One of the most basic story assignments in all of journalism is covering a speech, especially one delivered in ordinary language to a general audience (as opposed to, say, a scientist speaking in science lingo to a room full of science pros).
First of all, you have to get the words of the speech right. Then you need to understand them, figure out the contents that might be newsworthy and then, if relevant, get reactions from people the room, from experts or from the wider public.
But it's sort of important to cover the speech. Right?
Take, for example, the appearance by Vice President Mike Pence at the University of Notre Dame. As you would expect, liberal Catholics were not amused by his presence at commencement, even though he was raised Catholic and is Indiana's former governor. Everyone knew there would be protests, since there are plenty of students and faculty on campus who would have protested even if a conservative Catholic bishop, archbishop or cardinal showed it. #DUH
USA Today, via Religion News Service, did a great, great, great job of covering the protests. First rate. But what did Pence have to say? Was it worth a word, a phrase or even a sentence?
Hold that thought.
Clearly what mattered here was the LGBTQ protesters and others who have perfectly obvious disagreements with Pence (and Donald Trump, of course). Here is the overture:
SOUTH BEND, Ind. (USA Today) When Mike Pence took the stage at Notre Dame’s commencement on Sunday, more than 100 students quietly got up from their seats and left. There were a few cheers. Some boos.
This was not a surprise, but rather a staged protest some students had been planning for weeks. When Notre Dame announced that the vice president and former governor of Indiana would be the university’s 2017 graduation speaker in March, the student organization WeStaNDFor began brainstorming ways to take a stand.
Bryan Ricketts, who served as Notre Dame’s student body president from 2015-16 and graduated Sunday with a dual-degree in political science and chemical engineering, was one of the leaders. Ricketts told IndyStar that many of his peers were “upset and hurt” by the school’s decision to invite Pence because his “policies have impacted the humanity of certain graduates.”
About 100-plus students filed out of gates 27 and 28 of Notre Dame Stadium. They knew that once they left graduation, they would not be able to re-enter.
In the video, you can see some of the rainbow-colored head garb. I was curious to know if any faculty offered support of some kind, even in merely symbolic ways that did not involve taking a walk. I especially liked this detail:
The group posted instructions for how to walkout on their website: “Walk away from Pence quietly, in confidence, with your head up high, taking your time. Embrace the moment, maybe even hold hands/lock arms with those joining you.”
The USA Today team did offer some speech content, as in coverage of the remarks by valedictorian C.J. Pine, who was born in the United States, but raised in Tianjin, China. He studied abroad in Israel and Jordan. There was lots of liberal content and light punches at the main speaker. That deserved a few lines of coverage, and got it.
But what did Pence have to say?
Unless I missed it, in the version circulated by RNS, the remarks by the vice president received zero digital ink.
Now, the Washington Post team did pay attention to the Pence address, noting that there was a lot of echoes -- including some verbatim passages -- in his words at Notre Dame and his commencement remarks at the conservative Grove City College outside of Pittsburgh. The Post noted that this Christian college refuses federal funds, rather than comply with several federal mandates.
So what Pence content made the cut to be included n this report?
... In both speeches, Pence urged the graduating students to become leaders in various walks of life, and he asked them to stand up, “catch the eye of a loved one’s in the crowd” and thank them for their support through college.
Touching. But this is a speech story, right? What remarks did the vice president make that might be considered newsworthy. After all, he knew -- coming in -- that there would be a protest. Did Pence offer any thoughts linked to that?
As it turns out, coverage in The Indianapolis Star -- which is part of the Gannett USA Today network -- did answer this elementary question. You can see it right there in the headline:
Vice President Mike Pence praises free speech after some Notre Dame grads walk out
Wait. You mean Pence focused his speech on material that was directly linked to the First Amendment -- in a way, backing the rights of the protesters -- and many media accounts did not make note of that?
Consider this material near the top of the Star report:
As soon as the vice president and former Indiana governor stepped up to the podium -- where he spent a chunk of his 15-minute address discussing his support for freedom of speech at universities -- students quietly got up from their seats and left Notre Dame Stadium in protest of some of Pence's policy positions.
Pence bestowed his compliment upon the university “sadly, when free speech and civility are waning on campuses across America,” he said. “Notre Dame is a campus where deliberation is welcomed, where opposing views are debated, and where every speaker, no matter how unpopular or unfashionable, is afforded the right to air their views in the open for all to hear.”
So let me wrap things up.
Clearly, the protests at Notre Dame were a key part of this drama. But so were the remarks -- directly linked to campus First Amendment issues -- by the vice president.
What is the journalistic logic for ignoring the contents of the speech in this speech story?