Report

The Pope Meets the Press: Media Coverage of the Clergy Abuse Scandal

  • June 11, 2010

Newspaper coverage of the Catholic clergy sexual abuse scandal grew more intense this spring than at any time since 2002, and European newspapers devoted even more ink to the story than American papers did, according to a new study by the Pew Research Center.

The heavy coverage in Europe was a reversal of the pattern in 2002, when a Boston Globe series triggered an avalanche of reporting on sexual abuse by priests in the United States but relatively few stories appeared in the European press. In early 2010, by contrast, much of the reporting focused on sexual abuse of children in Europe, and English-language European newspapers published three times as many articles on the scandal as U.S. papers did, the new study finds.

In addition, the 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.

These are among the key findings of the study, conducted jointly by the Project for Excellence in Journalism and the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, both of which belong to the nonprofit, nonpartisan Pew Research Center in Washington, D.C.

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.

In a nationwide poll released by the Pew Research Center in April, for example, just 12% of the public said the pope has done a good or excellent job addressing the scandal, down from 39% two years earlier. About seven-in-ten Americans (71%) said Benedict has done a poor or only fair job, up from about half (48%) who felt that way in 2008.

The new Pew Research Center study examined coverage of the scandal in 52 mainstream U.S. news outlets: 11 newspapers, 12 news websites, seven network TV programs, 15 cable TV programs and seven radio programs and news updates. In addition, the study looked at blogs and social media, relying in part on data from Tweetmeme, a Twitter monitoring service. A Nexis search of English-language newspapers around the world from 2002 through 2010 was used for historical comparisons. Stories from three Catholic news organizations were analyzed separately, as were religion blogs carried by major U.S. newspapers.

Read the full report, The Pope Meets the Press: Media Coverage of the Clergy Abuse Scandal, on the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life's Web site.