Americans might find it difficult to believe but a Pew Research Center analysis of the media coverage of the recent clergy sexual abuse scandal shows that English-language European newspapers published three times as many articles on the scandal as US papers did.

There is no surprise, though, in another key finding of the study — that Pope Benedict himself was the target of many stories:

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.

And the effort to sheet responsibility home to the Pope has had its effect:

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.

Among other findings:

* From mid-March (when the pope’s role in a decades-old abuse case in Germany came under scrutiny) through late April, clergy sexual abuse was the eighth biggest story in the mainstream media, beating out coverage of nuclear weapons policy and the Tea Party movement. The biggest week of coverage was March 22-28, when news organizations reported on the failure of Vatican officials years ago, including the future pope, to defrock an American priest who had abused nearly 200 deaf boys. The church scandal was the fourth biggest topic in the mainstream news that week.

As we know, the defrocking of priests has been persistently misrepresented in such stories; it has nothing to do with whether priests were removed from active ministry or punished by civil authorities.

* Benedict was by far the biggest newsmaker, featuring in 51.6% of the
stories about the scandal in the mainstream media during the six-week
period studied. All other individual figures combined, including
cardinals, bishops and priests, appeared as lead newsmakers in just 12%
of the stories.

This was very much a campaign in the mainstream media:

* The scandal found little traction in new media, however. Across the
millions of blogs and Twitter posts tracked in PEJ’s weekly monitoring, the clergy abuse scandal
registered as a leading topic in only one of the six weeks analyzed.

* Among the religion blogs published by high-circulation U.S. newspapers,
those operated by USA Today and The Washington Post contained
the most entries on the clergy abuse scandal – a total of 12 each
during the six weeks studied.

The full study can be found at the Pew Center.


Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan is the former deputy editor of MercatorNet