What Catholic media bias?

Pope Benedict XVI Delivers His Annual Urbi Et Orbi Message

GetReligion readers likely are familiar with John Allen, the National Catholic Reporter's ace Vatican reporter. His latest column analyzes the biggest Vatican stories of the last 10 years. An aside: is anyone else annoyed at all of these "best of decade" lists coming a year prior to the end of the actual decade? Allen said he thought about compiling a list of the "biggest Vatican stories that never happened" or "most under-appreciated Vatican stories" but decided to just do some empirical analysis of what stories got the most play in print and on-line.

The top three were the sexual abuse crisis; the death of Pope John Paul II and the election of Benedict XVI; and Benedict's visit to the U.S. in April 2008. The second story was the biggest, particularly when it comes to broadcast coverage. Other big stories were Pope John Paul II's visit to the Holy Land in 2000; his 25th anniversary as Pope; Pope Benedict XVI's Regensburg lecture; his decision to authorize wider celebration of the old Latin Mass; the Vatican's critical reaction to the war in Iraq; a 2005 ruling that homosexuals should not be admitted to seminiaries; Catholic Jewish relations and Vatican reactions to The Da Vinci Code and "The Passion of the Christ."

Allen says there are three interesting "lines of reflection" suggested by his research. One is that print and broadcast media cover the Vatican very differently. The papal transition accounted for around 10 percent of print coverage for the decade but one-third of broadcast coverage. You already probably know why, but here's Allen's explanation:

The explanation seems reasonably obvious: Stories with a dramatic visual and audio component are more likely to be widely followed by broadcast media, whereas stories about policy or theological disputes are more at home in the print world. The Vatican has always been adept at stagecraft, which makes it a natural for TV.

Given that contrast, it might be an interesting exercise for a Catholic college to conduct a study of differences in perception of the Vatican and/or the pope among Americans who are mostly dependent upon TV for their news (presumably, a substantial majority) and those whose outlooks are more shaped by newspapers and journals. Though it's no more than a working hypothesis, my hunch would be that people more attuned to broadcast media may have a slightly sunnier impression of where things stand.

And Allen says that media coverage is much more favorable to the Catholic church than some Catholics believe. He says that may not be fair:

Simply adding up the total number of references to the Vatican doesn't distinguish between positive and negative coverage, but it's worth noting that two of the three clear winners for biggest stories of the decade were, by common reckoning, good ones for the Vatican: the global outpouring of affection for John Paul II at the time of his death, and the visit of Benedict XVI to the United States. Polls taken shortly after that trip showed the new pope winning high marks for his candor on the sex abuse issue, including the first-ever papal session with victims, and for the image of basic kindness he managed to project.

He also points out that some media outlets, such as CNN, carried Benedict's American masses from "bell-to-bell" in what had to be a record for most Catholic liturgy ever broadcast on an American commercial network in a single week.

Another interesting tidbit is that while John Paul II received more broadcast coverage, Benedict XVI actually has received more print coverage. I find that fascinating. Here's Allen's explanation:

Those numbers seem to confirm a bit of conventional journalistic wisdom, which is that while John Paul II was the ideal pope for the TV age, the cerebral Benedict is often better suited to print. My friend and colleague Delia Gallagher was, I think, the first to say that Benedict XVI is a great pope for the Internet, because he's meant to be read, and virtually every word he either speaks or publishes is now available in real time.

Here's a final impression, which I can't confirm statistically, but it reflects my experience: Much coverage of John Paul II during the first half of the decade was cast either in the past tense or the future, while Benedict's is more firmly in the present.

Interesting! Allen says that much of this past, er, decade's coverage of John Paul II was focused on his health or successor while coverage of Benedict XVI is all about the here and now. Allen calls this the "sweet spot" for media focus on ideas. Like any good end-of-year list, this one gives much food for thought and discussion.

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