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Pope in U.S. dominated religion coverage in 2008

Nothing else was close. Benedict's April visit to the U.S. took up 37 percent of the religion newshole, while religion stories from the campaign accounted for 21 percent, according to an analysis of the mainstream media in 2008 conducted by the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism. Other religion-related topics made low single digits at best.Tough to complain that the media ignores the pope. Whether folks liked the coverage is another thing. This graphic shows what topics related to the visit received most attention:

Pope coverage graphic.gif

Interesting, I think, and perhaps goes against some popular impressions. Yes, the clergy abuse scandal was tops, far and away. But that was inevitable, and the pope's own words and actions for the first few days also drew attention. "Straightforward coverage" (how these were defined could always be debated, but I think one gets the general sense) and "Substance of message" rank well, and ahead of politics and the church.Now for the bad news:

In 2008, religion filled just 1 (lousy) percent of the entire newshole--the same asimmigration, education, and race- and gender-focused stories, according to Pew. Politics (29 percent) and the U.S. economy (13 percent) were first and second.Moreover, the graphic below shows (graphically)how little else beyond Benedict's visit--and of course the (bloody) holidays--was covered. Ouch.

Religion coverage in 2008--Pew.gif

Coverage of the pope is nice, but this graph shows how the rest of the church does not get covered--or much else, for that matter.

About the Author

David Gibson is a national reporter for Religion News Service and author of The Coming Catholic Church (HarperOne) and The Rule of Benedict (HarperOne). He blogs at dotCommonweal.



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I was surprised to see a;ost no mention of cardinal George's "private " meeting with President Obama earlier this week.Of course, after such a meeting, one could only expect boilerplate from officaldom, but not even a little interest or speculation?

I wonder if the meeting had been between the Archbishop of NYC or of Washington D.C. and the President whether not it would have gotten some coverage. The media" is, I find, very New York/D.C. Centric. Also interesting is the fact that the President chose to meet with the Archbishop of Chicago. Of course, he is from there, which is possibly why he realizes Cardinal George's status in the American Church.

Ann, the Pres met with Cardinal George because George is currently head of the USCCB, so that's his natural role. As to the paucity of coverage, well, not much else is beating out AIG and the economy and such, and the meeting was so brief and so tight that there wasn't much there there. I wrote a brief on it here: as you see, here are the extent of the statements:

The White House said: "The President and Cardinal George discussed a wide range of issues, including important opportunities for the government and the Catholic Church to continue their long-standing partnership to tackle some of the nation's most pressing challenges. The President thanked Cardinal George for his leadership and for the contributions of the Catholic Church in America and around the world."The USCCB said: "The meeting was private. Cardinal George and President Obama discussed the Catholic Church in the United States and its relation to the new Administration. The meeting lasted approximately 30 minutes. At the conclusion, Cardinal George expressed his gratitude for the meeting and his hopes that it will foster fruitful dialogue for the sake of the common good."

What ever happened to the rumor that George Bush was going to convert to Catholicism? (Or that Laura was going to divorce him?)

In the States, the Pope is a celebrity, on a par with, say, Britney Spears in the public mind. As for other Catholic issues, they are merely of parochial interest.

What? Not even a blip on the graphs for Brad Pitt's casting as Father Emilio Sandoz, S.J., in "The Sparrow"?Someone should forward the Pew report to Brad's agent.

Is the graph that much different from the coverage of the Church in this blog, where the most interest seems to be in the doings of prelates: pope and bishops?

Perhaps the press can be forgiven, to the extent that the Pope and the Bishops claim to speak for the rest of us? It's true that we ought not to let that go by, though. So maybe we should try harder to claim our voices?

"Is the graph that much different from the coverage of the Church in this blog, where the most interest seems to be in the doings of prelates: pope and bishops?"Very good question...and we need a study. Grant? I agree that coverage and interest in the church does seem to focus on the hierarchy for several reasons, including the fact that that's where "news" happens. Conflict sells, it's easily understandable, it's easily covered and without a lot of resources. People like it, the media likes it. We also focus on the presidency and congress and decision-makers (or nondecisionmakers) because when they talk or act things can (or should) happen. That's even moreso in the hierarchical church, and even moreso these days when there is a lot of pent-up anger (or not so pent-up, in the blogosphere) inside and outside the church. Oh, and there are a lot of churchmen doing newsworthy things--for good and, um, not so good.The trend toward a hierarchical focus works both ways, or on both sides, I think. Avery Dulles said something to the effect that for many people today the church is either the object of or the obstacle to faith. Many blogs love to knock Humpty Dumpty down (no names, please), while others are All the King's Men, obsessed with all things clerical. I've made the observation (not always with happy results) that it strikes me odd that liberals are waiting for the next John XXIII, and conservatives are waiting for...Well, they got him. Anyway, they're both looking for the same deliverance from on high. It'd be nice if it was out of a desire for the good of the church. But it's often motivated by a desire for "our" side to win. (Then disappointment sets in, of course...!)I know there is much more interest at this blog in ad intra ecclesial topics than I perhaps expected, but I think it's natural. There is also a far wider range of topics covered here--politics, culture, silliness etc--than almost any other Catholic blog I can cite off the top of my head. (And discussed far more intelligently, ocassional exceptions notwithstanding.) The blogosphere tends to reflect a talk-radio mentality, so maybe that's part of it. And of course the gamut of hot-button topics--gays, abortion, homosexuals, abortion, lesbians and stem cells--draw the most attention, I would think. Some of those hot-button topics are often prompted by some hierarchical decision. And in that sense I think the blog may also reflect the survey's results in that while the glut of stories were in connection with the pope's trip, they weren't necessarily about the pope or the hierarchy. One could argue that the sexual abuse scandal was. But not solely. It looks like just 2-3 percent of the stories were about the pope himself, and one-quarter about U.S. Catholics, for example. That reflects both my impression of the coverage and my conversations with other jorunalists: That most outlets took the visit as an opportunity to cover American Catholicism, not just the pope. So there was a broad range of stories, about individual stories of faith, and parishes, and priests and religious and what have you. That was especially true for newspapers not in the NY-DC corridor. Given these times, few outlying places could send reporters to cover the visit so they "localized" it. In essence, in the news coverage of the pope's visit, and on the blog, a newsmaking bishop or statement can serve as a doorway to a discussion of the broader issue at stake, or of the experience of readers in their respective communities. So hierarchs are often just the entry point. They get run over by the stampedeing crowd, of course. But that's why they pay them the big money. At least that's my story. Now to bed.

On the other hand, the latest issue of what passes for a diocesan "newspaper" in my part of the world carries a regular column called "The Catholic Difference" by George Weigel (Weigle?). This week's column carries the title "How the Might Have Fallen." Is it about AIG? or Lehman Brothers? Guess again. Is it about the American episcopacy? or the Republican Party? Don't be silly. It's about A-Rod -- Alex Rodriguez and steroids. What the Catholic connection (much less the "difference") is, escapes me -- not for the first time in GW's columns. I mentioned this to our local parish priest. His response was "Who's Alex Rodriguez?" So I had to explain (he enjoys listening to Beethoven, as do I, and tho I don't know much about pop culture, I do know about A-Rod.

David: My teasing point was that while there is, as you say, much "interest at this blog in ad intra ecclesial topics," these topics seem to revolve around pope and bishops, with much less attention to broader and deeper topics or about what you called "individual stories of faith, and parishes." All the grandeur and misery of everyday Catholic life--the stuff of the Church, as living and as lived--that's what there's comparatively little of at this blog.

Teasing, yes, but I think it's an important point, or at least one that prompted many rambling thoughts in my brain cavity. Which of course I could not leave there for fear they'd get lost. The stuff of everyday Catholicism is almost literary, and perhaps not the stuff of the blog format? Does the medium curtail the message? Inquiring minds want to know...PS--Nicholas Clifford: Who's Mozart?

What recent big religion stories (possibly Obama's meeting with Cardinal George) have been missed in the "mainstream media"? Especially given that the "mainstream media" is constrained by news values that require them to cover stories that interest/affect a wide swath of readers, so stories about particular churches that don't resonate across denominational lines are often ignored. An example of what I'd consider good religious coverage/conversation: Yesterday's great segment on "Talk of the Nation" about the TV show "Big Love's" portrayal of a Mormon endowment ceremony, which used that episode to start a conversation about sensitivity to religion in art and the media. It's probably archived by now for anyone interested in listening (find it through you're considering the content and tone of dotCommonweal, might be worthwhile noting that it's dominated by men--only one in five of the bloggers here are women, and my sense is that the number of participants (not necessarily the number of individual posts on any given thread) on the blog seems to be heavily male. My sense is that that drives content/tone of the blog to some extent. Not knocking C'weal for that high ratio of male posters and responders; the ratio of women bloggers has increased over time, and female participation may actually be higher here than on some other Catholic blogs. Or maybe that the blogosphere is generally dominated by men. Maybe Grant has insights there. I haven't made a study of it.

Your sex and gender observations seem correct, Jean. But without going down some Larry Summers path, I wonder if the blog is self-selecting for gender as it is for ideas and everything else? So that women go to blogs dominated by women, and vice versa. An irony of the democratic global paradise of the internet is that we tend to aggregate in bantustans of our own making.

FWIW - whenever this blog raises a woman's viewpoint on topics, it almost always makes me pause and think. Most recently for me it was Barbara's passionate advocacy for the sex workers in Africa. I'd welcome more of it.

"Its about A-Rod Alex Rodriguez and steroids. What the Catholic connection (much less the difference) is, escapes me not for the first time in GWs columns. "Fixation on baseball - yet another reason for me to confuse George Weigel with George Will.Our diocesan paper carries him, too. How they choose their columnists, I have no idea. I guess they have 32 pages to fill every two weeks (or whatever it is).

I think this is related to the topic at hand... Did anyone read Nick Kristof's column yesterday about selective truth-seeking among American readers? quote: "One 12-nation study found Americans the least likely to discuss politics with people of different views, and this was particularly true of the well educated. High school dropouts had the most diverse group of discussion-mates, while college graduates managed to shelter themselves from uncomfortable perspectives."

To add to my post above... I spent a couple of years in my 30s working with working-class people (including a number of Asian and Latino immigrants) and will have to say there is quite a bit of truth about Kristof's reference to the 12-nation study. It's a little scary if the well-educated indeed shelter themselves from discussing politics with people of different views. (Much of what pass for "discussing" struck me more as boxing and sparring.) In some ways, the blogosphere has allowed even more of this trend, helping to diminish the already shrinking number of independents like myself.

Gibson: I wonder if the blog is self-selecting for gender as it is for ideas and everything else? So that women go to blogs dominated by women, and vice versa.Raber: I suppose I'm on here and not on some "Catholic woman's blog" to get perspectives that will balance my antipathies about Catholicism and to help me learn to live more patiently with a man who is a much more enthusiastic and orthodox Catholic than I am. More to your point about news coverage about religion is the fact that I can't get those kinds of perspectives from "mainstream media"--nor do I expect to. I can get some perspectives from Catholic publications--and do--but this forum is the only place I can throw my comments out there for scrutiny or ask questions of others.

Jean: Alas, you are sui generis Or should I call you unusual?

Whatever. I have few illusions or delusions myself; the trick is not living down to them all the time.I'm still trying to think of a major religion story that the media missed re question above. I can think of more that they mishandled, but this thread seems to be me talking to myself mostly. So off I go to bother someone else.

illusions delusions ABOUT myself, that is. Yeesh.

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