As painful as it is to watch and to read, the sex abuse scandal in the Church needs to be covered in the media and covered well. Solid, accurate reporting will benefit not only the victims, and those who may have been falsely accused, but also the Church. Unfortunately, in my opinion, that’s not the case with the media recently. They have chosen to use the latest round of stories as an excuse to aggressively attack the pontificate of Pope Benedict XVI. And while a new report from the Pew Research Center stops short of criticizing the news media for their Papal coverage, it certainly points out this issue in terms of the numbers of stories, the media’s obsession with the current Vicar of Christ as well as the impact it has had on his public image.
According to a Press Release from Pew, during the six week period from March 12 through April 27th, 2010 the Pope was a “major focus of more than half of the reports on the scandal in the mainstream U.S media, including print, radio, network television, cable TV, and on-line news sources.” Pew says newspaper coverage of the Catholic clergy abuse scandal grew more intense this spring than at any other time since 2002, the year the scandal broke in the United States. The new study examined media coverage of the scandal in 52 secular outlets in the U.S including 11 newspapers, seven network TV programs, 15 cable TV shows, seven radio programs, and 12 news websites. Given the importance of the story, the researchers weren’t surprised by the amount of coverage or even that more was devoted to Pope Benedict, but the focus they said was something new that even top media researchers had never seen. They also noted the negative impact this has had on the Holy Father’s image worldwide.
“The amount of coverage devoted to the pope may not be unusual given his role in the Church and the media’s tendency to focus coverage of scandals on individuals rather than institutions. But the thrust of the recent coverage-dwelling particularly on allegations that the Pope abetted the cover up of abusive priests in his native Germany and elsewhere-has been toxic for Benedict’s image.”
According to a nationwide poll also conducted by Pew, just 12% of the public said the Pope has done a good or excellent job in addressing the scandal. That’s down from 39% in 2008. About seven in ten Americans or 71% said Pope Benedict has done a poor or only fair job up from about half or 48% of those who felt that way two years ago.
It’s no surprise that the Church and especially the Pope, have always been counter cultural. The Church must be held to a higher standard because we’re supposed to practice what we preach. But the media can’t have it both ways. When Pope Benedict began his Pontificate more than five years ago, the media labeled him “the Rottweiler.” They compared him to the tough German dog breed because of the Holy Father’s strong defense of Church doctrine and dogma. The media were extremely critical in 2005 of Pope Benedict because among other things, he wouldn’t call for the ordination of women, and did not back down on the issues of pro-life and traditional marriage-as if a new Pope can just come in and change centuries old teaching! But now they want to label him as weak and ineffective, and even go so far, as the Pew report points out, to accuse him of abetting a cover up. This is ridiculous as it was the Pope, who as then Cardinal Ratzinger heading up the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, started to get to the bottom of the scandal and call for change.
Again, as a concerned Catholic and as a journalist I believe the coverage of this crisis should continue to make sure the Church is doing all it can to get to the root of this problem that has plagued the faith now for decades. But is it too much to ask for the coverage to be at least somewhat fair and balanced and for the media to accurately report what the Pope has actually done to address the issue? Unfortunately I think I already know the answer to that question.
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