Monday, September 17, 2007


Press coverage

I have sent the following to the Washington Post and the New York Times:

At least 10,000 protesters gathered near the White House yesterday afternoon and marched to the Capitol, aiming to rally support to end the war in Iraq and bring the troops home. The mostly peaceful demonstration resulted in 189 arrests, as a few participants challenged police during a symbolic “die-in” at the end of the march.
That’s the lead paragraph that I would have written, if I had been covering the event. Instead, this is how Ms Boorstein, et al, wrote their lead in the Washington Post:
A march by thousands of protesters demanding an end to the Iraq war turned chaotic yesterday afternoon near the Capitol, where hundreds sprawled on the ground in a symbolic “die-in.” Police arrested 189 people, including 10 who organizers said were veterans of the war.
The New York Times was but a little better, with this lead from David Johnson:
A rally on Saturday to protest the war in Iraq, which began with a peaceful march of several thousand people to the Capitol, ended with dozens of arrests in a raucous demonstration that evoked the angry spirit of the Vietnam era protests of more than three decades ago.

Clark Hoyt, the Public Editor of the Times, had a recent column about the division between the news pages and the editorial pages, in response to a question about plain speaking (such as saying directly that Attorney General Gonzales “lied”). In that column, he discussed the requirement that the news pages report the news itself, and avoid overly inflammatory language and bias that are best left to the Op-Ed pages.

I understand the need to make that distinction, and I respect it. That said, it is the responsibility of the editors of the news pages to make reasonable decisions about how to report the news. What aspects of an event form the core of the “news” for that event? What is the primary focus? How should the even be presented? What points get priority and which go into paragraph seven, or are omitted entirely?

I found the coverage of Saturday’s anti-war demonstration to fail the readers. In a misguided decision to put “excitement” foremost, both the Post and the Times — two of the most respected newspapers in the country — gave the impression that a lawless band of rabble hit Pennsylvania Avenue that day, and left readers with images of police in riot gear and protesters in handcuffs. In fact, that was a very minor part of the day, a few minutes at the end of more than four hours.

The problem is highlighted in the Washington Post’s choice of photos. The album attached to the story contains ten photos apart from the introductory one, and of those ten: none are of the rally, one is of the march, two are of the die-in, three are of the arrest, and, most amazingly, four are of the counter-demonstrators. The New York Times ran a single photo of an arrest.

Such an imbalance serves us all poorly. We, as readers, did not get coverage of an anti-war demonstration; we saw news-hype, of the sort we’ve come to expect from Fox News, not from the Post and the Times. And it doesn’t matter if the Op-Ed pages send a different message: most readers won’t be reading them. Most readers will just see the front page, with “189 arrests” and photos of police leading demonstrators away in handcuffs, and that’s all they’ll think happened that day.

It’s not, and it’s a shame that that’s what your reporting shows us.

Update, 24 Sept: The Washington Post’s Ombudsman has responded to letters like mine, and published a commentary on the issue that the article made the counter-demonstration appear more significant than it was.

No comments: