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:

[Read more...]


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