Finding Local Stories Around A New Pope

Stations from across the country put reporters on the ground in and around Vatican City starting about 10 days ago, with a lucky few there through today’s installation. They say their robust coverage of the papal conclave, as well as the ensuing events, is motivated by providing viewers with market-specific stories no one else is delivering.

In the hunt for local angles on the election of the new pope, TV stations from across the country put reporters on the ground in and around Vatican City starting about 10 days ago, with a few — NBC-owned KNBC Los Angeles’ Robert Kovacik and Tom Koch, from ABC-owned KTRK Houston, among them — there through today’s installation.

Stations in New York and Boston, whose cardinals were reportedly in the running for the Catholic Church’s top job, had a heightened interest in the goings on in Rome.

But other stations — from places like Houston, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh and Washington, for example — say the local impact of the papal-related events warranted their presence as well.

“In our view, this is a local story in just about every aspect,” says Greg Caputo, news director at Tribune’s flagship WGN Chicago (DMA 3). The station’s Rome-based stories were tailored to Chicagoans — they highlighted the city’s Cardinal Francis George, were delivered by longtime reporter Dina Bair and included discussions about locals’ favorite subject: the weather, even in Rome.

“Chicago has a huge Roman Catholic population and something as important as the selection of the new Pope is as important to them as anything else going on,” Caputo says.

As a CW affiliate, WGN doesn’t have the benefit of network pope-related newsfeeds — which included everything from steadfast smoke cams to top-tier analysis — so the station had to cover the start of Francis’ papacy itself to give it due airplay, Caputo says.


Still in Rome, KTRK’s Koch cites an interview with Houston’s Cardinal Daniel DiNardo before Mass at his titular church as a highlight of his coverage so far. “Despite those press briefings being canceled, he talked about his hopes and nerves going into the conclave,” Koch says.

WCBS New York sent anchor Maurice DuBois and reporter Tony Aiello to Rome, “giving great importance to the coverage of this story,” says News Director David Friend, who is also SVP of News for the CBS-owned stations.

Their coverage from Rome ranged from an exclusive interview with local papal prospect Cardinal Timothy Dolan to a story on the craftsmen who make the pope’s garments to interviews with New York-area tourists.

Mike Clark of WTAE Pittsburgh (DMA 23) captured a moment as local as they get when, in a pre-Rome interview, Washington Cardinal [and Steel City native] Donald Wuerl said: “A large part of my heart will carry a piece of Pittsburgh into that conclave.”

Clark’s reports from Rome, which started March 10, aired on all the Hearst-owned ABC affiliate’s newscasts for nearly a week, with live reports airing during morning and 11 p.m. newscasts, says News Director Justin Antoniotti. The station’s website devoted a page to the new pope, including Clark’s “Digital Diaries” documenting his experiences.

When Pope Francis’s election was announced, Clark and his photographer heard the news in St. Peter’s Square with students from Pittsburgh’s Duquesne University studying in Rome.

Antoniotti says Pittsburgh’s large Catholic population and connection to church leaders (three of the 11 voting Cardinals were raised in Pittsburgh) warranted devoting that kind of time and resources to the story.

“It depends on the market,” he says. Was he still at his previous job at Hearst’s WYFF in Greenville, S.C., Antoniotti says he “would have made a different decision.”

In addition to covering the ceremony and groundswell of emotion surrounding Pope Francis’ selection (even well-traveled reporters say they couldn’t help but get caught up in it), local TV reporters also went to Rome to help viewers — Catholics and non-Catholics alike — understand what the grandiose changes in the Vatican mean to them, particularly in light of the sex scandals and other issues facing the church.

That was particularly true for KNBC’s Kovacik, who has covered the controversy surrounding retired Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony’s participation in the conclave and the Los Angeles Archdiocese’s settlement last week of a $10 million lawsuit with sex abuse victims. “We have a vested interest in what’s going on here,” Kovacik says. In the last week, Kovacik has covered members of a sex abuse survivors group urging Cardinal Mahony to withdraw from voting for a new pope; he later interviewed Cardinal Mahony defending himself.

“We have always had to keep in mind those in L.A. who have such mixed emotions about the Catholic Church and feel that they have been wronged,” he says.

Bruce Johnson, of Gannett’s WUSA Washington, also went to Rome prepared to cover issues of import to the Washington area’s approximately 700,000 Catholics — women’s role in the church, divorce, the declining number of churchgoers among them.

To do so, Johnson’s three-person team, which included a producer and photographer, interviewed seminarians from Washington who are in training at an elite Roman academy.

“We talked to them about a number of issues including vocation, why they had made [the choice to become priests], sex abuse scandals, chastity and all those decisions about coming into the priesthood,” Johnson says.

Johnson also interviewed an American woman who considers herself an ordained priest, advocating for women’s right to enter the priesthood. Another story focused on a St. Louis woman representing victims of sexual abuse by priests.

“We learned a lot — I think we uncovered a lot — and we shared a lot,” Johnson says. “We put faces on this big story.” Yet, Johnson adds, you can’t entirely separate that aspect of the story from the enormity of energy and activity surrounding Pope Francis’ election, marked by “tons of people just running through the square — nuns, children. This is bigger than the Super Bowl there,” he says. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Kovacik also describes the groundswell of emotion that accompanied Pope Francis’ election as being of such magnitude that you have to wonder whether “this may be just be the reenergizing of the church. Is there a way this man is going to transcend the Catholic Church and religion itself and be a leader for us all?” Kovacik asks.

He adds: “As more than one Cardinal said to me,” if the Catholic Church is supposedly losing its following and its faithful, “why are there 6,000 journalists here and why were there 100,000 people in St. Peter’s Square and why is everybody at home watching.”

Read other Air Check columns here. You can send suggestions for future Air Checks to Diana Marszalek at [email protected].

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