How different 'news bubbles' covered the Women’s March

Coverage of the historic Women’s March on Washington Saturday varied across media outlets in both exposure and sentiment.

Luis Magana/AP
Women with bright pink hats and signs begin to gather early and are set to make their voices heard on the first full day of Donald Trump's presidency on Saturday in Washington, D.C.

Those who watched the Women’s March on Washington from the comfort of their homes likely got vastly different impressions, depending on what channel they chose.

The march drew historic numbers of demonstrators to cities and towns around the world. As of early Sunday morning, crowd scientists estimated that those converging on Washington, D.C., Saturday surpassed those attending Friday’s inauguration ceremonies at a rate of 3 to 1, bringing the total to around half a million people in the nation’s capital alone. Millions more gathered across the United States and on every continent, calling for tolerance, inclusion, and equality in what will likely be remembered as a prominent day in US history.

Photos of the historic march adorned front pages of major newspapers such as The New York Times, The Boston Globe, and The Washington Post. On local and cable news networks, scenes from marches around the nation led segments, with reporters following the crowds for hours. Signs bearing slogans such as “My body, my choice” and “Girls just wanna have fun-damental rights” appeared across social media, where women and men posed in the ubiquitous knitted pink hats that overnight have become a symbol of the movement.

But for those watching or reading coverage from outlets with a conservative slant, particularly the popular Fox News, the march likely didn’t appear as prominently. All three of the major networks began their Saturday morning coverage by showing the National Prayer Service. When MSNBC and CNN switched over to the march, Fox remained at the service and continued inauguration coverage much longer.

But as commentators on CNN and MSNBC discussed the remarkable size of the crowds and its implications for the new administration, Fox began to show overhead shots of the expansive crowd in Washington only as big name speakers such as Madonna took the stage. Pundits also characterized the events’ organizers as liberals who “refuse to accept reality,” arguing that the marches were held in large, left-leaning coastal cities such as Washington, Boston, and New York. Their coverage largely ignored marches and rallies that occurred in smaller towns and metro areas in conservative states such as Boise, Id., and Nashville, as well.

As partisan media’s role in America has grown, news consumers have gravitated toward news outlets that correlate with their own biases and opinions. The growing trend has bolstered the creation of “news bubbles,” where political ideology drives news selection, rather than objective coverage and free-flowing information.

Many observers say the habits have resulted in a divided democracy, where those in opposing bubbles fail to find common ground, or sometimes even common facts

While President Trump has levied both personal and wide-ranging attacks against the press, he has kept a cozier relationship with Fox, earning the support of the networks big names like Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly. As the protests largely criticized and decried the new president on his first full day in office, Fox chose to give protesters less of a platform than its competitors.

Politifact monitored the three major networks — CNN, Fox, and MSNBC — from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m., tracking each time the words “women,” “march,” or “Women’s March” were used. Left-leaning MSNBC proved the most dominant coverage, using the terms 114, 128, and 32 times, respectively. CNN followed closely behind, with mentions of “women” and “march” nearing 100 and “Women’s March” said 23 times.

But Fox’s coverage clearly lagged, using the term “Women’s March” on 12 times on the air, with “women” and “march” said 28 and 32 times each.

Fox, which has pushed its brand to the top of the cable news network pyramid by cultivating a loyal viewer base has done so in part by discrediting other sources as liberally biased and culling pundits and news stories that reflect a conservative point of view.

“Fox News has done a great job of inoculating its viewers to not trust other news sources. MSNBC is not going around telling everyone that they cannot possibly trust another news source,” Dan Cassino, a political science professor at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Teaneck, N.J., told The Christian Science Monitor last week. “A lot of the reason Fox has such a loyal viewership is that the viewers have been told you can’t trust anyone else.”

When it comes to covering partisan issues and protests, the lines between showing events, providing platforms for speech, and advocacy journalism can blur. On MSNBC Sunday, host Joy Reid spoke to the march's four organizers on her show, calling a move by the Trump administration to downplay the numbers an "odd" move that sought to create a "bizarre" alternate reality. The network also replayed footage of speakers such as Gloria Steinem, America Ferrera, and Madonna. 

The result of the divide was likely a reliving of the experience of news consumers throughout the election the election; seeing either positive, negative, or little coverage of the marches based on their own news preferences.

"These bubbles have not been imposed upon the public – it was what the people want," Paul Levinson, a professor of communication and media studies at Fordham University in New York, previously told the Monitor. "As long as social media continues to provide a very easy forum for these news bubbles ... it is not going to stop, and some late-night talk shows are not going to be enough to do that."

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