Reuters engages in papal Kremlinology

Reuters engages in papal Kremlinology June 26, 2013

Pope Francis did not attend a musical gala last Saturday evening at the Vatican due to the press of work. This event prompted fierce speculation in the Italian press and a bout of papal Kremlinology from Reuters.

It may well be the pope’s absence from a concert given by the RAI symphony orchestra on 22 June 2013 was a deliberate snub — but the heavy breathing and speculation that stands in for factual reporting here does not engender confidence that that is necessarily so.

The article entitled “Pope ‘snub’ of concert stuns cardinals, sends signal” opens with a statement that is, simply stated, an assertion.

A last-minute no-show by Pope Francis at a concert where he was to have been the guest of honor has sent another clear signal that he is going to do things his way and does not like the Vatican high life.

Pope Francis did not attend the concert. That is clear enough — but was it a last-minute no-show? And to whom is it clear that this is a pointed message about the Vatican high life? And how do we know this? Where are the attribution clauses used by journalists?

Having made strong claims in the lede, Reuters should now deliver. The article continues:

The gala classical concert on Saturday was scheduled before his election in March. But the white papal armchair set up in the presumption that he would be there remained empty.

Was this a scheduling conflict? Was Pope Benedict XVI — a music lover — expected, or was it assumed Francis would take his place? Was this on the pope’s published agenda?

This detail leads to more questions. The assertions made in the lede are not in doubt, but Reuters better not wait too long before defending them.

Minutes before the concert was due to start, an archbishop told the crowd of cardinals and Italian dignitaries that an “urgent commitment that cannot be postponed” would prevent Francis from attending. The prelates, assured that health was not the reason for the no-show, looked disoriented, realizing that the message he wanted to send was that, with the Church in crisis, he — and perhaps they — had too much pastoral work to do to attend social events.

Which archbishop spoke? Papal secretary or a concert organizer? An observer might say the gathered prelates “looked disoriented”, but only a novelist (or a mind reader) could state that they shared a common thought. The story is starting to go under — but there is still time to save it.

An unnamed source is then produced to give support to the lede, and his comments will make or break the story — but all he says is:

“It took us by surprise,” said one Vatican source on Monday. “We are still in a period of growing pains. He is still learning how to be pope and we are still learning how he wants to do it.”

“In Argentina, they probably knew not to arrange social events like concerts for him because he probably wouldn’t go,” said the source, who spoke anonymously because he is not authorized to discuss the issue.

The picture of the empty chair was used in many Italian papers, with Monday’s Corriere della Sera newspaper calling his decision “a show of force” to illustrate the simple style he wants Church officials to embrace.

And that’s it.

The remainder of the story is padded with background details to support the argument — but there is nothing here to allow this to be called a news story.

If Reuters took ownership of the editorial voice rather than push it off onto Corriere della Sera or an unnamed functionary this story would be an acceptable news analysis piece. Instead we have a story that feels like it was written in the back of a taxi on the way to the airport as deadline time fast approaches.

In the end, this story is an interesting example of what can be called Vatican Kremlinology. It seeks to divine meaning from symbolic acts. Who stands next to whom? What does a particular form of vestment signify? What does an empty white chair mean? Is it a sign of a purge? Semiotics may be great fun to graduate students, but reporters should stick to the presentation of facts.

Signs, symbolism and their meanings can play a role in explaining facts, but they should not be a substitute for facts in newspaper reporting.

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5 responses to “Reuters engages in papal Kremlinology”

  1. They are dealing with a man who for very good reason has little respect for the Roman Curia. There is much work to be done if the Roman Church is to be saved and with it much of Western Christianity. Personally, I would prefer to see the papacy go down in flames but for the old bishopic of Rome to rise renewed in its place.

    • “Overinterpreting” is an excellent word for it. However, I’m not inclined to blame the media in this case, because the Catholic commentariate is doing it as well.

  2. This is an extreme over-reading of the events. We do not know what Pope Francis was actually doing, and without knowing that I think it is overreading. Also, I think taking one event to mean a trend is over stating the matter. I also got the impression the spokesperson really did not know how many concerts Francis had attended while archbishop.