Pope at Christmas: You write the lede

Pope BenedictGreetings from Crawford, Texas, home of my professor brother and, from time to time, of someone named George W. Bush. I wonder if I could get arrested for Christmas caroling out at the ranch tonight? After all, it is still Christmas.

But I digress. One of my favorite things to do as a journalism professor is to hand my students the full text of a speech and then ask them to write their own lead and top three or four paragraphs. Then I show them MSM leads and ask them how they think the major reporters selected the topixcs on which they decided to focus.

So here is an example, only we’ll take it in reverse.

So here is a look at the top of Los Angeles Times reporter Tracy Wilkinson’s story covering the Christmas messages of Pope Benedict XVI.

In his first Christmas message as pope, Benedict XVI called on people across the globe Sunday to open their hearts to Christ as a way to combat poverty, war and the sterility of a world obsessed with technological advance. …

Addressing an enormous Christmas Day crowd, which filled St. Peter’s Square despite the cold and rain, Benedict urged Christian unity as a way to draw upon the “life-giving power of the child of Bethlehem” to create a “new world order” that can rectify ethical and economic injustices.

“A united humanity will be able to confront the many troubling problems of the present time,” the pope said, “from the menace of terrorism to the humiliating poverty in which millions of human beings live, from the proliferation of weapons to the pandemics and the environmental destruction which threatens the future of our planet.”

Now, I realize that the pope spoke to several different audiences in the crucial Christmas appearances. Click here to see the full text of the Urbi Et Orbi message on which this lead is based. Nevertheless, I still think that it is interesting to contrast the tone of the news story, which is oriented almost totally to issue of public policy around the globe, and the text of Benedict’s actual Christmas sermon, as posted by the Holy See at its website.

Believe me, I understand that popes are hard to quote. Sound bites are hard to come by, when it comes time to covering a papal address or sermon. What, for example, is a mainstream journalist supposed to do with the following — which is the heart of the actual Christmas sermon and a major link to the messages of the late John Paul II?

Hang on, because this will get quite involved. That’s the point.

Wherever God’s glory appears, light spreads throughout the world. Saint John tells us that “God is light and in him is no darkness” (1 Jn 1:5). The light is a source of life.

But first, light means knowledge; it means truth, as contrasted with the darkness of falsehood and ignorance. Light gives us life, it shows us the way. But light, as a source of heat, also means love. Where there is love, light shines forth in the world; where there is hatred, the world remains in darkness. In the stable of Bethlehem there appeared the great light which the world awaits. In that Child lying in the stable, God has shown his glory — the glory of love, which gives itself away, stripping itself of all grandeur in order to guide us along the way of love. The light of Bethlehem has never been extinguished. In every age it has touched men and women, “it has shone around them.” Wherever people put their faith in that Child, charity also sprang up — charity towards others, loving concern for the weak and the suffering, the grace of forgiveness. … In that Child, God countered the violence of this world with his own goodness. He calls us to follow that Child.

So where is the lead in that sermon? If you are writing for the Los Angeles Times, do you simply HAVE to come up with a more topical, even political, lead? Is that the very definition of news?

Just asking. The pope probably thinks that the sermon was important, too. A few readers might agree with him, even in Los Angeles.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Alan Jacobs

    This is kind of fun, tmatt:

    POPE SAYS CHRIST LIGHT OF WORLD
    Follow that Child, exhorts Pontiff

    LIGHT, LOVE GOOD; HATE, DARKNESS BAD
    Clear distinctions from church leader

  • Michael

    I think I have it rough trying to write a story about a speech I’ve heard variations of probably 10 times. Now imagine writing a story about a sermon that has, with variations, been given at least 1000 times.

  • Tom Breen

    Drawing a contrast between life-affirming light and the kind of darkness which inspires the growth of hatred, Pope Benedict XVI said in a Christmas sermon that God is the source of all that is good.

    “Wherever God’s glory appears, light spreads throughout the world,” the pontiff said from St. Peter’s Basilica during Mass in the early hours of Sunday.

    Reminding his listeners that the current holiday commemorates the Christian belief that God became human on Christmas day nearly 2,000 years ago, Benedict urged the standing-room-only crowd to follow the example set by Jesus Christ.

    “In the stable of Bethlehem there appeared the great light which the world awaits,” the pope said, in his first homily as head of the billion-strong Roman Catholic Church.

    “In that Child lying in the stable, God has shown his glory — the glory of love, which gives itself away, stripping itself of all grandeur in order to guide us along the way of love,” he said.

  • http://www.joe-perez.com/ Joe Perez

    Amidst the gray skies that overhung Rome like a blanket of misery, and standing before an obsidian wall that obscured the entrance to the Vatican, John Paul II emitted a heaving sigh and then, obviously fatigued, gave a short speech on what is one of the shortest day of the year. Ironically, the subject of the papal address was lightness. The speech made no mention of the dark clouds of moral scandals that have rocked the Catholic Church.

  • Dan

    Tom: Nice job.

    Joe & Alan: Clever.

  • Brad

    I’m guessing the average journalist would feel kind of weird actually covering the religious language of a Papal address, so they stick to the policy and current affairs sections.

    As to the above options, I like Tom’s piece (which does cover well the religious language I referenced) and “Follow that Child” for a headline.

    Joe’s is a bit cynical for a Christmas day sermon!

  • John

    Joe, um… you where trying to be satirical or something when you called him John Paul II, weren’t you?

    Or was that some sort of freudian slip?

    Or perhaps a freudian knee jerk?

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