Pre-weekend think piece: A brief history of why March for Life news causes so much heat

It's March for Life day and, during a rather busy teaching day here in New York City, I have been trying to pay attention to some of the live-streams of coverage from Washington, D.C.

So far, I have not seen any edgy websites or cable shows manage to get "president," "prostitute" and "pro-lifers" into the same headline or info graphic, but I won't be shocked if that happens.

President Donald Trump's speech to the marchers -- via video hook-up -- pretty much guaranteed this year's event would get more mainstream ink than it has in the past. As always, politics is worth more coverage than piety or poignant personal stories (the kind told, year after year, by the "I regret my abortion" activists).

Nevertheless, the March for Life remains what it has been for decades -- the Olympics for researchers studying media-bias issues (click here for a collection of GetReligion posts on this topic). I think it would be helpful to pause and look at the history of that, as we await some of the headlines and trends from this year.

During my early 1980s graduate work at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, I looked at quite a few of the articles and photo-analysis studies that already existed contrasting mainstream media coverage of these giant anti-abortion rallies and other Washington events on other topics.

Then, in 1990, everything changed.

That was when the late, great media-beat reporter David Shaw of The Los Angeles Times wrote his ambitious series on media-bias issues tied to abortion. Ever since, any significant discussion of March for Life news coverage has included some kind of reference to this story: " 'Rally for Life' coverage evokes an editor's anger." The overture is long, but essential:

The Washington Post is "institutionally 'pro-choice,' " the Post's ombudsman, Richard Harwood, wrote. ... "Any reader of the paper's editorials and home-grown columnists is aware of that." But "close textual analysis probably would reveal that, all things considered, our news coverage has favored the 'pro-choice' side," too, Harwood conceded.
Leonard Downie, managing editor of the Post, denies this. The Post, he says, has been "unusually conscious of trying to present both sides all the time" on abortion, and it has generally succeeded.
But a month after Harwood's column was published, the Post provided its many anti- abortion critics with a classic case study of just what Harwood was talking about -- a case so striking that no "close textual analysis" was needed, a case that made Downie himself angrily question his staff and wonder aloud "if we have our antennae raised as high" for the anti-abortion side of the argument as for the abortion-rights side.

This brings us to a classic contrast between a prime example of March for Life coverage and that of another, in some ways, competing event.

The event that triggered Downie's anger was the Post's coverage of a massive "Rally for Life" April 28 at the Washington Monument. The rally, sponsored by the National Right to Life Committee, was intended as both a demonstration of the strength of the anti-abortion movement and as a response to the enormously successful pro-abortion-rights rally in Washington in April, 1989. ...
... The Post consigned the rally to its Metro section and covered it with just one, relatively short story -- less than half the length of the primary New York Times story.
Rally sponsors were outraged. They have long accused the Post of being biased against their cause, and they seized on this coverage as proof they were right. After all, when abortion-rights forces rallied in Washington a year earlier, 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.

This one story summed up most of the big themes that dominate March for Life news-coverage debates year after year.

You could see that all over again in 2012, when Post ombudsman Patrick Pexton wrote an analysis with this headline: "March for Life coverage was informative but presented a misleading picture."

This year, look for comparisons between March for Life 2018 coverage with that dedicated to the 2018 edition of the "March for Women" -- especially in the midst of the (valid, in my opinion) media storm surrounding #MeToo revelations.

Also, Trump's speech -- click here for full text -- contained one hot-button reference that is sure to be discussed in news reports, as well as analysis and fact-checker features. I am referring to this:

As you all know Roe versus Wade has resulted in some of the most permissive abortion laws anywhere in the world. For example, in the United States, it’s one of only seven countries to allow elective late-term abortions along with China North Korea and others. Right now, in a number of States, the laws allow a baby to be born [sic, aborted] from his or her mother’s womb in the ninth month.
It is wrong. It has to change.

How will journalists paraphrase or frame that comment? Please help us look for relevant coverage on that point.

In conclusion, let me point readers to a new piece at The Media Project website that could serve as a kind of summary statement of why debates about news coverage of this event are so important -- to many readers, that is. This is another post by Clemente Lisi, a veteran journalist at The New York Daily News and several other newsrooms here in the Big Apple. He is now a colleague of mine in the journalism faculty at The King's College.

For many of us, this debate is old news -- with echos bounding through the coverage year after year. But sometimes it helps to state the basics for those who are new to this topic. For example:

While pro-life advocates continue to work on changing hearts and minds in this very heated political climate, the inability of news outlets to fairly and adequately cover the March for Life highlights the liberal bias that permeates many newsrooms throughout this country. The March for Life is a powerful event, one that sheds a spotlight on human rights and dignity. It also brings together men and women of all ages and races, Catholics and Protestants and the religious and scientific communities who believe that life starts at conception. It’s a message those on the political left don’t want to broadcast. It’s also one they don’t want to help further with the help of any meaningful news coverage.
A study conducted by the Media Research Project, a conservative watchdog group, found that CBS, NBC and ABC spent an hour and 15 minutes combined covering last year’s Women’s March held in the wake of Donald Trump’s election. That’s the same Women’s March organizers made sure did not include any pro-life groups.
By comparison, the same group found that the March for Life in 2016 had earned only 35 seconds of coverage from the same three major TV networks -- just 13 seconds before it took place and 22 seconds after it was held. The Women’s March had garnered 23 minutes of coverage before it took place.
The situation was similar when it came to online news stories. The phrase “Women’s March 2017” garnered 7,650 mentions on Google News. The same search term for “March for Life 2017” saw a similar disparity -- just 474 results.

As the old saying goes, the news media are not very effective when it comes to telling Americans what to think. However, the mass media does an amazingly effective job of telling citizens what to THINK ABOUT.

Thus, Lisi notes:

The lack of coverage by mainstream news outlets is revealing. There isn’t a gathering or protest reporters don’t cover -- often when it concerns issues of impotence to liberal causes -- but those same networks and newspapers can’t be bothered to cover an event of importance to religious conservatives. These realities have given rise to the hashtag #CovertheMarch and other social media posts urging for more media attention.

Read it all. And please help us, over the weekend, look for hard-news stories and analysis pieces focusing on this year's march and the coverage.

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