Washington Post Ombudsman: Worst March for Life Coverage Ever

National   |   Tim Graham   |   Jan 31, 2012   |   11:15AM   |   Washington, DC

In his Sunday column, Washington Post ombudsman Patrick Pexton agreed with readers who felt the Post “downsized” the massive “March for Life” by failing to show broad crowd shots. Pexton quoted AP that it’s “consistently one of the largest protests of the year in Washington” and “One observer e-mailed that he stood at the Supreme Court and it took marchers two hours to walk by. That’s a big crowd.”

Pexton failed to compare this massive crowd – and the Post’s failure to write more than one story (in Metro) on it – to the Post’s slobbering love affair with the Occupy DC protests that have spread far and wide across the liberal newspaper. Pexton found the Post photo editor sneering that pro-lifers can never be pleased:

But no one knows how big it was….Still, you can find images of the large crowd taken by amateurs on Flickr or Facebook, and I imagine the AP took some, too. Probably Post photographers did as well.

But these shots didn’t find their way into the main Web photo gallery on the march. And I think this is where The Post fell down in its coverage of the march this year. And that’s mostly what antiabortion readers wrote to me about.

The online photo gallery contains 10 photos: seven tight shots of antiabortion demonstrators, two of protesters from the small abortion-rights counter-demonstration on the steps of the Supreme Court and one that showed both sides confronting each other there. In fact, eight of the 10 shots were taken at the high court.

Emotional shots make better photos, yes, but I would have chosen more from the broad expanse of the rally, and at least one photo showing a lot of cheerful, festive people, which is what I see at most demonstrations that I have covered over the years, regardless of the issue at hand.

Vernon Loeb, Post Local editor, said, “In retrospect I wish we had given readers a better sense of the overall magnitude of the march. . .it was far larger than 17,000.”

Said Post Director of Photography Michel du Cille, “We can never please this crowd. We try for fairness to show both sides.”

Pexton did not directly address the idea that it’s unfair to give even-Steven coverage to a protest with 50,000 pro-lifers and 11 counter-protesters.

When he came to reporter Katherine Driessen’s article he said some readers complained it “concentrated too much on teenage marchers and their beliefs arising from seeing graphic photos of fetuses, as if they were being brainwashed. That’s unfair. Driessen and her editors decided on this angle for the story because part of this year’s event was a major youth rally, and Catholic churches have been recruiting young people to the antiabortion cause. The crowd indeed was young. I think that’s a legitimate angle on a story.”

But does Pexton not know that this angle could be used every year? This was just as true in 2005 as it was in 2012. The main (lame) counter-criticism arguing in favor of ignoring the March for Life is that it’s an annual routine, and therefore not “news,” no matter how many attend. The youth Mass and focus on the young is part of that routine. The attendance of so many young people is important to pro-lifers and inspiring to them, but it’s an annual thing.

Pexton ignored one angle that was fresh this year: Speaker John Boehner spoke from the podium, which he has not done in recent years. That drew no mention in the Post story, nor did any other speaker from the March program.

Pexton agreed with our complaint of the repetitive citation of “antiabortion ideology” in the piece:

Driessen handled her quotes from the teens straightforwardly. I wish, however, she had not used the term “antiabortion ideology” to describe their position. Better to say antiabortion beliefs, position or stance. The word “ideology” has, unfortunately, become freighted with negative baggage.

When Pexton addressed the flood of Occupy DC stories two weeks ago, he cited the conservative complaints of overcoverage, but did not agree with it. However tiny it may be, the mere fact that someone was camping for socialism made it perennially newsworthy:

It is small and even tiny — probably less than 150 people — but people around the country, and the world, share the protesters’ concerns and follow the movement closely, judging by the ombudsman’s mailbag….Occupiers might be there awhile. And The Post should be too.

LifeNews.com Note: Tim Graham is the director of media analysis for the Media Research Center, a media watchdog group. He was a White House correspondent for World magazine in 2001 and 2002. The following originally appeared on the NewsBusters web site.