This year's March for Life media question: How hard is it to tell 1,000 people from 100,000?

Another year, another mini-storm linked to media coverage of the March for Life in Washington, D.C.

As always, the controversial issue is how to describe the size of the crowd. That’s been a hot-button topic inside the DC Beltway for several decades now (think Million Man March debates) Authorities at United States Park Police tend to turn and run (metaphorically speaking) when journalists approach to ask for crowd estimates.

March For Life organizers have long claimed — with some interesting photo evidence — that the size of this annual event tends to get played down in the media.

That is, if elite print and television newsrooms bother to cover the march at all. For more background, see this GetReligion post from 2018: “A brief history of why March for Life news causes so much heat.” And click here for the classic Los Angeles Times series by the late David Shaw focusing on media-bias issues linked to mainstream coverage of abortion.

So, what about 2019? Writing mid-afternoon, from here in New York City, let me note one bad snippet of coverage, care of USA Today, and then point to several interesting issues in a much more substantial story at The Washington Post.

I received a head’s up about the lede on an early version of the USA Today story about the march. Alas, no one took a screen shot and it appears that the wording has since change. However, several sources reported the same wording to me, with no chance for cooperation between these people. Here’s a comment from the Gateway Pundit blog:

USA Today, the first result when you search for the march in Google News, began their story by saying, “more than a thousand anti-abortion activists, including many young people bundled up against the cold weather gripping the nation’s capital, gathered at a stage on the National Mall Friday for their annual march in the long-contentious debate over abortion.”

Wait. “More than a thousand?” During a bad year — extreme weather is rather common in mid-January Washington — the March for Life crowd tops 100,000. Last year, a digital-image analysis company put the crowd at 200,000-plus. During one Barack Obama-era march, activists sent me materials — comparing images of various DC crowds — that showed a march of 500,000-plus (some claims went as high as 650,000).

So maybe this year’s crowd — perhaps facing some government shutdown transportation challenges — was above 100,000, but well below 200,000.

Catholic journalist Thomas Szyszkiewicz wrote me to say:

OK, so USA Today is covering the March for Life, which is more than can be said for the networks. … But here are the opening words: "More than a thousand anti-abortion activists ... gathered at a stage on the National Mall Friday..." That's like saying, "More than five bees swarmed a tractor-trailer today." … "More than a thousand"?

As I write, the current version of the evolving USA Today lede says:

WASHINGTON — Thousands of anti-abortion activists, including many young people bundled up against the cold weather gripping the nation's capital, gathered at a stage on the National Mall Friday for their annual march in the long-contentious debate over abortion.

Signs reading "Choose love, Choose life," "I am the pro-life generation," and "Defund Planned Parenthood" dotted the crowd gathering under hazy, wintry skies at the morning rally.

Here’s my question for USA Today editors: How hard is it to tell “more than a thousand” people from 100,000-plus people?

Now, the Washington Post story opened with that same safer wording that has become popular with many mainstream journalists in recent years. The lede:

President Trump and Vice President Pence surprised thousands of protesters demonstrating against abortion on the National Mall by making unannounced speeches at Friday’s March for Life.

Pence and his wife, Second Lady Karen Pence, strode out onstage to the delighted cheers of a roaring crowd carrying anti-abortion posters and banners. Then Pence concluded his remarks with a second surprise: Trump, who addressed the march by video feed last year, had again prepared videotaped remarks for the marchers.

Yes, that’s a Trumpian politics lede for this story, which will upset many. But that’s the point, and it’s a valid one. How did pro-life Democrats feel in this rally? Oh, and yes, the Trump angle somewhat complicated efforts to focus media attention on the theme for the 2019 march: “Unique from Day One: Pro-Life is Pro-Science.”

Thus, a few lines later, there was this:

March for Life president Jeanne Mancini and other leaders of the movement said before the march that they wanted to include a politically diverse audience of anyone who opposes abortion -- which, according to polling, includes at least a quarter of Democratic voters. Mancini touted the equal balance in speakers this year, two Republican congressmen and two Democrats (one a state legislator).

But on Friday, Trump and Pence spoke again. And again, some said they were unhappy to associate the anti-abortion movement with a president they dislike.

To it’s credit, the three-reporter Post team dedicated quite a bit of space to some of the scientific debates surrounding this event. Please check that out.

But here is the section that caught my eye, built on an interview with Sarah Horvath, identified as “a doctor who has performed abortions and currently works as a family planning policy and advocacy fellow for the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.”

The second paragraph of this passage is quite amazing, especially since it has no attribution clause.

[Horvath] said that medical professionals don’t have a working definition of when life begins. ACOG strongly supports increased access to abortion in its official positions. “Science isn’t really designed to answer questions about the exact beginning of life or the moral assignations of these sorts of things. Science is really more designed to teach us how things work, and then we can allow people to make their own decisions about what that means for them,” she said. “Science tells us that abortion is safe. Science tells us that abortion is health care. Science tells us that abortion care can be lifesaving.”

That’s the first disagreement. The second disagreement: Putting aside when life begins, what should women be allowed to do about an unwanted pregnancy? One can believe that an embryo is a life or not a life and still have differing opinions about whether a woman should be able to choose to end her pregnancy.

Who is speaking here? The Post? It reads like a statement of political or philosophical doctrine.

So, readers, what did I miss this year? Please leave some comments for us.

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