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posted: 2/2/2017 1:00 AM

Comparing protests is a misleading 'litmus test' for bias

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For many people, the contrast of two Washington, D.C., demonstrations within a week of each other last month deserved intense scrutiny as a litmus test on press bias. I would not be one of them, but I would say that a discussion of the coverage afforded the national Women's March on Saturday, Jan. 21, and that given the Jan. 27 March for Life anti-abortion rally can be instructive about the application of news judgment.

Days before the March for Life, we began hearing from its supporters crying out for coverage of their rally comparable to the reporting on the Women's March. Not that those cries were necessary; we had already looked ahead to the March for Life and were preparing for coverage that would depart from the minimal reporting this annual rally generally receives.

There were, we recognized, material differences in the circumstances of the event this time. It was following close on the heels of the inauguration of a supportive president who has promised profound changes related to a controversial topic. The scheduled address by Vice President Mike Pence would mark the first time in the march's 44-year history that a representative of the sitting presidential administration spoke. The mere issue of the size of the ideologically competing Women's March suggested that March for Life organizers would be making an even greater effort than usual to attract crowds and demonstrate equivalent passion for their cause.

With thoughts like these in mind, we made plans for a Page 1 presentation, including ample space for reporting on the event, the key speakers and the folks who participated. Even so, people who might have been expecting photograph-for- photograph and column inch-for-column inch conformity were likely disappointed.

For, even though two given stories may have substantial similarities, they almost always will also have substantial differences that play into how they are presented. Even this year, that is certainly the case between the annual, familiar March for Life and the nationwide, unusual March for Women. But such reflections also extend to many other topics.

During the spring legislative season, there are groups marching on Springfield several times a week. Some of them can actually attract sizable numbers, but even then, the rallies rarely offer new ideas to advance the debate on their issue, often are highly scripted to suggest levels of support or passion that may be not be accurate and invariably invoke questions like, "If we cover this one on teacher pensions today, how do we not cover the one on worker safety tomorrow?" or "How do we cover this demonstration and still make sure the other side gets a fair hearing?" In short, our thinking is based on an array of factors that go beyond simple crowd size, which as we all know by now is an imprecise measure with mine fields of bias claims all its own.

Our sports department deals with a similar phenomenon regularly when managing coverage of the Cubs and White Sox, in particular, and varying sports in general. Not infrequently, we hear from angry supporters of one team or another who literally have employed a ruler to demonstrate what they see as our bias against their team and for the other. Such comparisons invariably ignore the standing of the teams, the circumstances of a particular game, controversies that may be swirling at the time and any of dozens of other factors that go into the selection, placement, headline size, photographs and depth of stories on a given day.

Such diversities rule decisions about political rallies as well. This year, even after committing to prominent, above-the-fold Page 1 play of the March for Life story, our news desk had to consider whether to stand by the decision after President Trump's order late in the day banning immigration from seven mostly Muslim countries. Ultimately, editors stuck with the original plan, but I suspect that had they made the eminently reasonable decision to lower the profile of the march story to accommodate the Trump news, many people would have seen the result not as a reaction to developments in the news but as proof of our bias against the anti-abortion movement.

Such thinking, I would argue, is less an accurate analysis of stains on comparable litmus strips than what scientists would call mistaken confirmation of the analyst's prejudices about what the strips should show.

Jim Slusher, jslusher@dailyherald.com, is a deputy managing editor at the Daily Herald. Follow him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/jim.slusher1 and on Twitter at @JimSlusher.

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