A few days ago, the Washington Post tweeted out a link to a piece on its web site with the tease "Why is the pope always so old?" and a link to an article. Within moments, a bunch of people responded negatively to the tweet. I attached a screen shot here, but the comments included:
Why is the press always so stupid?
And why is he always so Catholic?
The article itself has the headline "Why is the pope always so old? (Video)" and it's more a blog post on two items from outside the paper than an article. The first is an explainer video on how someone becomes a pope. It has almost nothing to do with the pope "always" being "so old." It does have a few errors (on whether priests can be married and that whole catholic/Catholic thing we've been discussing) but you can peruse it on your own. Or watch it here, what do I care?
The Post blog piece itself isn't awful, but it is kind of silly. It explains that becoming pope is a lot like becoming president:
But unlike politics, becoming pope basically requires you to work your way up the ladder, step by step. The political equivalent would be advancing from local office to state office to federal office to leadership in Congress and eventually to president. While any Catholic can technically be elected pope, it’s really a race between 100-plus cardinals who have spent their entire lives climbing that ladder.
One hundred-plus indeed! Anyway, then it takes a graphic from The Guardian about papal tenures and how old people are when they become popes and leave the papacy.
I was going to defend the headline but then I imagined a headline like "Why are presidents always the age of your dad?" or "Why aren't there more toddlers competing in the Olympics?" and I don't quite have the heart to do it. Neither do I think this is worth getting terribly upset about it.
But I do think it's worth remembering that even when we're tossing out silly stories as part of our papal coverage, they are part of a larger relationship with readers. And we want to convey some expertise about the matter at hand, for the sake of the larger journalistic project. David Mills wrote something for a Catholic publication in Pittsburgh about this:
As soon as Pope Benedict XVI announced his resignation, you knew that everyone and his brother would be saying something about it, and that some of them would take the chance to make whatever anti-Catholic points they could. Even I, who read a lot of the secular press, didn’t expect the piling on we’ve seen.
We get the supposed experts who explain to their readers what’s really going on in that weird mysterious world of the Catholic Church. The church lives its life before the world in a way rare for institutions its size (How much do we really know about what goes on in Congress, for example?), but many people think the church is something like the Central Intelligence Agency. Some of these supposed experts just get things wrong, like the television reporter who solemnly told his viewers that Catholics wouldn’t know who to pray to this Easter and the Protestant magazine that explained Catholics believe in “the divinity of the pope.”
For some reason journalists can make almost any mistake about the church or religion in general and no one says “boo.” No editor would hire a guy who said the Steelers were going to draft a point guard to help improve their relief pitching, but religion? There it’s “OK, whatever, just say something.”
Then there are all the editors and writers who decided that the problem with Pope Benedict was that he didn’t agree with them. Many of them claimed concern for the future of the Catholic Church if it didn’t stop being so irrelevant and out of step, which meant ... if it didn’t stop disagreeing with them.
Much of the coverage we've seen in recent weeks has actually been quite good and interesting and informative (e.g. here). But papers should remember to help out inexperienced reporters who are trying to get in on the action. Religion reporters tend to do very good work on covering religion. Reporters with other beats frequently struggle. In the same way we wouldn't have the Congressional reporter writing a high-profile report on tackling methods in football (probably), neither should we reat religion coverage as something that anyone can do without any guidance or knowledge.