Here is a rather simple test for reporters with experience on the religion beat.
In terms of Catholic tradition, which of the following two forms of communication by Pope Francis has the greater level of authority?
* A formal papal encyclical distributed by the Vatican.
* A comment made during an informal airplane press conference, as Shepherd One flies back to Rome after an overseas trip.
Like I said, it isn't a tough question if one knows anything about the papacy.
Ah, but how about the content of an off-the-cuff Pope Francis one-liner about abortion, "culture wars" and politics? Do those words have more authority, less authority or the same level of authority as a a papal address, using a carefully prepared manuscript, delivered to an Italian conference for Catholic doctors focusing on the sanctity of human life?
That's a tougher one. I would argue that the papal address had more authority than the one-liner. However, if one uses an online search engine to explore press coverage of these kinds of issues -- in terms of gallons of digital ink -- you'll quickly learn that I am part of a small minority on that matter.
Now, I was talking about religion-beat pros. What happens when political editors and reporters try to handle issues of papal authority, when covering tensions and changes in today's Catholic church? Frankly, I think things get screwed up more often than not under those circumstances. But, well, who am I to judge?
If consistent, logical, dare I say "accurate" answers to these kinds of journalistic questions are important to you, then you need to read a new essay -- "Pope Francis and the media’s ongoing fallibility" -- posted by The Media Project. The author is veteran New York City journalist Clemente Lisi, who is now my colleague on the journalism faculty at The King's College in lower Manhattan.
Here's some material gathered from the top of this piece:
Did you hear what Pope Francis said about (fill in the blank)? ...