Karen O'Connor

WASHINGTON (WOMENSENEWS)–A broad coalition of pro-choice groups pulled off the ultimate publicity coup last month when it drew record numbers to the nation’s capital to protest governmental efforts to undermine women’s reproductive and health rights.

But even though organizers claimed to have staged the largest march in human history–filling the National Mall from end to end–the press didn’t seem all that impressed.

According to a survey of media coverage released this week of the April 25 March for Women’s Lives by Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR), a progressive group in New York, the two-mile march was given less airtime and ink than a previous national demonstration that attracted a crowd of comparable size.

The three major networks, which have the greatest public reach, aired a combined total of six stories on the march, the survey found in a search of the Lexis-Nexis database of articles and transcripts. Cable coverage of the event wasn’t much better. MSNBC did not cover the event, while CNN ran several stories throughout the day on Sunday but aired “just a small handful” of brief stories before and after the event.

C-SPAN, the nonprofit television channel that covers Congress, broadcast an unedited version of the afternoon rally that followed the march. A review of the Web site of National Public Radio, the nonprofit radio network based in Washington, D.C., turned up at least six stories in the days immediately before, during and after the event.

The conservative Fox News network, meanwhile, offered a “skewed perspective” in its coverage, the study found. Two of the channel’s three stories focused on anti-choice activists. One segment examined anti-abortion opposition to the National Education Association’s endorsement of the march. In another, Fox anchor Sean Hannity questioned National Organization for Women President Kim Gandy about “inflammatory” signs rather than the larger message voiced by a peaceful crowd of women and men who represented a cultural cross-section of America.

No Risk of Overplay in Print Media

An analysis of coverage in the print media backed up FAIR spokesperson Julie Hollar’s assertion that the march was “extremely under-covered.”

The three largest newsweeklies virtually ignored the event, according to a Lexis-Nexis search conducted by this publication. Of the three largest newsmagazines, Newsweek was the only one to cover it at all. The glossy magazine ran a piece in the back of the book it its April 26 edition that highlighted ambivalence toward abortion rights on the part of young women. The story made no mention of the surprisingly high turnout of young people at the demonstration. Time and U.S. News and World Report passed over the event all together. It might as well not have happened.

The nation’s newspapers gave the event more coverage, but did not run any risk of overplaying it.

While most daily newspapers covered the event, Hollar said, the editors of USA Today, the country’s largest newspaper, ran the full story on page 3. On April 26, at least 13 other major papers ran their coverage on the front page, according to Karen O’Connor, head of the Women and Politics Institute at American University School of Public Affairs in Washington, D.C. Among those, The New York Times and the Washington Post ran their stories “above the fold,” in the area just under the masthead that grabs readers first.

Cliff Kincaid, a spokesperson for Accuracy in Media, a conservative media watchdog group in Washington, D.C., disagreed with FAIR’s assessment. A nationwide newsroom bias in favor of abortion rights led to coverage that “seemed intense” before, during and after the event, he said. He did not back up his impression with an analysis.

Questions about Other Event Coverage

But a FAIR analysis showed that the media gave the reproductive rights march less coverage than previous marches, such as the 1997 Promise Keepers march, which drew between 480,000 and 750,000 Christian men to the national mall and the 1995 Million Man March, which attracted a crowd estimated at between 500,000 and 800,000 African American men.

The Promise Keepers received far more media attention when they led their march on Washington in 1997 even though the march was almost certainly smaller than this year’s women’s rights march, the FAIR survey found. The network news began broadcasting stories three days before the march and continued for two days afterward, airing a combined total of 19 stories–more than three times the coverage the networks devoted to the women’s march.

FAIR did not conduct a similar analysis for the Million Man March, but observers agreed the massive assembly of African American men on the national mall grabbed headlines and attracted television cameras to the point that no one missed it. O’Connor even recalled taking a flight in which the pilots announced the event to the passengers.

This year’s march did not get as much play as it might have had organizers been able to prove their claim that they had mustered 1.15 million pro-choice activists. But local police declined to confirm that figure or release one of their own, leaving many journalists reluctant to report a precise number of participants or compare the turnout with previous marches.

Published crowd estimates in newspapers ranged from a blurry “hundreds of thousands” to those, such as Women’s eNews, that quoted organizers’ claim of more than a million. Many outlets estimated it was at least 500,000.

Some nonpartisan political observers said the event’s coverage may have been bumped off the lead spots by the demand to cover other breaking news stories. Aside from the rally, editors were watching continued unrest in Iraq, which along with the mild economic recovery and the loss of manufacturing jobs, outranks abortion as a public concern, opinion polls show. Editors may have chosen to downplay media coverage of the march for this reason, Hollar said.

A ‘One-Day’ Story

Another reason editors may not have weighed the march very heavily is the prevailing sense that the march would not meet organizers’ hopes that the number of participants would exceed 750,000, the estimated count of those who participated in the last abortion rights rally in 1992, O’Connor said. She noted that the story generated relatively little advance coverage and then, despite the strong turnout, received little follow through coverage. Editors, she said, were content to leave it as a “one-day” story.

O’Connor also complained about the “column inches” dedicated to anti-choice counter protesters. While only a minute fraction of those on the scene–the largest anti-choice group present reported that it had recruited about 1,000 activists –they were given disproportionate coverage and generous opportunity to express their views.

Stephen Hess, a governmental scholar at The Brookings Institution, said the main reason the march did not stir as much media attention as the recent men’s marches because the topic of reproductive rights wasn’t new, the operative word in news.

This year’s march, he said, replicated earlier marches in 1986, 1989 and 1992. There have been “a heap of” marches on women’s rights issues ranging from abortion to the equal rights amendment, Hess said. “But a ton of black males [converging on the national mall], you take notice.”

Other media analysts, however, saw the signs of a male-dominated media industry in the slight attention paid to the event.

O’Connor noted that the men’s marches–and even the Million Mom March gun-control rally, which was estimated to draw at least a half of a million people in 2000–generated more coverage than this year’s march because of the industry’s “sexist bias” against women’s fight for reproductive freedom. “The attitude was, ‘Oh God, it’s women talking about abortion again,'” O’Connor said. “And no one really cared.”

Kathy Dolan, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, agreed that women’s issues–including abortion–are underplayed because they are regarded as issues that affect only a subset of the population. Women’s issues, she said, are not seen as “human issues” and are therefore given less attention.

Hollar agreed. “Women’s issues just don’t get talked about in the news as often,” she said, pointing to a recent newsroom census conducted by the American Society of Newspaper Editors showing a stubbornly persistent gender gap. “Just look at who’s in the newsroom,” she said. “Women are greatly underrepresented. Women’s issues just get short shrift.”

Allison Stevens covers politics in Washington, D.C.

For more information:

Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting–
“ACTION ALERT: Women’s March Coverage Hard to Find on Television News”:

The March for Women’s Lives: