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January 29, 2007

A Tale of Two Protests

Take two protests, both in our nation's capitol, both heavily attended, both on current hot topics. Should the coverage of the two by the "balanced" media be comparable? You'd think so. You'd be wrong.

Within one week, the liberal bias of the Washington Post has been made perfectly obvious. On Monday, tens of thousands of protesters emerged on Washington for the March for Life, but the hometown paper put the story on the bottom of page A-10 Tuesday morning. On Saturday, tens of thousands of protesters emerged on Washington for a rally against President Bush and the war in Iraq. The Post blasted that story across the front page on Sunday, complete with a large color picture taking a wide shot of hundreds of marchers and their signs and banners. Tuesday's story on abortion protests matched carried no wide shot of hundreds. It showed four pro-life marchers, and matched them with another picture of five feminists counter-protesting. There were no photos of conservative counter-protesters in the Sunday paper.

[This item, by Tim Graham, was posted Sunday on the MRC's blog, ]

The Post not only let the anti-Iraq rally dominate the front page, but devoted an entire page (A-8) to more photos and a story on student protesters. The front-page story carried over to most of page A-9. Jane Fonda's appearance at the march drew another story, placed on the front page of the Style section.

Newspaper coverage of events such as these pose a challenge for appearing fair, no doubt about it. A journalist writing a letter to the editor of his town's big paper, and an attendee of the March for Life, acknowledged this problem. However, he also believes that fear of appearing unbiased is keeping the coverage to a bare minimum.
What they [the local kids he travelled with] weren’t prepared for was calling home to find that their parents missed the minute-long coverage the event merited on the evening news. They weren’t prepared to arrive home on Tuesday afternoon and pick up the paper to find that there was no coverage whatsoever. It was almost as if the whole thing had been an illusion — that it hadn’t really been that big a deal.

As a member of the press, I have a respect for editors and the decisions they have to make about coverage. I know that the coverage of controversial issues and events presents special difficulty for editors, since a fair and unbiased newspaper covers multiple viewpoints. Most often, the press ends up being attacked by both sides for its attempt at what can only be described as a thankless task. The Tribune has covered local pro-life events and issues in the past.

But abortion in general and the March for Life in particular have always presented special difficulties for a newspaper that sets out to present unbiased coverage. How does one present unbiased coverage of an event like the march, which is overwhelmingly one-sided? The solution in past years has been a careful weaving together of this pro-life event and the various counter-protests that have surrounded it.

But recent marches have made this difficult, since the number of counter-protesters has dwindled over the years. It seems that the media has found it difficult to maintain unbiased coverage simply because there are no pro-choice protesters to be found. Following what seems to be a justified editorial philosophy, coverage of the March has likewise dwindled even as the annual event grows in size.

Thus it seems that pro-choice protesters have found their absence more valuable than their presence.

As applied to the Washington Post, however, the sentiment is likely misplaced. The Post didn't seem to have any problem ignoring dissenting opinions. When you show one picture for and one against, you leave the impression that the representations of the two points were similar. The did this with the March for Life, but definitely not for the anti-war protest.

For some newspapers, it may be a tough call. For the Washington Post, the bias has already made the decision.

Posted by Doug at January 29, 2007 01:29 PM

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Might part of the problem be that there is not a current and specific Event or action or law that the Pro-lifers were protesting, but just the general notion of abortions.

The anti-war protesters, on the other hand, were there protesting a current war, and the protest comes just after an election that was viewed as a referendum on this war?

In other words, abortion is not especially in the news, whereas the war is in the news daily. If there were a specific vote coming up on abortion and tens of thousands showed up for a protest, I'd wager it would be in the news more prominently.

This from one who is relatively a pro-lifer.

Just a thought.

Posted by: Dan Trabue at January 29, 2007 03:00 PM

That is a good point, but when anti-war protests make the Style section, in addition to all the other front page and A-section coverage, it seems less likely to me to really explain it.

Posted by: Doug Payton at January 29, 2007 04:21 PM

Certainly, worldview comes in to play here. If you think of these types of protest as merely a disagreement amongst Americans on policy, you might not think it especially newsworthy. This, to me, seems to be the point with abortion. Americans just disagree on this policy, if profoundly.

If, on the other hand, you think we may well have a criminal president on hand who may end up being impeached or otherwise tried over this war issue, then these sorts of protests may hold a bit more weight and factor in on how much coverage it gets.

Posted by: Dan Trabue at January 29, 2007 10:56 PM

This makes the point about bias. Certainly many of the speakers and the protesters thought this, but does this mean that their view of the seriousness of the matter determined, or should determine, the amount of coverage? If not, then the paper makes that decision, and their biases show clearly through.

This is not to say that the media is not allowed to make decisions on what they print. They must.
But when 80% of them are liberal, their view of the issues will color what they consider important. Thus we get very disparate coverage of two, in my mind, equally divisive issues.

I mean, the Style section...

And then I hear folks complain about conservative bias on Fox News and the need for a return of the Fairness Doctrine, while their swimming just happily in liberal bias. Talk about worldview coming into play.

Posted by: Doug Payton at January 30, 2007 08:32 AM