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.

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