Like political conventions and track-and-field meets, Papal visits deserve multiple story lines. Focus on one angle and the story is bound to be incomplete. Focus on several angles and the reader will get a broad view of reality.
In examining the coverage of Pope Benedict XVI’s weekend appearance at World Youth Day, I conclude that only one story met this standard of success. The article, by Tim Johnston of The New York Times, began with the Pope’s speech:
In his final address to hundreds of thousands of young Catholics gathered in Australia, Pope Benedict XVI on Sunday sharply criticized the violence and materialism of the modern age.
“A new generation of Christians is being called to help build a world in which God’s gift of life is welcomed, respected and cherished–not rejected, feared as a threat and destroyed,” the pope told a crowd, estimated by the organizers at 400,000, at a racecourse and nearby park.
Benedict urged young people to create “a new age in which hope liberates us from the shallowness, apathy and self-absorption which deaden our souls and poison our relationships.”
The story continued with a brief account of the Pope’s response to the sex abuse scandal in Australia:
On Saturday, he apologized for the sexual abuse of minors by Catholic priests and brothers in Australia. “I am deeply sorry for the pain and suffering the victims have endured, and I assure them that, as their pastor, I too share in their suffering,” he said in a brief departure from his prepared address.
Shortly before leaving on Monday morning, the pope held a small private Mass with a representative group of victims, answering critics who had condemned him for not meeting with the victims directly.
The article ended with another brief storyline, about local complaints about the cost of the event and news about the next World Youth Day.
The strength of Johnston’s story was its balance and fairness. He gave the Pope his say. He gave the activists their say. And he gave local and Catholics theirs.
These three qualities are not ends in themselves of course. If the Pope had announced his resignation, Johnston would have been foolish to write about the other angles. But in a story of this type, with no dominant narrative thread, Johnston made the right call.
Or Johnston seemed to make the right call. What was the extent of the priestly sex abuse in Australia? Was the scandal a cathartic issue as it was in the United States? Maybe the sex-abuse scandal was a major news story Down Under, but I assume it was not considering that Johnston and two other reporters failed to give readers sufficient context.
The Los Angeles Times, for example, wrote almost entirely about the sex-abuse scandal. It story included this voice-of-God line:
[A]s in his spring visit to the United States, one theme loomed over Benedict’s weeklong pilgrimage to Australia: the sexual abuse of minors by clergy.
A careful reader will wonder who determined that this theme loomed. Was it the media, victims and alleged victims, political activists (as tmatt’s story suggested), or mainstream Catholic leaders? Without an answer, it’s difficult to support the reporters’ thesis. Yes, reporters Traci Wilkinson and Jennifer Bennett did give readers a statistic about the number of convicted priests, but the time line was never mentioned.
The Associated Press, also, wrote almost entirely about the sex-abuse scandal:
Pope Benedict XVI met privately on Monday with Australians who were sexually abused as children by priests, in a gesture of contrition and concern over a scandal that has rocked the Roman Catholic church.
The pontiff held prayers and spoke with four representatives of abuse victims — two men and two women — in the last hours of a nine-day visit to Australia for the church’s global youth festival.
The abuse scandal was a sour undertone to the trip. On Saturday, Benedict delivered a forthright apology for the scandal, saying he was “deeply sorry” for the victims’ suffering.
The problem with the AP’s story was a lack of balance and fairness. Although the story does broach the Pope’s speech, it left a lot out. As GR reader Leroy Huizenga wrote,
While this article is better than some, it doesn’t mention Jesus or Christ or the Holy Spirit, all of which Benedict spent a lot of time on … In my view, this just doesn’t deal with the meat of what Benedict actually said.
Exactly. Which is why balance is so necessary.
(Image of World Youth Day in Australia by user Christopher Chan used under a Creative Commons license.)