Godbeat 101: Localizing the pope resignation story

For a newspaper junkie, one of the joys of the digital age is being able to scan hundreds of front pages when major breaking news occurs.

And the first resignation of a pope in nearly 600 years falls under the category of major breaking news, right?

Already, tmatt and Mollie have tackled key angles and questions in the media’s coverage of Pope Benedict XVI’s surprising announcement — read their posts here, here, here and here.

I want to focus on the exceptional — and in a few cases, not-so-exceptional — reporting on the 85-year-old pontiff’s decision by some of the nation’s leading regional newspapers.

On breaking news such as this, reporters at major metro dailies scramble to “localize” the big international story. For most, that means seeking comment from the local bishop or archbishop. It means visiting a daily Mass and interviewing the priest and parishioners. It means contacting experts at the closest Catholic university or seminary.

Peter Smith, the Godbeat pro at the Louisville Courier-Journal, produced one of my favorite local front-page stories:

The stunning news came through early morning tweets, texts and broadcasts.

Throughout the Archdiocese of Louisville on Monday, Catholics were processing Pope Benedict XVI’s decision to become the first pontiff in nearly 600 years to leave the papacy by resignation.

Louisville Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, who has met Benedict many times and is vice president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said that it was a “morally strong” decision.

Smith’s story avoids the editorialization about Benedict and the Catholic Church found in so many national reports. Instead, Smith stays true to old-fashioned journalistic virtues, quoting specific sources — such as Kurtz — by name and allowing them to react to Benedict’s announcement and reflect on his eight years as pope.

Likewise, The Dallas Morning News does a nice job of sticking to the facts — although its report lacks Smith’s writing eloquence:

The resignation of 85-year-old Pope Benedict XVI is a symptom of a changing world, where leaders are expected to make split-second decisions and more appearances than humanly possible, Bishop Kevin Farrell said Monday.

“I believe this was a sign of his great love for the Catholic Church,” said Farrell, who leads the Dallas diocese of 1.2 million Catholics. He was appointed by Benedict in 2007.

Benedict is the first pope to resign in over 600 years, and his tenure will end at 8 p.m. Feb. 28.

Farrell said he was shocked when he heard the news, but the feeling diminished upon further reflection on the pope’s declining health and the increasing expectations of the Catholic Church’s highest leader.

On the other hand, The Arizona Republic’s front-page report reads more like an editorial — one highly critical of Benedict and the Catholic Church — than an impartial news report.

This section of the Arizona story is typical of that newspaper’s slanted approach:

The Rev. Robert Clements, pastor of All Saints Catholic Newman Center at Arizona State University, said Benedict has been “a revitalizing force in the church.”

But not everyone agrees.

Robert Blair Kaiser, a longtime Vatican reporter for Time magazine, pointed to declining church memberships in Europe and the United States and said Benedict was a failure as a leader.

“Nothing he has done has stemmed the outflow,” Kaiser said.

Noting the unprecedented nature of Benedict’s departure, Kaiser said he expects the conclave to be “a watershed in the history of the church.”

“I think some cardinals will have ideas about what we need to do, about what changes we need to make,” Kaiser said.

The church has faced numerous challenges in recent years, including the ongoing sex-abuse scandal and pressure to consider married or female priests. Birth control, gay marriage, crackdowns on dissent and the role of American Catholic nuns have posed problems.

Internally, the church has struggled with financial issues and leaks from inside the Vatican government.

Benedict was seen as a conservative prelate, although he took Vatican involvement in the abuse scandal to new levels. While serving as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, a post he took in 1981, he persuaded John Paul II to consolidate abuse matters in that office.

But he did not act quickly enough for most people. Two Catholic leaders in the United States, including the bishop of Kansas City, Mo., Robert Finn, have been convicted of crimes stemming from failure to report abusive priests, but the pope has taken action against neither.

The Hartford Courant’s otherwise fine front-page story, meanwhile, suffers from vagueness and a somewhat glaring factual error.

The vagueness:

The pope has been criticized for being too conservative.

The factual error:

The pope’s announcement marks the first time in about 700 years that a pope has resigned.

Unless all the other reports are wrong, the actual last time a pope resigned was nearly 600 years ago (Gregory XII in 1415).

While most local reports avoided speculative language up high — such as predicting who the next pope will be or what his resignation will mean — some veteran religion writers chose forward-thinking pegs, with varying degrees of success.

For example, Bob Smietana of The Tennessean makes this broad statement in the lede of his front-page story:

Pope Benedict XVI’s announcement that he’ll resign this month as leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics stunned many but could set a new standard for future popes exiting the role, those who study the papacy say.

Give Smietana credit for (1) providing at least some general attribution up high and (2) quoting specific sources by name later in the piece to back up his thesis.

Over at the Chicago Tribune, Manya A. Brachear launches into her front-page report this way (boldface emphasis mine):

As he nears his own retirement, Cardinal Francis George will head to Rome likely to play a powerful role in choosing Pope Benedict XVI’s successor and charting a course for the next chapter of the Roman Catholic Church.

Maybe I’m overly cautious, but I’m not certain I’d be comfortable making that statement without attributing it to a named source. To her credit, Brachear later quotes named sources who speak to George’s influence, but at the end of the generally exceptional piece, I’m still not 100 percent certain that he will “play a powerful role” in the selection of the next pope.

Finally, at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Tim Townsend’s front-page story analyzes the long odds of an American — specifically Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York — succeeding Benedict as pope:

After the initial surprise of hearing Monday morning that Pope Benedict XVI would resign at the end of the month — the first pope in 600 years to do so — the eyes of many American Catholics turned to New York, and its archbishop, Cardinal Timothy Dolan.

Prevailing modern wisdom has been that an American — or a citizen of any superpower — could not be elected pope. Many Vatican watchers still think that’s true, but others say that Dolan, a Ballwin native, may represent the first real prospect of an American pontificate.

“For the first time, an American will get taken seriously as a possibility,” said John Allen of the National Catholic Reporter.

While the likelihood of a Dolan papacy is regarded as remote by most observers, he has attracted attention — and public praise from Benedict himself — for his high-profile tenure in New York.

I like the angle Townsend chose, although I wonder if he relies too heavily on Allen — who is quoted frequently throughout the piece — to back up his thesis. Fellow GetReligionistas reading this, I’d be curious to know what you think of that specific concern?

Obviously, the seven local stories I highlighted represent just a small sampling of newspaper coverage nationwide. Kind readers, if you see other stories deserving of GetReligion critique — positive or negative — please provide links.

Images via Shutterstock

About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • Matt

    Unless all the other reports are wrong, the actual last time a pope resigned was nearly 600 years ago (Gregory XII in 1415).

    The “700 years” figure is certainly not a simple mistake, but a decision to reference Celestine V instead of Gregory XII. I’ve seen variation in news stories on this point. Gregory XII resigned as part of an effort to solve a difficult political situation, while Celestine V is a much closer parallel to B16. Wikipedia (at least currently) mentions Celestine V as the last pope to resign willingly. At least with that qualifier, there is no error.

    • Bobby Ross Jr.

      Ah, some intrigue. Thanks, Matt!

      • Martha

        Personally, I’d go with the seven hundred years – Gregory XII resigned as part of a deal to try to sort out the mess of the Avignon Schism, and there were so many popes and anti-popes knocking around Europe then, there’s still debate as to who was what. To quote the Wikipedia article on Robert Hugh Benson’s 1908 Catholic SF/End Days novel, “The Lord of the World”:

        “When this novel was written in 1908, Antipopes Alexander V and John XXIII were seen as real Popes (so, Benson’s Pope John is “XXIV” and not “XXIII”) and Pope Silvester III was seen as an Antipope (so, Benson’s Pope Silvester is “III” and not “IV”).”

        Sticking with Celestine V is less complicated and, as Matt says, fits the situation better :-)

        • Bobby Ross Jr.

          OK, you have piqued my curiosity.

          I went to the Hartford website. Here and here (and probably elsewhere), other items on the Courant site refer to six centuries or 600 years. So I suspect that the reference to 700 years is more a matter of bad math than a conscious decision to go against the prevailing media storyline.

          • Bobby Ross Jr.

            Of course, the best approach is to do what writers like Smietana did and give readers the facts to check the paper’s math:

            About 10 previous popes have resigned over the past 2,000 years, said Meinrad Scherer-Emunds of U.S. Catholic magazine.

            The last was Gregory XII, who stepped down in 1415. At the time, there were actually three men who claimed the office of pope. Pope Gregory stepped down to help heal a split in the church.

            A previous pope, Celestine V, quit in 1294 after 15 weeks in office. He resigned because he was a terrible pope, said Jon Sweeney, author of “The Pope Who Quit,” which tells Celestine’s story. Pope Benedict visited Celestine’s grave in 2009 after the church where the medieval pope is buried was damaged in an earthquake, Sweeney said.

  • FW Ken

    Most of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram stories were from the AP, but this was a basic story that hit the local angle (we need a bishop) and provided some local quotes.

    http://www.star-telegram.com/2013/02/11/4614933/a-new-fort-worth-bishop-may-be.html

    • Bobby Ross Jr.

      Thanks for the link, FW Ken.

      Noticed this line:

      One thing that could make the selection of a new pope more interesting to the public would be if he comes from a different part of the world, he noted.

      Several of the local reports I read explored the possibility of a pope being chosen from outside Europe. I just ran out of space to mention that.

  • Julia

    Great quote in the Dallas paper: “It’s never boring being Catholic,” the Rev. Jonathan Austin said as he led lunchtime Mass at St. Jude Chapel in downtown Dallas.

  • sari

    The Austin American Statesman’s local story:

    http://www.statesman.com/news/news/local/austin-diocese-bishop-sets-press-conference-on-pap/nWLtm/

    I liked how the reporter concentrated on local clergy and parishioners’ responses to Pope Benedict’s decision and avoided the political end altogether. I also found the final quote interesting; Bishop Vasquez is much more conservative than his predecessor, caused more than a few waves after he was installed (some of which directly affected the Jewish community), but addressed social justice rather than the more contentious issues put forward in other articles.

    The Statesman also carried the major AP stories, which have already been discussed here. All were on the front page of today’s paper.

    • Bobby Ross Jr.

      Thanks for the link, Sari.

      I, too, liked that the reporter let the local clergy and parishioners react in their own words — free of editorialization on the newspaper’s part.

  • Thinkling

    I am not a big fan of one source dominating a piece, but I should point out that John Allen is one of the best strictly Catholic Godbeat reporters out there. He and Rocco Palmo, who was plugged in a recent GR piece, are both on the short list of if-they-have-written-about-some-issue-you-should-read-them. Neither would write something like the Arizona Republic piece, nor a mind numbing hagiographic one.

    • Bobby Ross Jr.

      Thanks, Thinkling.

      I have read similar statements about John Allen’s level of expertise by some of my fellow GetReligionistas, which is why I’m curious about what they think of this particular piece.

    • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

      But I still think Tim Townsend could have gone to some other sources besides John Allen and Father Reese. There are other papal experts to be found at places like Notre Dame, Catholic University, etc. And I’m sure there are some others to be found in St. Louis.

  • Will

    The Daily News front page asserts “Cardinal Dolan on short list of successors”. As circulated by the Vatican HR director? (Well, you did say “localizing”.)
    While the Post has the cringe-making head “I’M OUTTA HERE GUYS! Pope gives God two weeks notice”
    Where is Dawn Eden when we need her?

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    I couldn’t help but notice that to get a nasty dig at the pope the Arizona newspaper turned to a reporter on the payroll of Time magazine, a pillar of the frequently anti-Catholic liberal mainstream news media.

  • http://www.stltoday.com/lifestyles/faith-and-values/ Tim Townsend

    Guilty as charged, Bobby. I really didn’t want to use Allen or Reese – not because they’re not both great, but because of their over-use. (I also quoted the dean of Catholic U.’s school of canon law.) But for some behind-the-scenes background (not excuses, really – ok, sort of): the story on Dolan was assigned late in the day and those three got back to me first. I was also working on another A1 story, that ran next to the Dolan piece, about an LCMS issue re. Newtown that Mollie is familiar with. Anyway – lazy sourcing? Yes. But that happens sometimes when news is flying fast.

    • Bobby Ross Jr.

      Tim,

      Thanks for taking time to share the “inside scoop” on how that story came to be. Appreciate it.

  • Tim H

    What exactly is “Benedict was seen as a conservative prelate, although he took Vatican involvement in the abuse scandal to new levels” supposed to mean? How is investigating child abuse in any way at odds with being conservative?

    Also, regardless of his nationality or suitability, Cardinal Dolan won’t be chosen because his leadership is too urgently needed in the US right now.

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