questions about media coverage of abortion. As the years have passed, March For Life coverage has played a larger and larger role in this field of study.

Also, it has been a year since Washington Post ombudsman Patrick B. Pexton wrote the following, in a column under the headline “An incomplete picture of the March for Life.”

One observer e-mailed that he stood at the Supreme Court and it took marchers two hours to walk by. That’s a big crowd. But no one knows how big it was. Law enforcement agencies no longer estimate crowd size, nor does The Post. One side or the other will accuse you of being biased if they perceive the estimates as too large or too small.

Still, you can find images of the large crowd taken by amateurs on Flickr or Facebook, and I imagine the AP took some, too. Probably Post photographers did as well.

But these shots didn’t find their way into the main Web photo gallery on the march. And I think this is where The Post fell down in its coverage of the march this year. And that’s mostly what antiabortion readers wrote to me about.

The online photo gallery contains 10 photos: seven tight shots of antiabortion demonstrators, two of protesters from the small abortion-rights counter-demonstration on the steps of the Supreme Court and one that showed both sides confronting each other there. In fact, eight of the 10 shots were taken at the high court.

Emotional shots make better photos, yes, but I would have chosen more from the broad expanse of the rally, and at least one photo showing a lot of cheerful, festive people, which is what I see at most demonstrations that I have covered over the years, regardless of the issue at hand.

Vernon Loeb, Post Local editor, said, “In retrospect I wish we had given readers a better sense of the overall magnitude of the march … it was far larger than 17,000.”

Over at the photo desk, photography director Michel du Cille may have been speaking for the newsroom majority: “We can never please this crowd.”

The key, for me, is that the March For Life is a news event about a major issue in American life, one that remains controversial and bitterly contested — 40 years after Roe v. Wade. The goal, for journalists, is to find articulate, qualified and symbolic voices linked to the march each year, with an emphasis on seeking trends in the movement as a whole.

Numbers do matter. A march that draws approximately 300,000 people to Washington, D.C., deserves significant coverage, no matter how many times it is held. Maybe journalists need to pretend this is a sporting event or a trade show.

The pro-life movement itself is remarkably complex, ranging from people who are striving to be consistently pro-life all the way over to some who seem to be anti-abortion and that’s about it.

There are large streams and small, in the river of people marching every year toward the U.S. Supreme Court. There will be thousands of young people from Catholic and Protestant schools. There will be a small, but significant, crowd of people from groups such as the Pro-Life Alliance of Gays and Lesbians. A few folks will show up from the Atheist and Agnostic Pro-Life League. Quality coverage will focus on the mainstream leaders in the movement, while also seeking the unique, if not surprising, voices present — including the small number of counter-protesters who will always be there. The majority is the major story, but the dissenting voices are important, too.

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.

Several GetReligion readers sent in the URL of a Post story that has already appeared, focusing on the new leader of the organization that stages the march. It includes some quality quotes from Jeanne Monahan, as will as some of the journalism language that drives the activists crazy — such as the first word in that headline, “Antiabortion March for Life gets a new head and, perhaps, a new focus.”

Here’s a crucial slice of the story. Pay close attention to the stream of unattributed statements of facts in the second paragraph:

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