Theological Notebook: Press Guide for Writing About the Pope
Too funny. I've always thought that writing a snarky guide for reporters writing about Catholicism or religion in general might be a fun, sort of "reverse" form of making clear some points that are popularly confused, or are just favourite old bigotries that people like to repeat for the entertainment and self-righteousness value. So it's great fun to see a British journalist (apparently no fringe figure, but one hailed by Wired as a leading British figure in the digital media world) have enough of idiocy and do just that, even if in a brief article. (Following the link to the actual article enables the many links in his actual text, which adds to his pointed critique of BBC excess.)
Imagine you’re a newly minted BBC News intern. You bound into the office on your first day, your 2:1 in Media Studies and Digital Production from the University of Salford burning a hole in your pocket.
You’ve made it! You’ve reached the dizzying heights of the state broadcaster’s newsroom. You’re ready to take over the world.
But disaster strikes: your editor hands you the first assignment, and it’s a report on the Catholic Church. Pope Benewhatsit has gone to some place to give some speech about God and stuff.
You’re eager to impress, but totally out of your depth. What are you to do? Who do you turn to?
Well, here at the The Catholic Herald, we understand how peculiar and arcane the world of Catholicism must appear to reporters new to the beat. That’s why we’ve trawled the archives of the major broadcasters and newspapers to bring you the lessons learned by your senior colleagues.
We hope that by sharing these best practice guidelines, we can help reporters to uphold the tradition of fair and balanced reporting on Catholic issues for which the British press is rightly famed. Here, then, are our top tips for success.
For any event at which the Pope appears, always inflate the number of protesters. At World Youth Day in Madrid this year, the number of protesters represented less than 0.04 per cent of the people who turned out in support of the Pope (5,000 people versus 1.5 million people). But that didn’t stop those enterprising minds at the BBC from focusing almost exclusively on the malcontents, ignoring the vast scale and success of a joyful celebration of young Catholics.
Likewise, in another report from the BBC about the Pope’s trip to Germany last week, a couple of hundred protesters were turned into “several thousand”. Words like “several” are useful, because they’re easier to wriggle out of than real numbers.
If in doubt, be vague and waffly about the purpose of any protests – especially if there doesn’t appear to be one. Those nice Christian folk only “turn the other cheek” anyway; not like the protesters, who, if they don’t get due praise and coverage, will bombard your switchboard with anguished complaints and flood the blogosphere with manufactured outrage at your lack of thoroughness.
Any rumour of a potential walk-out from politicians or other religious leaders in response to an appearance by Pope should be reported as fact - in other words, as though it had already happened. Don’t correct your story if it turns out only that a tiny proportion of the loonier fringes of Government failed to show up. That’s just splitting hairs.
Deploy the trinity of divided, divisive and division. These words should be on the tip of your tongue at all times. Remember, the Pope’s opinions are dangerous and alarming: don’t let him get away with expressing an opinion without slathering your copy in withering invective. It’s also useful to mash up different sorts of Christianity: the readers don’t know the difference between Archbishop Rowan Williams and Archbishop Vincent Nichols anyway, and it helps to convey the sense that the Church is fractured and damaged.
In fact, there are lots of adjectives you can use suggestively. Trowel them on. Your journalism professor may have told you to go easy on the descriptive words, but he wasn’t talking about religious affairs. It doesn’t matter if your purple prose makes the headline ungainly, or even if you can’t substantiate the accusations. Take your lead from this Reuters headline.
Mock and undermine the Church’s position on moral issues by referring to Church “policy”, erroneously implying that like, say, a Government’s, these “policies” could be altered at a moment’s notice, if only those guys in frocks really cared about ordinary people.
Be sure to draw attention to ways in which Catholic teaching conflicts with the moral fashions of the day, whether it’s on contraception, climate change or immigration. If you can, try to appropriate the language of the Church and speeches by its bishops and subordinate it to your own politically correct, urban lexicon of equality, fairness and “social justice”. (If you’re lucky enough to be reporting on England and Wales, you’ll find that most of the work is done for you by the right-on members of that Bishops’ Conference. Otherwise, you might have to do some of the work yourself.)
Don’t just seize on perceived tensions, but actively foment discontent by Googling for as many negative stories about the Church as you can find and summarising the grievances quoted in them. Paragraphs 9-18 of your story are the perfect place to really warm to your theme, dredging up whatever ludicrous rants from Johann Hari or childish, abortive stunts by Richard Dawkins come to hand.
If you don’t have time to ponder the meaning of one of the Pope’s more thoughtful addresses, just say it “verged on the academic”. No one will accuse you of failing to bother paying attention because there was a better headline elsewhere. Plus, you can give the impression that the Pope is a boring speaker. Back of the net!
Picking quotes can be tough. The golden rule is never, ever quote from supporters; only protesters. Find the angriest feminist you can find and start her off on a riff about patriarchal hegemony and the all-male priesthood. If you only include negative quotes, it looks like all right-thinking people oppose the Pope’s presence.
Struggling to muster enough fake anger? Try this new tactic, pioneered by the Guardian: imply that Catholics and non-Catholics alike are bored rigid with the whole shebang. We understand that, in the case of last week’s German trip, this technique involved waiting until 6 pm when the shops shut, then cornering one of those cat ladies who hang around Mitte selling used copies of the previous day’s paper.
Where possible, use photos of the Pope’s back. These are brilliant because they imply that he’s isolated and unpopular. Don’t be fooled by eyewitness reports that describe him as energetic and surrounded by thousands of well-wishers.
Finally – and this one’s important – make liberal use of Adolf Hitler. Hitler is a staple part of any modern religious affairs correspondent’s diet. No report about Benedict XVI or the Catholic Church is complete without a reference to the Nazis, especially the fact that he was a member of the Hitler Youth.
Don’t bother reading his statements on the subject or asking anyone familiar with the history of the period. You might discover that Joseph Ratzinger was a reluctant young man pressed into the equivalent of military service at a time when barely any young person failed to enroll in some sort of state youth organisation, and where would you be then? No, just remember to mention that he was a member. Bonus points for mentioning Hitler or the Nazis twice in one paragraph.