Aug 1 2005

Does Size Really Matter?

Analyzing the press’s protest coverage

On March 19, the two-year anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, tens of thousands of people across the country, and still more worldwide, turned out to protest the ongoing war. The protests had multiple goals, but given the general numbing of the population to the war, one objective was undoubtedly to keep the fact that human beings are being killed on a daily basis in the forefront of the average American’s brain. Unfortunately, if coverage in leading newspaper and television outlets is any gauge, this goal remains largely unmet.

The New York Times (3/20/05) teased its coverage on the front page and included a photograph on page A1, alongside an article on figure skating. But the actual story was buried on Page 35 of the Metro section. While the headline in the print edition was “Hundreds of Rallies Held Across U.S. to Protest Iraq,” the online headline more accurately conveyed the tone of the article: “Two Years After Iraq Invasion, Protesters Hold Small Rallies.”

In the first paragraph, the protests were characterized as “relatively small.” In the second paragraph, we are told that “thousands joined similar protests in European cities,” but that overall, the protests were “nowhere near as big as those in February 2003.” In the third paragraph, the Times noted that “about 350” people protested in Times Square.

The article waited until much later in the story to give a more complete picture of the protests’ size, noting in the 11th paragraph that “several thousand protesters marched from Harlem to Central Park.” In the 15th paragraph, we learn that “it seemed likely that tens of thousands took part across America.” In the 16th paragraph, those still reading the article were told that “45,000 people marched in London,” but not before being reminded that those “gatherings were also modest compared to the 2003 protests.”

On the whole, the Washington Post did a better job in contextualizing the protests. They ran two stories on March 20, one on page A13 focusing on the protests in Fayetteville, North Carolina (home of Ft. Bragg), the other on page A12—an Associated Press report on the European protests.

The report from Europe was headlined “Thousands March Against Iraq War,” but with a subhead that downplayed the significance: “Fewer Turn Out for Rallies Than in 2003.” The article, to its credit, did note that “45,000 people marched” in London in the very first paragraph. But the third paragraph again reminded the reader that “the rallies were nowhere near as big as those in 2003.” The Post painted a misleading picture of the protests in New York City, mentioning only that “police made more than 30 arrests as a few hundred people gathered,” with no reference to the thousands who rallied in Harlem and Central Park.

At least these newspapers covered the protests at all; in USA Today, they were nowhere to be found. ABC’s World News Tonight, CBS Evening News and NBC Nightly News also neglected to inform their viewers that the protests ever occurred.

By low-end estimates, close to 70,000 citizens worldwide turned out to voice their opposition to the Iraq War. For many major outlets, this was seemingly not a story—and for those that did cover it, the real news was that this was “nowhere near as many” as turned out in 2003, before the war began.

But would more people really have resulted in more substantive coverage? At first glance, the New York Times seemingly gave wall-to-wall coverage of the February 2003 protests, running two stories on the front page (2/16/03) as well as smaller articles inside. Yet the stories did little to explain the protests, instead relying on the dominant frames of protest size, protesters’ strange appearances and actions, and police reaction and overreaction. The Times’ coverage was more substantial than their coverage of the 2005 protests, but still did little to convey the message of the demonstrations.

Over the weekend of February 15, 2003, the broadcast networks at least reported on the protests; World News Tonight ran four stories, CBS Evening News ran six and NBC Nightly News ran three. Yet all focused heavily on the size of the protests, giving little time to the arguments and goals behind the marches. One broadcast story did probe, albeit shallowly, into reasons that citizens were opposing the Iraq invasion: CBS (2/15/03) noted the lack of a link between Saddam Hussein and Al-Qaeda as a driving force behind the protests in London.

Looking at the coverage of another story that was coming into its own the weekend of the 2005 antiwar protests, it’s clear that a small number of protestors is no barrier to substantial media coverage. In Pinellas Park, outside the hospice where the severely brain-damaged Terri Schiavo was the focus of a legal controversy, the number of demonstrators protesting the removal of her feeding tube was quite small, estimated at “100 or so” by NBC Nightly News (3/24/05). Yet this small group received regular coverage from the broadcast networks, even as they ignored a much larger group, protesting an issue that involved not one life but an estimated 100,000 deaths.

NBC Nightly News ran two stories (3/24/05, 3/25/05) specifically on the protestors in Pinellas Park, while ABC World News Tonight ran one on the protestors outside of the hospice (3/24/05) and another focusing on the disability rights group Not Dead Yet (3/22/05). While CBS Evening News had no stories specifically focusing on the protestors, its regular stories on the Schiavo case (like those of the other networks) frequently turned to Pinellas Park protesters for comment—treatment rarely afforded to antiwar activists, no matter how large their marches are.

The lesson is that a relatively small group of citizens can have a real impact on the way a story is covered—if the media choose to listen to them.