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How a Small Tea Rally Looks Bigger in the News

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If you're a political activist, whether PETA or Tea Party or whatever, you spend a lot of time thinking about how to get media attention.

I've done a lot of this myself, and even wrote a book about it (hint), and I can tell you that activists love to steal media attention that rightfully belongs to their opponents. It ain't right, but you see it all the time.

One way to do this is for a small group of Tea Party activists to attend a big rally of labor supporters, gathering in support of their Wisconsin brethren.

The small Tea group shows up without a permit, creates a bit of a conflict, and gets major media attention for doing almost nothing but showing up, chanting, and playing the flute.

Reporters flock down to the mini-rally-within-the-big-rally to hear the music and experience the manufactured tension of dueling "crowds."

You want journalists to check out these Tea protesters and report on their stunt, and I don't use "stunt" pejoratively. It's admirable that the Tea people get out there, and it's news.

But it's up to journalists to represent the entire event, both rallies, accurately, without giving undue attention to the smaller protest. 

Last week, as you recall, "over a thousand" pro-union folks rallied at the state capitol, as well as a few hundred Tea Partiers, according to Fox 31 estimates.

The Denver Post put the labor side at 500, but did not estimate the number of counter protesters at all, creating, to some degree, a false balance between the two rallies, especially when the lead paragraph stated:

"Hundreds of union workers in Colorado took aim Tuesday at Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, rallying on the steps of the state Capitol as anti-union counterprotesters gathered nearby."

Asked about this, Post Political Editor Curtis Hubbard wrote me:

Placing the union supporters at the front of the lead gives greater emphasis to their cause and is a signal that they're the primary news of the story. Careful readers will note that, further down, we estimated the number of union supporters at "more than 500" but never provided a measure of the counter protest. That was an oversight, for which I take responsibility.

In retrospect, it would have been advisable to give a crowd guesstimate for the counter-demonstration, or at least note that it was "smaller," though I think it's fair to say that the structure of the story leaves readers with an appropriate impression of the respective scopes.

Hubbard is right that the structure of the Post's article about the protests, which mostly featured the labor people and issues, gives the impression that the union rally was larger, even without a number for the Tea protesters. But that assumes you read the story, of course.

And the size of the photos also proportionately and fairly represented the event.

As Damon Cain, the Post's Assistant Managing Editor for Design, pointed out to me in an email:

On the Denver & The West cover, the dominant photo of the pro-union forces was roughly seven times larger than the photo representing the pro-Gov. Walker side of the issue. Another photo on the jump page increases the proportional difference to about nine to one, union. (I'm measuring in square points.)

Fair, I agree. The union event was about 10 times larger than the Flea protest.

But I thought the headlines in the print edition contributed to the false balance that Post created, to some extent, between the two rallies.

The major headlines on the front page of the Post's Denver & The West printed section were "United by passion," with a smaller headline reading, "Colo. Protesters clash over Wis. Governor's effort to weaken unions."

The "clash" was insignificant, rightly reported as such at the very end of the article, and didn't deserve a headline. Similarly, a photo of a flute-playing Tea Partier should have run in the interior of the section.

Cain disagreed with me on the headlines:

Words matter. The main headline reads "United by passion." At first blush, I read "united" and I'm thinking "union" and "united with the protests in Wisconsin," especially in combo with the dominant image of pro union forces.

So, the two largest graphic elements in this display are the pro-union photo and the "united" headline. The impression is clear to me.

Yes, the drop headline (clearly, a subordinate element which played an inferior visual role, similar in effect to the role of the secondary photo compared to the dominant) addresses the clash of opposing viewpoints -- as well it should.

I don't see a "false balance," Jason, only a fair representation of what transpired.