Personalizing the sex scandal

Pope Benedict XVI helds the weekly general audience in St. Peter's square at the Vatican, April 21, 2010. He promised that the Catholic Church would take action to confront the clerical sex abuse scandal, making his first public comments on the crisis days after meeting with victims. Photo by Eric Vandeville/ABACAPRESS.COM Photo via Newscom

The Pew Research Center examined the recent coverage of the sex abuse scandal in the Roman Catholic Church. They analyzed U.S. newspapers, websites, network television programs, cable television programs and other media and found that it was the most intense coverage the church had received since 2002, when coverage of the American scandal flared up. I always enjoy these studies because they give readers a chance to reflect on the overall media scene from which we've emerged. You can read the whole report here but there were a few findings of note:

From mid-March (when the pope's role in a decades-old abuse case in Germany came under scrutiny) through late April, clergy sexual abuse was the eighth biggest story in the mainstream media, beating out coverage of nuclear weapons policy and the Tea Party movement. The biggest week of coverage was March 22-28, when news organizations reported on the failure of Vatican officials years ago, including the future pope, to defrock an American priest who had abused nearly 200 deaf boys. The church scandal was the fourth biggest topic in the mainstream news that week.

What about this finding, though:

The scandal found little traction in new media, however. Across the millions of blogs and Twitter posts tracked in PEJ's weekly monitoring, the clergy abuse scandal registered as a leading topic in only one of the six weeks analyzed. During the week of March 29-April 2, when new information emerged about the Milwaukee archdiocese's handling of an abusive priest, the scandal was the second-largest story, making up 9% of all Twitter links to news reports. But it did not rank in the top five most blogged-about news stories at all.

We were certainly interested in at least the coverage of the scandal but I wonder what this means, exactly. Does the lack of blog and Twitter coverage indicate a lack of interest among readers compared to reporters and editors? Usually the opposite is true, Pew notes:

There is no reason to believe that bloggers in general are uninterested in, or shy away from, religion-related issues or events. There is even some evidence to suggest that the blogosphere is more inclined than the mainstream media to address religion. For example, an analysis of 2009 religion coverage found that some religion stories, such as the return of Catholic indulgences and the ban on minarets in Switzerland, were more popular in blogs than in the mainstream press.

It does seem as if this story has died down considerably. I think that most media outlets who wanted in on the action took their best shot against the Pope and nothing really paid off. Now, don't get me wrong, I'm sure the after-effect of this most recent wave of media coverage will be truly hurtful to the church, as Ross Douthat argues at The Atlantic. Whether the coverage was fair overall is another question. But I think things died down because these reports tried to bring Benedict down. And when it didn't work, folks lost interest. If these same reports had tried a different approach -- less focused on Benedict XVI and more focused on the institutional problems that led to the situation, I think things might have been different.

The report does take note of how much of the coverage was focused on Benedict. During the six-week period studied, the mainstream media focused on the pope in over half its stories (51.6%) about the clergy abuse scandal, the report says:

While Benedict is in many ways the public face of the Catholic Church, that alone does not explain why he suddenly came under intense scrutiny this spring. The reason may be a combination of direct accusations in Europe and the boomerang effect of what were widely perceived as clumsy Vatican efforts at damage control, which ranged from highly defensive to apologetic.

The report blames, in part, "the media's penchant for personalizing big stories." But the other examples given -- coverage of Tiger Woods' sex scandal and Roman Polanski's rape conviction -- aren't really comparable. The report also says that what's striking isn't necessarily that Benedict received so much attention as the fact that other individuals received so little. I think that this was a shame as I bet there would be fascinating stories to be found if reporters broadened their sights.

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