Religion Reporters Thrive With The People’s Pope

By Tonia Borsellino

In the past year, His Holiness Pope Francis traveled to the United States, Africa and Mexico. The media was right there behind him.

They followed his every move, documenting it closely. One reporter quipped that he would even cover his nap times. From the food he eats to the attire he wears, people love Pope Francis and want to know more about everything he is doing.

At the same time, coverage has not always been the most accurate. Pope Francis’ charisma attracts millions, but with increased attention comes an increased need for accurate coverage.

For example — did he really say Catholics couldn’t judge people? Why is he meeting other religious leaders? Did he really say Donald Trump isn’t a Christian?

Pope Francis has made it so that religion reporters are becoming more and more valuable assets as credible sources for news outlets covering him.

Each time Pope Francis stops the “popemobile” to bless someone, visits a religious organization or answers journalist’s questions on the papal plane, a story emerges. There is nothing Pope Francis does that is not written about and that brings to light the need for accuracy in religion reporting. It is my opinion that religion reporters can rise up to take on that role.

Pope Francis plays an outsized part in the rise in coverage of religion lately. Indeed, this article about one reporter’s coverage of Pope Francis’s visit to Mexico shows how Pope Francis is making an impact on a large group of people. Liz Gonzalez, as a reporter, noticed how a large part of her news station’s audience was traveling to Mexico to see him and she knew she had to report why.

Or, take this recent example: Pope Francis met with Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill, leader of the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church, on his stop in Havana, Cuba while on his Mexico trip. A meeting with these leaders had never occurred before.

Informed reporters were needed who understood both Greek Orthodox and Catholic doctrine. The reporters were asked to explain the meaning behind the new document that was created and signed, just like Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra did here for Christianity Today.

Sure, normal reporters could learn this meaning, but religion reporters, with a focus on these two religions, had a chance to shine.

They had a chance to shine when Pope Francis stopped by the U.S. as well.

Not all Americans knew why Pope Francis was in America or what he was doing throughout his trip. News outlets like CNN had Catholic commentators on the various news shows, frequently describing Pope Francis’s actions and clarifying his homilies, or speeches, so the most accurate information was shared with the world.

Without Pope Francis coming to the U.S., religion reporters would not have had this chance to share their wealth of knowledge on this subject. People wanted to understand everything he was doing in the U.S. so they sought out the information. That demand created a need for religion reporters to step up and step in, informing and dispelling rumors about the pontiff.

Back in October, Pope Francis even met with leaders of different faiths. A Rabbi and Islamic leader were among those invited to the Pope’s General Audience where he spoke on working together. Though this came about because of the 50th anniversary of Nostra Aetate — a Vatican document on the relationship between Catholicism and other religions — it still led to a need for further explanation. What does this meeting mean? Why was it formed? Which faiths are coming together? This gave religion reporters several different angles to write from because there were so many religions involved.

It gave reporters a chance to bring this event to the forefront of the news and say, “hey this is important and here is why.”

The People’s Pope gives religion reporters new avenues for informed coverage of religion, not just Catholicism. The Catholic Church, being universal, has allowed religion reporters to flourish universally as well. The reporters that cover Pope Francis are from all different countries, speak all different languages, report on historical aspects of the faith, and are of different faiths.

It does not matter that Pope Francis is Catholic. He inadvertently created a demand for reporters of different religions in the world today because he is acting in a global, pluralistic, and connected world. His present actions show how religion reporters are not a thing of the past; they are needed right now to help us understand what is going on in this world.

Pope Francis is making history; high-quality religion reporting is needed to help us know why.