Saturday, August 13, 2022
Aug. 13, 2022

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From the Newsroom: Protest coverage calls for news judgment, flexibility

By , Columbian Editor
Published:

American newspapers have been covering political protests since the Boston Tea Party, and maybe even before that.

We cover them here at The Columbian. But that doesn’t mean that every protest within shouting distance of our office automatically gets covered.

For example, liberal-leaning groups picket regularly in front of the Vancouver office of U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Battle Ground. We don’t generally go. We haven’t covered the protests in Portland by both left-wing and right-wing provocateurs, including Vancouver’s own Patriot Prayer. Instead, we have relied on Associated Press and other wire stories.

But we did cover the Patriot Prayer rallies at Clark College and Washington State University Vancouver this week, prompting a reader, Jim Kautz, to write me a good-natured letter. He wrote that “front page and Clark County section coverage of a few misguided Patriot Prayer group affiliates standing around talking among themselves is way more ink than the item deserves. That coverage confers a false credibility.”

I mostly agree with Jim. But here was the thinking behind the decision to cover the rallies, which were ostensibly in opposition to Initiative 1639, a ballot measure that would increase firearms regulations:

• We knew from the Portland rallies that the potential exists for the situation to become volatile, and for people to be injured and public property to be harmed. If so, this would become a major police story.

• We knew from a May incident at Vancouver Mall that the views professed by some members of these groups can quickly lead to violence.

• We knew that Clark College had taken the extraordinary step of closing down classes on its campuses on Monday, and that WSU students and professors were given the option to stay away Tuesday.

• And we knew that no matter what, this would be a competitive story that would be all over local television. Ignoring it would be wishful thinking and would leave our readers wondering why The Columbian missed such a big story in its own backyard.

But Jim was right about giving too much coverage to something designed to be a bit of a circus.

With that in mind, we decided to cover the Monday rally with two reporters, photographers, and live updates on our website. Had a ruckus ensued, we were ready to give it multiple stories, photos, the works. But with classes canceled at Clark, there wasn’t much of a turnout — besides media, that is — so for print we kept it to a single story with a couple of photos.

On Tuesday, we scaled back coverage but still sent a reporter and a photographer to WSU Vancouver. When the reporter, Andy Matarrese, texted me to say that it was pretty quiet, we decided to leave early. We moved the story from Page 1 back to the Clark County cover.

Wednesday’s event at Clark ended up being “just in case” coverage. Matarrese checked it out and filed a story for inside the Clark County section. He spent most of his afternoon at the courthouse covering a couple of sentencings.

In the end, I thought we played it about right. Though we were ready to cover a big, bloody event, we were able to adjust our coverage and redirect our resources when the rallies turned out to be peaceful exchanges of political views. Still, I wonder what those long-ago Boston editors thought of their Tea Party coverage?

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