Is anyone really surprised when there is controversy about mainstream press coverage of Washington, D.C., marches linked to abortion?
Honestly. I was reading articles on this topic back in the early 1980s during my graduate-school days at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. Abortion had already emerged as one of the hot-button issues in any study of news-media bias.
So are we really surprised that The New York Times published a news article -- not a column or analysis piece -- in which great care appears to have been taken to avoid using the words "March For Life" when reporting on the 2017 March For Life?
We will come back to that topic, after a flashback to 1990. That's when The Washington Post put a spotlight on this issue with it's radically different coverage of two different D.C. marches about abortion. Post management eventually conceded that something strange had gone on.
First, there was a major march in favor of abortion rights. Here is how David Shaw, writing in The Los Angeles Times, described the Post coverage of that event:
... When abortion-rights forces rallied in Washington ... the Post gave it extraordinary coverage, beginning with five stories in the five days leading up to the event, including a 6,550-word cover story in the paper's magazine on the abortion battle the day of the event. The Post even published a map, showing the march route, road closings, parking, subway, lost and found and first-aid information.
The day after the abortion-rights march, the Post published five more stories covering the march, including one -- accompanied by three pictures -- that dominated Page 1. The march stories that day alone totaled more than 7,000 words and filled the equivalent of three full pages, including most of the front page of the paper's Style section.
How did that compare with Post coverage of the next major rally and march, organized by the National Right to Life Committee? Maps? Major features? There was modest, but significant, coverage in other major news media. But at the major news outlet closest to the march?
... The Post consigned the rally to its Metro section and covered it with just one, relatively short story. ... Rally sponsors were outraged.
This incident, to be blunt, became the template for future battles over media coverage of these kinds of events inside the Beltway and in other major cities nationwide.
So what's up this time? The news piece that is drawing the most discussion is a New York Times piece that ran with this headline: "Kellyanne Conway, Who Managed Trump to Win, Will Speak at Anti-Abortion March." Here's the overture:
WASHINGTON -- In a sign of abortion opponents’ newfound clout in the capital, Kellyanne Conway, the Republican strategist who led Donald J. Trump to victory and will serve as his White House counselor, will speak at a major anti-abortion march here the week after his inaugural.
Ms. Conway, 49, made history in November as the first woman to manage a successful presidential campaign. She has long been an outspoken foe of abortion, and she could become the first sitting White House official to address the annual march in person, though both Mr. Trump and Vice President-elect Mike Pence have been invited.
“It’s an incredible gesture for pro-life Americans,” said Marilyn Musgrave, a Republican former congresswoman from Colorado, now the top lobbyist for Susan B. Anthony List, an anti-abortion group here. Kristan Hawkins, president of Students for Life of America, said of Ms. Conway: “She’s one of us.”
It's ways, in the search-engine age, to contrast this interesting journalism style choice with Times coverage of the upcoming Women's March that is supporting causes on the cultural and political left. Thus, The Washington Examiner summed up the results in this piece: "NY Times removes references to the 'March for Life' from article about … the 'March for Life'."
The Examiner article does note that Times editors did use the actual title of the event was used one time, five paragraphs into the 700-word report, in the context of a march leader's job title.
So far, so strange. But this is where things get really interesting.
GetReligion readers often ask why this site, as a general rule, declines to criticize reporters by name. There is a simple reason that for, one that your GetReligionistas understand because we have, when you add us all up, a century-plus of experience covering religion in the mainstream press, in news pieces and in columns.
We rarely mention the names of reporters because we have no way of knowing if the reporter was the source of the problem on which we are commenting. All of us know the pain of having cuts or changes by editors introduce holes or errors into a story. Editors can save a reporter's neck by catching errors (and they do), but they can also make errors and strange editorial decisions.
In this case, there may be an issue with the "March For Life" name, based on either a formal, or informal, style guideline at the Times. The Examiner notes:
The fact that the article barely mentions the protest by name seems an odd one considering the rally is a central element to the report.
The report's author, Sheryl Gay Stolberg, claimed ... that the version of the article she submitted to her editors included more than one usage of the annual demonstration's proper name. However, she said, her copyeditors removed all but the one reference from the story.
"I personally did use March for Life. Alas, working for [the New York Times] sometimes means copy editors change things while you are eating dinner," she said on social media.
The Times' executive editor did not respond immediately to the Washington Examiner's request for comment.
So what happened? And how does this editorial choice compare with Times coverage of the Women's March?
Perhaps the editors made a mistake while cleaning up the original draft. Perhaps it's a genuine oversight. Nevertheless, even if the Times didn't mean to limit the title to only one buried reference, it's hard not to notice the editorial choice, especially as it comes right after the paper's coverage of a separate demonstration planned for the nation's capital.
The Times had no problem this week referring to an anti-Trump protest scheduled for after the inauguration by its proper title.
The paper's Jan. 9 report on the Women's March on Washington refers to the demonstration by its proper name both in the headline and in the story's opening paragraph. "Women's March on Washington Opens Contentious Dialogues About Race," read the headline.
Interesting. Another case of deja vu all over again?
Let us know if you see other commentary on coverage of these two marches. Just send us a URL or leave comments on this piece.
This is an old, old topic that keeps coming around again and again on the calendar, year after year after year. But the issue remains symbolic and important, for those accurate and balanced news coverage of hot-button issues linked to religion, culture and political life.