What is news? Who gets to define that term?
These are questions that I ask students when I teach journalism during their freshman year in college.
It sounds like a simple question — but increasingly an important one as we examine trends in recent religion coverage in the news media.
The bottom line: There is a trend where many religion stories — especially those regarding Catholicism — receive zero coverage whatsoever in the secular mainstream press. However, stories about evangelicals, Anglicans, Eastern Orthodoxy and other faiths have also vanished or never appeared in the first place.
When some issues do get coverage, it’s often because it has more to do with politics than debates about doctrine, theology or faith. Why?
That’s the key question.
It takes us back to the original question: What is news?
This trend includes Catholic stories that I have written about here — vandalism of churches/pro-life centers and the FBI spying on parishioners — and others that I have not regarding other faith traditions such as the split in the Anglican Communion.
All of these stories are news — “big” news, even. However, they clash with what left-leaning readers of major legacy news organizations want to see and hear in the publications that they support with their online clicks and subscription payments. That appears to affect a majority of elite editors and reporters (click here for tmatt’s Religion & Liberty manifesto on that topic).
Coverage of these stories either never happened or just vanished, like the manifesto of the Nashville school shooter. Regarding Catholic storylines, a recent First Things essay — written by a prominent American bishop — that all but accused a cardinal of heresy never drew any mainstream media ink.
Neither have the statements of a progressive cardinal who now heads the pro-life Vatican office who says he has no issue with euthanasia.
All these stories have a narrative that runs counter to progressive “template” defining what is news. Unfortunately, many in the news media prefer to manager narratives rather than report the news fairly. Instead, the mainstream press likes the sensational — news that gets clicks — on St. Pope John Paul II and accusations that he was not the saint the church makes him out to be.
The tarnished halo story is one they cannot resist. On this last note, accusations that journalistically wouldn’t pass the sniff test got press attention. I am specifically referring to the story about the late pope-made-saint “prowled” Rome’s streets looking for underage girls to molest.
Such coverage stems from the disappearance of Emanuela Orlandi, a 15-year-old girl who lived in the Vatican and vanished in 1983. Her brother, Pietro Orlandi, has made it his life’s mission to find out what happened to her.
The disappearance has triggered a series of conspiracy theories, many of which the Italian media have been more than happy to peddle (and Netflix, as well). It was, of course, Pope John Paul II who drew global attention to the “Vatican girl” kidnapping with public statements and calls for prayers and public investigations.
After meeting with a Vatican prosecutor named Alessandro Diddi, Orlandi appeared last month on an Italian talk show on the TV channel La7, where he played an audio recording in which an alleged Italian mobster claimed JPII knew of people bringing women into the Vatican to molest them.
John Paul II isn’t alive to defend himself. The Vatican responded to those accusations through its official newspaper. The Vatican’s editorial director, Andrea Tornielli, blasted the recording and Orlandi playing it on air. He noted that the insinuation were accompanied by “no evidence, clues, testimonies or corroboration.”
“It is sacrosanct that there be a 360-degree investigation to seek the truth about Emanuela’s disappearance,” Tornielli wrote in L’Osservatore Romano on April 14.
Pope Francis, in an extraordinary move, made it a point to publicly denounce the accusations two days later in his Sunday message to 20,000 pilgrims gathered in St. Peter’s Square, a time that would get maximum media attention. This is how the Associated Press reported the story:
Pope Francis on Sunday publicly defended St. John Paul II, condemning as “offensive and baseless” insinuations that recently surfaced about the late pontiff.
In remarks to tourists and pilgrims in St. Peter’s Square, Francis said he was aiming to interpret the feelings of the faithful worldwide by expressing gratitude to the Polish pontiff’s memory.
Days earlier, the Vatican’s media apparatus had described as “slanderous” an audiotape from a purported Roman mobster who insinuated that John Paul would go out looking for underage girls to molest.
The Reuters story also pointed out the following:
The comments caused a storm and were condemned by Vatican officials in the past few days before the pope himself entered the fray at his noon address to about 20,000 people in St. Peter’s Square.
“Certain that I am interpreting the sentiments of the faithful from all over the world, I express a grateful thought to the memory of St. John Paul, who in these days has been the object of offensive and unfounded insinuations,” Francis said.
The mostly Italian crowd broke into applause.
Diddi summoned Pietro Orlandi’s lawyer, Laura Sgro, on Saturday. The Vatican said she invoked attorney-client privileges. Sgro told Reuters on Sunday that John Paul did not come up in her conversation with Diddi, adding in a text message: “I have never questioned the sanctity of John Paul II.”
Orlandi told Reuters on Sunday by telephone that it was “correct that Francis defended John Paul II”. Orlandi added that during the television appearance he was “repeating what others had said. I certainly did not see it myself.”
Francis’ extraordinary move to defend JPII, who died in 2005, comes as the former Polish pontiff has had his name and reputation tarnished over the past few months by some media outlets more than happy to repeat what they can’t prove or report for themselves.
Another prime example dates back to earlier this year when a Polish broadcaster TVN aired a documentary alleging John Paul II protected priests accused of sexually molesting children when he was a cardinal.
Why all this coverage around John Paul II and what he did and didn’t do?
Yes, the tarnished halo storyline gets clicks, but an increasingly ideological press has other agendas — politics and specifically this year’s Polish elections.
This is what Politico reported back on March 15:
WARSAW — War? Inflation? Corruption? Nope, the big subject dominating Poland’s politics ahead of this fall’s parliamentary election is the legacy of John Paul II.
Although the canonized Polish pontiff has been dead since 2005, he’s become the hottest subject in Poland following an explosive documentary aired by the U.S.-owned broadcaster TVN24, alleging that when he was a cardinal in his home city of Kraków, he protected priests accused of sexually molesting children.
That caused a collective meltdown in the ranks of the ruling nationalist Law and Justice (PiS) party, which is closely allied with the powerful Roman Catholic Church.
They also reported this key set of facts:
Although Poland is secularizing, with a steady fall in new priests, a decline in people attending Sunday mass, and large numbers of pupils abandoning religious education, the country is still one of the most Catholic in Europe. The Church still has an outsized influence among the elderly and those in smaller towns and villages — PiS’s electoral strongholds.
The JP2 gambit caught the opposition flat-footed; many of their supporters tend to be more secular, but the parties can’t risk offending religious voters if they hope to win power this fall.
The late pope is often credited with helping cause the fall of communism in Central and Eastern Europe; his pilgrimages to his home country were seen as a key factor in the rise of the Solidarity labor union in 1980. He remains a revered figure across the country.
This is where readers have to get past the mainstream media bubble and explore other places for information. The Notes from Poland website reported on April 15 that “defending the former pope’s legacy may only swing a relatively small number of voters, but in a closely fought election this could be decisive in helping the right-wing ruling party to secure another outright parliamentary majority.”
They also noted the following:
The report suggested that the former pontiff allowed the culprits to continue working as priests and tried to conceal their actions by transferring them to other parishes. Similar allegations in the case of the two of the priests had already been made in a book by Dutch journalist Ekke Overbeek, published in Poland during the same week that the documentary was aired.
The report’s defenders argued that, although the Polish Catholic church has kept the archives from the time sealed, the investigators drew upon a wide range of other evidence and sources. These included court records and interviews with the surviving victims, and apparent witnesses and acquaintances, of the pedophile priests who said that they informed the then-Archbishop Wojtyła about the crimes, together with their relatives and former employees of the Kraków diocese.
Over at Crux, the Catholic news and analysis site run by longtime Vatican observer John L. Allen, Jr., put all this into proper context:
Recently a media thunderstorm erupted in Rome when the brother of the “Vatican girl,” referring to the 1983 disappearance of a 15-year-old girl that’s become the most notorious unsolved mystery in recent Vatican history, went on Italian television to play a recording of an ex-mobster alleging that Pope John Paul II was complicit in a Vatican pedophile ring that included his sister.
The brother, Pietro Orlandi, added: “They tell me that Wojtyla [the given name of John Paul II] used to go out at night with two Polish monsignors, and it certainly wasn’t to bless houses.”
That bombshell triggered a ferocious Vatican counter-offensive, including Pope Francis himself calling the suggestion about his predecessor “offensive and unfounded.” Orlandi has since tried to walk back his words, insisting that he wasn’t accusing John Paul II of anything but rather simply passing along an audio recording to Vatican investigators.
I have found myself increasingly relying on Allen’s reporting and analysis in recent weeks, both on the website and by listening to his weekly podcast, to make sense of the ins and outs of what is going on at the Vatican and in the Catholic world generally.
He added this key fact to his April 23 piece:
The credibility of the ex-mobster, whose name is Marcello Neroni, is an open question. Italian journalist Giovanni Floris, who’s covered the Orlandi case extensively, said he’d discount any such claims from a “delinquent” by a factor of 10 to 1; another Italian journalist, Alessandro Ambrosini, who actually made the recording in 2009, said that it’s important to remember such criminals often try to “make themselves bigger than they really are.”
Also, note this section further down:
Truth to be told, we don’t need to rely on unsourced reporting to know that John Paul II was in the habit of occasionally slipping out without a fuss. That tendency was confirmed by no less an authority than Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, the now-retired Archbishop of Krakow and the longtime priest secretary to John Paul II, in his 2008 memoir My Life with Karol.
In the book, Dziwisz reveals that in the early years of John Paul’s papacy, he took more than 100 excursions outside the Vatican, mostly to natural settings in the Abruzzo region north of Rome.
Yes, Pope John Paul II loved to ski and hike. Headlines?
This takes me back to the very start of this post. What is news?
Clearly, it’s become click-bait headlines with very thin reporting (or accusations reported elsewhere) about people and issues that can help further an agenda.
If the story includes an inconvenient narrative — such as who could be vandalizing churches — then it is ignored by large swaths of the press. If the case is about something that can hurt the church or, in the case of Pope John Paul II, chip away at the name of a saint and someone who upheld church teachings, then it gets lots of media attention.
This has left the Vatican in the unusual position to having to go on the offensive, something it isn’t often proactively doing.
In other cases, there is sometimes little to no coverage on a topic. It also leaves readers having to broaden their news diets in order to seek context and voices that news stories just don’t offer.
FIRST IMAGE: Print of an icon of St. Pope John Paul II, for sale at Bridge Building Images website.
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