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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