Flooding the papal coverage zone

We’ve certainly seen some abysmally bad religion news coverage ever since Pope Benedict XVI announced he was stepping down. But we’ve also seen some absolutely fantastic coverage. (Before we continue, please note the wording on this image — “Specializes in pastoral work, an important skill as Pope.” Funny, no?)

I sit in awe — every day — at the wonderful work done by John Allen, Jr. If you are likewise impressed with this man, you may want to read this Time profile of his work.

Anyway, I also rather liked the Washington Post’s serious coverage. Just in the last few days, we’ve seen extensive live coverage, and multiple angles for exploring the new pope. You can read about “Jorge Mario Bergoglio, now Pope Francis, known for simplicity and conservatism,” for instance. And there’s been great local coverage from a variety of viewpoints — as you can read in “D.C. area Catholics embrace symbolism of the election of first Latin American pope.”

There was a nice look at the significance of the name chosen by the new pope in “Pope Francis: His name reflects ‘his ministry for the poor’.”

And there were even some fun, lighthearted blogs:

What name will the new pope choose? Some clues in this infographic

New pope, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, rode the bus because he gave up his limo

and

Sorry, Jorge Mario Bergoglio is not the first non-European pope

Maybe it’s that I’m hopped up on painkillers but I just want to thank the editors and reporters for all their hard work covering this story from around the world. It paid off.

As for problems, the only ones I saw were that last blog item, which I think displays some minor confusion about the papacy (such as whether the modern papacy is equivalent to the old bishops of Rome) and an error of missing at least one non-European pope we have discussed (Gelasius).

There was also the oddly hostile piece headlined “Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina elected pope, takes name Pope Francis.” It began:

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Vatican secret ballots aren’t democratic?

Friends, I took a nasty fall a couple of days ago and have seriously injured my ankle. It’s not broken, but the ligament is barely hanging on to the ankle.

Or so the doc says.

Anyway, I’m hopped up on Percocet and it’s surprisingly difficult to get work done between the pain and the painkillers. You’ll be hearing from me in small doses for a few days.

I was able to follow the coverage of the new pope — on Twitter, at least — and found it all fascinating.

What do you think of these two tweets from New York Times Vatican reporter Rachel Donadio?

Wait for it.

This just in: Popes are elected behind closed doors in a meeting — shaped by centuries of church tradition — called a “conclave.”

Obviously democracies don’t require secret ballots but it didn’t occur to me that secret ballots were viewed by some as undemocratic. I wonder if this extends to all those countries with secret ballots.

Democracy image via Shutterstock.

Dudes with red hats deadlocked on pope winner

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The religion news world remains on pope watch, awaiting the selection of Benedict XVI’s successor.

Or, as a Twitter post by Religion News Service put it Tuesday afternoon:


Winner winner chicken dinner?

Even though I am no expert on the Roman Catholic Church or the papal selection process, the use of the term “winner” made me chuckle.

It’s as if the cardinals were picking lottery numbers rather than choosing a spiritual leader for a worldwide church. Alas, click the link to the RNS story now, and that wording no longer appears. Apparently, someone thought better of the original terminology.

Meanwhile, a GetReligion reader shared this headline from the BBC:

Cardinals deadlocked over next Pope

That reader noted:

Leave it to the Brits to give this dire headline. Everyone else is just reporting “black smoke.” How do they know it’s “deadlocked?” Do they have something that’s getting past the jamming devices?

At some point, the BBC changed “deadlocked” to “undecided.” Long live the Brits!

As a non-Catholic, my first recollection of the papal selection process dates back to 1978. That’s when smoke started billowing from the Vatican on all three major networks. Suddenly, the cartoons I enjoyed watching as a kid were replaced with somber-looking dudes with red hats (although I’m not entirely certain that my family owned a color television at that point).

Then Pope John Paul I died after just 33 days in office, and the process started all over again! What a traumatic experience for a 1o-year-old boy. Remember, we didn’t have 150 channels back then.

Surely I jest. A little.

Two decades later, I got my first major experience covering the Roman Catholic Church, as I shared in my introductory post for GetReligion three years ago:

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Interviewing ‘everyone’ about the conclave

I love that biting Leonard Cohen song “Everybody Knows.” It begins:

Everybody knows that the dice are loaded

Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed

Everybody knows the war is over

Everybody knows the good guys lost

Everybody knows the fight was fixed

The poor stay poor, the rich get rich

That’s how it goes, everybody knows

Great poetry. Possibly not the best approach for journalism, though. One Associated Press reporter used this approach for a lede on the Vatican conclave:

VATICAN CITY (AP) — The Vatican insists that the cardinals participating in the upcoming conclave will vote their conscience, each influenced only by silent prayers and reflection. Everybody knows, however, that power plays, vested interests and Machiavellian maneuvering are all part of the game, and that the horse-trading is already under way.

I kind of want to sing it. But as the Twitter image above shows, really this shows what a remarkable reporter we’re dealing with! How does one even interview “everyone”?

Is the “everybody” all the Cardinals? All billion Catholics in the world? All people in the world? No matter — it’s very impressive. Why everybody knows about how Machiavellian things are!

Anyway, interesting story with tons of speculation. Everybody knows how that works out.

Remember to substantiate charges

The International Business Times sure has a scoop. Headline:

Conclave 2013: Pope Benedict XVI ‘Did Nothing’ to Stop Paedophile Priest Nello Giraudo

The headline phrasing makes it seem like the conclave decided that Pope Benedict XVI “did nothing” to stop a pedophile priest. Or at least someone said he “did nothing” to stop a bad priest.

Which is why the actual story is so weird. I guess it’s mostly taken from an Italian TV report but there are some problems with following through with the allegations.

To get one thing out of the way, the “did nothing” from the headline is not an actual quote. Or if it is, the quote isn’t in the story. I’m not sure why it’s in quote marks. The top of the report:

Pope Benedict XVI has been accused of inaction over allegations of child sex abuse against an Italian priest.

Former priest Nello Giraudo, allegedly committed numerous sexual abuses on minors in the diocese of Savona, near Genoa, from 1980 to 2005, of which then-cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was made aware of in 2003 but failed to take action.

Many of the problems in the story would have been helped by just, for instance, telling us who, if anyone, is accusing Benedict of inaction. We’re told that former Savona bishop Domenico Calcagno sent a letter to Ratzinger asking for advice. We don’t know anything about how that letter was received, if or how it was responded to, or anything, really. Instead we’re told:

The Vatican neither opened an investigation nor reported the findings to Italian authorities.

That’s interesting information but in order to check it out, we need to have the words “according to …” included in the report.

It’s super easy to level accusations against someone but journalists should handle all allegations with the same care they would want if someone were accusing someone they knew of something ghastly. Lack of substantiation is a major problem — even if the accused is someone a journalist strenuously dislikes.

And while it’s easy to make a charge like “inaction,” journalists should know a little about who is responsible for pedophile priests and what options are on the table for handling them. Neither of these basic angles were handled well in the story.

Proofing image via Shutterstock.

All the anonymous Vatican voices in the Gray Lady

At this point in the conclave process, I’m sure that millions of liberal Catholics are carefully watching The New York Times daily coverage to see what the world’s most powerful newspaper has to say about who will be, and who should be, the next occupant of the Throne of St. Peter.

At the same time, I would imagine that traditional Catholics, as defined by doctrine rather than politics, are parsing the daily Times coverage from Rome with another agenda altogether. At this point, it is really interesting to pay close attention to who is, and who is not, continuing to talk to the representatives of the Great Gray Lady.

That’s a very interesting question, at the moment.

Why? Because it’s almost impossible right now to know who is providing information to the Times, if you expect to learn that kind of information by reading the attribution clauses in the newspaper’s own stories.

This steady use of anonymous sources should trouble supporters of the newspaper’s credibility — especially those of us who were encouraged, back in 2005, when we read the New York Times Company self study called “Preserving Our Readers’ Trust” (.pdf text is here). It included quite a bit of material urging Times editors to minimize the use of anonymous sources. The review panel offered three recommendations:

* Reporters must be more aggressive in pressing sources to put information and quotations on the record, especially sources who strongly desire to get their viewpoint into the paper.

* Editors must be more energetic in pressing reporters to get that information on the record. They must also recognize that persuading reticent sources to put their names behind sensitive disclosures is not easy; it may slow the reporting.

* When anonymity is unavoidable, reporters and editors must be more diligent in describing sources more fully. The basics include how the anonymous sources know what they know, why they are willing to provide the information and why they are entitled to anonymity.

Now, with these worthy Times standards in mind, read through the news story that ran under the headline, “Pope Wanted. Must Possess Magnetic Charm. And Grit.” It opens like this:

ROME – No candidate for pope can have it all. But the cardinals who will elect the next pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church seem to be looking for someone who combines the charisma of Pope John Paul II with the grit of what one Vatican analyst called, only slightly tongue in cheek, “Pope Rambo I.”

While it is too early to talk of front-runners, hints to the characteristics sought in a future pontiff can be discerned from the utterances of the cardinals who have spent the past week in meetings at the Vatican. Before Wednesday, when they stopped giving interviews, the cardinals frequently cited attributes the church now needs: a compelling communicator who wins souls through both his words and his holy bearing, and a fearless sheriff who can tackle the disarray and scandal in the Vatican.

Now, while the word “seems” is always a bit edgy in a lede, the key is that this material assures readers that they will be hearing information based on the “utterances of the cardinals” who are gathered at the Vatican. That would be a good thing — lots of direct quotes from specific cardinals.

Now, let’s look for that kind of authoritative material in the story. Let’s keep reading, because the next two paragraphs state the thesis:

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The high cost of waiting for the action in Rome

Friends, Romans and other anxious news consumers, some of you may not have seen the following update from Poynter.org about the current status of one of America’s most skilled scribes on all things inside-Catholic:

During an interview this weekend with Philadelphia Inquirer culture reporter Stephan Salisbury, Vatican blogger Rocco Palmo whipped out his iPad and canceled his flight to Rome.

Palmo had planned to be near the Vatican for the next two weeks of historic doings, but the cost of the trip proved too much. “The hotels!” he exclaims. “The media people going over are getting hosed!”

“People in Rome were calling me up this morning saying, ‘If you don’t come now you’re finished on this beat,” Palmo said in a phone interview with Poynter Sunday night. “It wasn’t out of intimidation but it was out of a concern with me for my work: ‘You’ve worked for this, you’ve earned it to be here.’ ”

However, the patriarch of the popular Whispers in the Loggia site is not in Italy at the moment. I was hoping that some major news network would snatch him up as an expert commentator, but, alas, that has not happened. I emailed Palmo to confirm his current location and he just rang my cell to let me know that he is still in Philadelphia, reporting and writing away — as always.

The question, for Palmo, is whether reporters actually need to be there — other than the obvious fact that television professionals have to be on site to get footage of the white smoke, the first comments from the balcony, the light on the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica, etc., etc.

Talking to Poynter, he also added:

Palmo also questioned the utility of covering the conclave on the scene: He expects cell phone service to be overwhelmed in St. Peter’s Square during the announcement of the new pope, and he may end up watching the big moment on TV in his room just so he can file.

Indeed, what Palmo keeps referring to as the first “social media conclave” means not just more competition but that he might be able to suss out developments better from home. … The announcement of a new Pope is a story “that lasts three seconds,” Palmo said, adding that “what matters is what happens once he starts hitting the ground.”

I would trust Palmo to know that his key sources will remain in touch with him through the same channels they have used in the past. The man is what he is.

But we are also seeing one of the truths of this digital age lived out in this conclave. There are fewer mainstream sharks in the news ocean, right now, which means that the make-up of the press army in Italy has almost certainly changed. To be blunt, there are fewer veteran Godbeat reporters around and, on top of that, there are fewer from organizations that afford the high cost of staying on the scene.

Which brings us to this sad reality: Opinion is cheap and information is expensive.

You can expect lots and lots of opinion from Rome in the days ahead. Many of the true pros couldn’t make the trip, because the expenses are just too high. The longer this story rolls on (with late arriving cardinals holding up the proceedings), the higher the bills will get.

That leads me to this question: Is there some chance that the Vatican powers that be are rather enjoying making the press cool it? Yes, I know that the Vatican’s leaders are concerned about leaks.

But still, what is the message between the lines in this Washington Post report and others like it?

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Fake bishop or episcopi vagantes?

Media outlets had a lot of fun with a recent story about a Vatican gatecrasher. A sample of the headlines include Time: Fake Bishop Tries to Sneak into Vatican Meeting; Vanity Fair: Theological Espionage! Fake Bishop Sneaks Into Vatican; NPR: At The Vatican, ‘No Rush’ To Set Conclave; And A Fake Bishop Tries To Get In; Daily Beast: Fake Bishop Sneaks Into Vatican; San Francisco Chronicle: Vatican not amused by fake bishop who posed with cardinals; and CNN: Fake bishop busted and booted from Vatican.

That story begins:

Move over, Tareq and Michaele Salahi, the Virginia ex-couple who famously – or infamously – crashed President Obama’s first White House state dinner. There’s a new impostor posing with dignitaries, and he set his sights on an even more coveted gathering.

Meet Ralph Napierski, a German self-declared bishop who reportedly called himself “Basilius,” said he was with the nonexistent “Italian Orthodox Church” and set out to infiltrate a Monday meeting of cardinals at the Vatican.

The fake bishop donned a purple sash (really a scarf) over his vestments and mingled with cardinals and others who’d flown in from around the globe ahead of the conclave to pick a new pope. He smiled wide and posed for cameras while shaking hands with Cardinal Sergio Sebiastiana. He tried to blend in.

And here’s ABC News: Prankster Nearly Sneaks Into Meeting of Cardinals

The Swiss Guard promptly ejected the man, later identified as Ralph Napiersi, who told reporters his name was “Basilius.” Napierski said he belonged to an Italian Orthodox Church, which does not exist.

A website that appears to be associated with him describes him as a bishop of Corpus Dei, a fictional Catholic group. The site not only has a fanciful coat of arms for the fake bishop – the motto “Horse of Christ” – it traces his phony credentials all the way back to an 18th Century Patriarch of Babylon.

Napierski is a proponent of “Jesus Yoga” and claims to be a keeper of relics, items of religious veneration because they were touched by or belonged to a saint.

“We want to equip churches (especialy [sic] those with low income) with high class relics,” it says on his website. There are lots of spelling mistakes on the site.

Now what’s fascinating to me about the media coverage of this situation is how it is 180 degrees different from the coverage we see of Roman Catholic WomenPriests! In those stories, there is no such language mocking the individuals claiming to be Catholic priests or the group they’re aligned with. There’s no real questioning of the claim to being genuinely Catholic in at least some sense.

But, as could be said about many extreme positions, this coverage goes way too far in the opposite direction. To understand how and why, I’d recommend reading through Orthodox pastor Andrew Damick’s post “Media Discovers Episcopus Vagans at Vatican, Film at 11.”

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