Pew Forum contrasts secular, religious media coverage of abuse scandal

Pew Forum contrasts secular, religious media coverage of abuse scandal

Pope Benedict XVI.
Pope Benedict XVI.


A new study published on Friday by the Pew Forum contrasts the differences in media coverage of the clerical sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church by secular and religious news outlets. Among the significant finds of the report are the fact that the Holy Father “though not accused of abusing anyone himself,” attracted more coverage by secular media “than all the other key figures combined,” according to the study.

The report, released on June 11, was conducted jointly by the Project for Excellence in Journalism and the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, both of which belong to the non-profit Pew Research Center in Washington, D.C.

Opening the report by discussing secular media coverage of the recently surfaced sex abuse cases – as covered by 52 mainstream U.S. news outlets – the Pew Forum remarked that “media scrutiny this year zeroed in on the Pope himself.”

“During the six-week period from March 12 through April 27, Pope Benedict XVI was a major focus of more than half the stories on the scandal in the mainstream U.S. media, including print, radio, network television, cable TV and online news sources,” the report said.

During this period of time, the study reported, the sex abuse scandal was the eighth biggest story on mainstream media outlets.

What “is striking about the clergy abuse scandal story is not that Benedict received so much press attention,” the Pew Forum wrote, “but that other individuals received so little. The pope, though not accused of abusing anyone himself, attracted more coverage than all the other key figures (involved in the abuse cases) combined.”

However, this is not unusual, they explained, given “the media’s penchant for personalizing big stories.”

The Pew Forum study also suggested that similar to political scandals involving either party, “the clergy scandal, was seized on by many news organizations as an opportunity to question the leadership of an organization.”

In contrast with the secular coverage, the study analyzed three Catholic media outlets: the National Catholic Reporter, Catholic News Service and Catholic News Agency. These three were chosen “based on high volume of content distribution, name recognition and diversity of individual missions,” explained the study.

The National Catholic Reporter had 15 total Vatican stories during this time period with 10 focused on the scandal. An example of the type of coverage can be in found in a March 22 piece by NCR’s Thomas Fox, who focused on “German reform Catholics” that said “the pope’s pastoral letter, written to Irish Catholics in response to sexual abuse by the clergy, is merely a starting point in a long process of change, and called for the church to overhaul its stance on celibacy,” the Pew Forum analysis quoted.

Catholic News Service wrote 58 total Vatican stories from March through April, with 26 focusing on clerical sex abuse. An April 9 story by CNS' Vatican correspondent John Thavis, for example, reported the Vatican’s defense of Pope Benedict’s response to the scandal.

Catholic News Agency wrote 329 Vatican stories with 98 focusing on the clerical sex abuse scandal, reported the study. CNA, “whose Vatican coverage was much more prolific than that of its counterparts, devoted a smaller share to the clergy scandal (29.8%),” the Pew Forum calculated, adding that the “tone of this coverage seemed to emphasize the defense of the Vatican’s actions, as well as to critique the mainstream media for its version of events.”

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