WASHINGTON (CNS) — Just as Pope Francis got what he wanted from his apostolic journey to the United States in a close-up view of American Catholicism at its most compassionate and energetic, so too did the media covering Pope Francis largely get what they sought in covering his six-day September visit in the form of larger audiences.
Cable news audiences jumped as Pope Francis made his way to Washington, New York and Philadelphia.
Over-the-air and cable news organizations sent their top talent to cover the pope and to anchor the coverage in the three cities. They nearly had to. With the amount of time needed for Secret Service clearance, journalists assigned to a pool could cover just one papal event each day — unless some news organization was lucky enough to have a reporter, photographer or videographer embedded with the papal entourage coming from Rome, with a stop in Cuba before arriving in the United States.
CNN, which has been an also-ran in the ratings compared to the Fox News Channel for more than a decade, actually topped Fox on a couple of days with its papal coverage.
MSNBC, which has been badly trailing in third place in the cable news ratings race, also saw ratings spikes with its coverage. MSNBC unveiled a new focus on breaking news that coincided with the papal visit. It also reintroduced viewers to Brian Williams, a Catholic who had been suspended for six months by MSNBC’s parent, NBC News, for fabricating and embellishing news accounts in his past on-scene reporting. MSNBC’s papal coverage topped CNN and Fox News’ numbers a couple of times during daytime hours, and its numbers were MSNBC’s second-best of the year, trailing behind only its coverage of the Supreme Court decision on same-sex marriage.
TVNewser, a blog created by Mediabistro and now part of its sister site, Adweek, not only counted how many ratings eggs were in each cable news nest, it did its own share of clucking when writer Chris Ariens commented on openly gay CBS and Cooking Channel host and “The Good Wife” guest star Mo Rocca “delivering” one of the readings during the Sept. 25 Mass at Madison Square Garden in New York City.
“His mother is Colombian, and very proud,” Ariens said. “Rocca’s appearance was a hit on social media.”
Social media did not play into most mainstream news coverage of Pope Francis’ visit, according to a study conducted by the Pew Research Center and issued Oct. 7. Of the 507 stories it researched, only 60 of them, or 12 percent, made any reference to social networking in them — and of those, 83 percent made references to Twitter.
Those numbers belie the sea of cellphone cameras that lined popemobile routes and church aisles alike as Pope Francis was making his way to, or into, an event. Some bishops themselves were not immune to the cellphone-photo-of-the-pope phenomenon. Selfies with the pope in this milieu, with the Catholic Charities lunch in downtown Washington Sept. 24 as an example, are a particularly prized possession — but one eagerly shared on social media like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Snapchat.
The Pew study also parsed out the percentage of the stories that included different types of sources.
More than half of them, naturally, included Pope Francis or the Vatican — 56 percent to be exact. Members of the public were quoted in 31 percent of the stories, an indication of the desire to be with or at least close to the pope during his first U.S. visit.
Non-Vatican clergy and religious were sources in 21 percent of the stories, as Pope Francis met with and spoke to bishops and to women religious, offering words of encouragement and challenge to them. Media organizations as sources themselves came in fourth in the study at 14 percent.
President Barack Obama or members of his administration and Congress came in at 12 percent, as did Congress and likewise with issue and interest groups who sought to promote their policy positions in conjunction with the papal trip.
It must be remembered that Pope Francis met with Obama in the White House Sept. 23, and addressed a joint meeting of Congress Sept. 24. Obama also met the papal plane when it arrived from Cuba Sept. 22, and Vice President Joe Biden led the delegation at the papal farewell from Philadelphia Sept. 27.
For those caught up with papal visit news, it should be remembered that other news that took place around the world and in the United States during the papal visit, like the death of Hall of Fame baseball player Yogi Berra. Another key news item was the resignation announcement by House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, the day after the pope’s remarks to Congress. Boehner was on plenty of TV screens the day of the papal address and the day he announced he was quitting, making reference to his meeting with Pope Francis before he addressed Congress’ joint meeting.