May 6, 2008

During U.S. Papal Visit, Media Focused on the Shepherd and His Flock

Pope Benedict XVI
Pope Benedict XVI speaks to members of the press on board
his flight to the United States on April 15, 2008.

May 6, 2008

Before the pope’s plane – dubbed “Shepherd One” – touched down at Andrews Air Force Base on April 15, the news media portrayed Pope Benedict XVI as a largely unknown religious figure about to introduce himself to American Catholics still recovering from the clergy sex abuse scandal.

By the time he left, the relationship between the relatively new pope and the hurting U.S. church was the primary story line in the mainstream news media’s coverage of the pontiff’s visit.

The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life and the Project for Excellence in Journalism have studied the news coverage of Pope Benedict’s visit to the United States, focusing on the week of April 14-20. The three major findings are:

  1. The media devoted significant amounts of time and space to the story. All told, the pope’s visit accounted for 16% of the overall “newshole,” the time or space available in an outlet for news content, during the week of April 14-20. In the first four months of 2008, the only stories that received more coverage during a single week were the presidential campaign, the troubled U.S. economy and the Eliot Spitzer sex scandal.
  2. Two story lines dominated the coverage. Out of all the newshole dedicated to the pope’s visit, more than half (54%) was comprised of stories that focused on the impact of the clergy sex abuse scandal (37%) or on the relationship between Pope Benedict and American Catholics (17%).
  3. Coverage, for the most part, ignored the pope’s relationships with external constituencies. Just 1% focused on the pope’s relationships with other religious leaders or other faiths, and only 3% focused on the pope and the Bush administration or the pope and American politics. Only 2% of the coverage made any reference to the U.S. presidential campaign.

Anticipation of the Pope’s First Visit to the U.S.

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Q&A: Pope Benedict’s Papacy Still Coming Into Focus
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In advance of the pope’s April 15-20 visit, a national survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life and the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press showed just how unknown Pope Benedict was in the U.S. as he approached the end of the third year of his papacy. The survey found that 81% of Americans and 61% of American Catholics had heard little or nothing about the pope.

Since this was the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s first visit to the U.S. as pope, much of the pre-trip coverage focused on what was at stake, not only for Pope Benedict but for American Catholics, who account for nearly one-quarter of U.S. adults:

  • “Pope’s U.S. visit seen as pivotal,” said an April 14 headline above a front-page article in the Chicago Tribune.
  • “In U.S., a Pained and Uncertain Church Awaits the Pope,” said the headline on a front-page article in the April 14 New York Times.
  • A TIME magazine article that ran on Yahoo! April 14 put the challenge more bluntly: “Benedict’s arrival in the U.S. is being seen as a make-or-break moment for Rome to regain the trust of its American flock, the third largest national contingent within a worldwide Catholic Church of 1.1 billion faithful.”

Quantity of Coverage

How did the press behave once the pope finally arrived? With the coverage occupying 16% of the newshole for the week, it is clear that they paid attention. By quantitative measures alone, the visit was a major event, even with competition from the presidential campaign (31%), the raid on a Texas religious compound (8%), the travails of the U.S. economy (5%), the Iraq War (3%) and the first anniversary of the shootings at Virginia Tech (2%).
Figure 1
All of the media gave the pope significant attention, and the coverage was fairly consistent across all five major media sectors studied (online, cable TV, newspapers, network TV and radio). Indeed, the papal visit placed second for the week in all but the online sector, which featured it as the top story.A Focus on the Church and its Members
Figure 1
In a closer look at the intensive papal press coverage, our breakdown of the various story lines indicates that the media tended to focus on the church and its members, even though a meeting with the president at the White House, interaction with non-Catholic religious leaders and other actions by the pope presented ample opportunity to place the focus beyond Catholicism itself. More than half (54%) of the coverage focused on two sub-stories: the impact of the clergy sex abuse scandal (37%) and the pope’s relationship with American Catholics (17%).

A Focus on the Church and its Members

In a closer look at the intensive papal press coverage, our breakdown of the various story lines indicates that the media tended to focus on the church and its members, even though a meeting with the president at the White House, interaction with non-Catholic religious leaders and other actions by the pope presented ample opportunity to place the focus beyond Catholicism itself. More than half (54%) of the coverage focused on two sub-stories: the impact of the clergy sex abuse scandal (37%) and the pope’s relationship with American Catholics (17%).
Figure 2
Note: The “Logistics of Visit” story focus indicates news reports that addressed security concerns and other issues in advance of papal appearances. The “Straightforward coverage of events” story focus denotes straightforward coverage of events that had already occurred, most often papal appearances.

Papal Admission of Shame Makes Headlines

Even before Pope Benedict arrived in the U.S., the clergy sex abuse scandal had become a significant focus of the media’s coverage about his visit. The Chicago Tribune‘s April 14 story (“Pope’s U.S. visit seen as pivotal”) began this way: “Shortly after he sets foot on American soil this week, Pope Benedict XVI will strive to set a tone of compassion and reassurance for a church haunted by the sins of sexually abusive priests.”

Exactly how he would do that was unknown. The official schedule made no mention of a meeting with abuse victims. But while en route to the U.S., the pope signaled he was going to address the issue directly when he stood in front of journalists on board Shepherd One to answer four written questions, including one on the scandal. Pope Benedict said he felt “deeply ashamed” of the scandal, offering a description of his personal emotion, which the media emphasized.

ABC’s Chris Cuomo, reporting the next day on “Good Morning America,” described the scene this way: “Even before his plane … touched down, the pope addressed one of the most troubling issues in the American Catholic Church, the priest abuse scandal, telling reporters on his flight that the shame of the church is deeply felt.”

The New York Times‘ April 16 headline said, “Pope, in U.S., Is ‘Ashamed’ of Pedophile Priests.” On CNN’s “AndersonCooper360,” the network’s veteran Vatican analyst, John Allen, said he was the reporter who submitted the question on the scandal several days before the trip began. Allen was told the pope would answer the question in Italian.

“I stressed to the pope,” said Allen, “that, because this was such an important topic, it would be valuable to have it from him in English. And he was quite ready to do that. So, I think what that reflects is an understanding on the part of this pope that he cannot come into the United States and not engage what has been the deepest wound in the life of the Catholic Church in this country for more than its 200-year history, which, of course, is the sex abuse crisis.”

Media Surprised by Meeting with Abuse Victims

Thursday, April 17, was a day in which the pope celebrated Mass at a packed baseball stadium, addressed U.S. bishops at Catholic University and met with leaders of other religions, all in Washington, D.C. But it was a private meeting not on the schedule that some in the news media found most remarkable.

Anchor Charles Gibson of ABC News led his April 17 “World News Tonight” broadcast with the development. “Good evening,” said Gibson, “Pope Benedict’s trip to this country promised to make headlines. But what happened behind closed doors this afternoon will make history. Privately, painfully, he met with sexual abuse victims from Boston, who were molested by Catholic priests.”

Gibson devoted 4 minutes and 43 seconds to the story, a lengthy period of time by network news standards. This included a segment from reporter Dan Harris in Washington, D.C., and a studio interview with ABC’s Vatican consultant, the Rev. Keith Pecklers, a Catholic priest and professor at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, who pointed out that the meeting with victims was the fourth reference the pope had made to the scandal on the trip.

“The pope, by nature, is very timid,” said Pecklers. “He’s a diplomat. He’s quiet. And what we’ve seen this week is really a pope who is speaking out very forthrightly, very prophetically, very directly and concretely, and wanting to give us the message that he is listening to the American people, that he understands the gravity of this. And it will not happen again.”

Media Largely Ignored the Church’s External Relationships

What the media did not cover during the pope’s U.S. visit may be as noteworthy as what it did cover:

  • A controversial 2006 portrayal of the Prophet Muhammad by Pope Benedict prompted a global uproar among Muslims, and the pope’s March 2008 baptism of a Muslim convert to Catholicism raised more than a few eyebrows, yet the pope’s April 17 meeting in Washington, D.C., with Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and Jews received little media attention. Overall, only 1% of the newshole dedicated to the pope’s visit focused on his relations with other religious leaders or faiths.
  • On April 16, Pope Benedict became only the second pontiff ever to visit the White House. He met privately with President Bush to discuss, among other things, the plight of Christians in Iraq. He also gave an address on the South Lawn in which he said, “a democracy without values can lose its very soul.” The more political aspects of the pope’s visit were not a major factor in the coverage. Only 3% focused on the pope and the Bush administration or on Pope Benedict and American politics.
  • In a presidential election year, the pope touched on a few policy issues that went beyond the church’s well-known opposition to abortion. For example, the pope addressed environmentalism, saying that “the earth itself groans under the weight of consumerist greed and irresponsible exploitation.” He also commented on immigration in a joint statement with Bush that pointed to “the need for a coordinated policy” that ensures “humane treatment and the well being” of immigrant families. But with a few notable exceptions, such as an April 20 New York Timesarticle on the pope and his immigration stance, such issues were not a major focus of coverage. Less than 2% of the coverage made any reference to the U.S. presidential campaign.

Coverage Peaked on Visit’s Second Day

The pope’s airborne comment about being “ashamed,” reported in April 16 newspapers, helped make that day the quantitative peak of coverage, with 49 stories out of the 179-story sample. April 16 was also the day Pope Benedict visited the White House, with same-day television and radio coverage lifting the story count. April 18, highlighted by the pope’s address to the United Nations, was the second strongest day, with 40 stories, but coverage fell off after that, even though the papal itinerary included an April 19 Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan and an April 20 visit to Ground Zero, followed by Mass that afternoon at Yankee Stadium before the pontiff departed for Rome.
Figure 3

Note: The Project for Excellence in Journalism’s weekly coding operation does not include Saturday coverage, which is reflected by the absence of April 19 data in the chart above.

Survey: Pope’s Image Improves After Visit

What impact did Pope Benedict XVI’s visit have on public opinion? A post-visit survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press and the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life finds that the pope is viewed more favorably than he was a few weeks before his trip. The survey shows that 61% of Americans have a favorable impression of the pope, up from 52% in late March. Conducted April 23-30 among 1,000 adults, the survey finds a dramatic increase in the proportion of Catholics expressing highly favorable views of the pontiff. Nearly half (49%) of Catholics say they have a very favorable opinion of the pope, up from 36% in late March. Overall, positive opinions of Pope Benedict among Catholics have risen from 74% to 83%.

About the Weekly News Coverage Index

The methodology used to assess newshole was developed by PEJ for its News Coverage Index, the largest effort ever to measure and analyze the American news media on a continuing basis. The index examines some four dozen news outlets in real time to determine what is being covered and what is not, giving a broad sense of the American news agenda. The outlets studied come from the five main sectors of mainstream media: print, network TV, cable, online and radio. They include evening and morning network news, several hours of daytime and prime-time cable news each day, newspapers from around the country, the top online news sites, and radio, including headlines, long form programs and talk. In all, the index sample includes 48 outlets (35 each weekday with some rotation) every Sunday through Friday.

About This Report

This report is a joint effort of the Project for Excellence in Journalism and the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. It is the first of what will be occasional studies of the news media’s coverage of religion. PEJ and the Forum are projects of the Washington-based Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan “fact tank” that provides information on the issues, attitudes and trends shaping America and the world.