Time for the "March for Life" media debate (updated)

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:

Monahan embodies the movement’s transition. The photogenic, warm former federal government policy worker was picked in November to take over the March for Life after the death of Nellie Gray, the hard-line, media-unfriendly 88-year-old who ran the massive event almost single-handedly out of her home. Despite being an event primarily of youth, until last year the march had a bare-bones Web site and no accounts on Twitter or Facebook. Its main outreach to Congress (besides marching past the Capitol) had been passing out roses, which was banned after the anthrax scares of 2001.

Monahan’s charge is to modernize the march for a country that is becoming more conflicted about abortion even as it remains steadfastly committed to the Roe ruling and the value of personal choice. For the movement’s next generation of leaders, the question is whether those two things can coexist. Should the focus remain on Roe and changing laws to limit access to abortion, or has that left a legacy too judgmental for younger Americans? Should the emphasis shift to changing minds and hearts, particularly of women who are pregnant and don’t want to be?

There is debate among march participants as to exactly where the country stands on abortion. More and more Americans describe themselves as “pro-life,” yet majority support for Roe has remained steady for two decades. More state-level restrictions were passed in 2012 than in any previous year and the rate of abortions has been declining, yet one-third of American women have an abortion by age 45.

I have followed polling on abortion since 1980 or so and, frankly, it's impossible to know what Americans believe on the issue of Roe v. Wade because so few people actually understand what the decision, and those that followed, actually said and did (MZ has already touched on this yesterday).

Tired voices on both sides of the abortion debates, when speaking privately, will admit that what most Americans believe can be summed up in this cynical mantra: I oppose abortion in all cases except the one that I'm involved in at the moment.

However, a majority of Americans -- to varying degrees -- oppose the legal regime established by Roe and the related decisions, even as they insist that they support Roe. The real arguments, these days, are linked to what kinds of restrictions will be allowed by courts, working in the wake of the language allowing abortions at all stages of development if "mental health" issues are present.

Back in 2006, following an earlier Pew Forum study, I wrote a Scripps Howard column that focused on the conflict felt among my fellow conservative Democrats in debates about compromises.

It’s hard to define “compromise” in terms of legislation. ... Study participants were asked if abortion should be “generally available,” “allowed, but more limited,” “illegal, with few exceptions” or “never permitted.” ...

Nevertheless, 10 percent of “liberal” Democrats chose the most anti-abortion option and 13 percent said abortion should be illegal, except in cases of rape, incest or to save a mother’s life. Then, 14 percent said abortion rights should be restricted with new laws, which ... might include a “partial-birth” abortion ban, parental-notification laws, mandatory waiting periods and even a ban on late-term abortions. ...

Meanwhile, 12 percent of “moderate” and “conservative” Democrats backed a complete abortion ban, while another 39 percent said abortion should be “illegal, with few exceptions." ... Another 20 percent backed legalized abortion, with more restrictions. Once again, church attendance seemed to influence these views.

In all, 37 percent of liberals and 71 percent of centrist Democrats said they supported policies that would not be allowed by the U.S. Supreme Court under current interpretations of Roe v. Wade and other decisions defining abortion rights.

So here is the key, for me. As you read the coverage tonight and tomorrow, 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?

Or did you see coverage that was the same old stuff? Please post some of the good and the bad that you see -- with the URLs to the stories themselves.

UPDATE: A running social-media feed of March For Life images and info, via Elizabeth Tenety at The Washington Post.

VIDEO: A rather typical conservative view of the media coverage of a previous march.

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