Media Coverage and the Pope's Health

Interview With Communications Professor Norberto Gaitano

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ROME, MARCH 6, 2005 ( It is not surprising how much coverage the media is giving to the topic of John Paul II’s health, according to an adviser for the Vatican.

Norberto González Gaitano, consultor for the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, spoke with ZENIT about how the media is covering the Pope’s current health problems.

Gaitano is the dean of the school of institutional communication at the University of the Holy Cross in Rome, and author of “The Duty of Respect for Privacy” and “Journalistic Interpretation and Narration,” both published by Eunsa, the publishing house of the University of Navarra in Spain.

Q: Is the media’s coverage of the Pope’s health exaggerated?

Gaitano: In the Jubilee of 2000, the Pope thanked journalists for their work that disseminated to a greater degree awareness and knowledge of that exceptional event in the life of the Church. It wasn’t the first and only time he had done so.

Now some, including reporters themselves, might think that the attention the media is giving the Holy Father’s health is exaggerated, failing to understand how many empathize with his suffering, as he doesn’t cease to be a man, and much loved at that.

Cardinal Ratzinger has appreciated this fact and its effects correctly: “In a society that hides pain and the nearness of death, the Pope’s testimony has been prophetic,” he said, more or less, after visiting the Holy Father recently.

Q: The Holy Father is clearly the first pope to have such a close relationship with the media. Do you think he is bothered by the fact that his life is constantly under the gaze of the world?

Gaitano: It seems obvious to me that the Pope himself opted since the beginning of his pontificate not to avoid the media when it might be annoying, and to use it when it would help to make known his mission as universal pastor of the Church and figure of Christ for humanity.

He simply lives with it in a natural way during those times that people call good and those they call bad. As a result, he goes beyond the media and reaches directly to the people, including the journalists themselves.

Q: The Holy See is projecting an image of calm, removed from alarmism. Do you think this is a good policy of communication?

Gaitano: After the understandable precipitations and vacillations of the crisis that determined his first admission to the Gemelli, not only the Holy See but all of us have accepted the fact that the Pope is going through a new stage in his illness, which implies a point of no return from the preceding situation.

It is logical that the Holy See adjust its communication policy to the reality of the facts, free from false optimism and alarmism, stemming more from the expectation of novelties to be able to report than from new critical states of health.

Among the media there has been talk that there is a lack of sufficient information, a judgment that might be valid.

It is understandable that those who had to decide urgently on the Pope’s hospitalization in the early morning did not think of the media as a priority. It is understandable that the news broke no sooner than the moment when the Holy Father entered the Gemelli.

The media has attentively watched the Pope’s health in the last years. An agency reporter saw him admitted and, naturally, reported the news, unleashing a media explosion. It is what in the professional academic jargon is called a “shotgun” effect.

The Vatican press office found out itself a few hours later, but it regained control of the situation in less than 12 hours with an iron hand, as is proper in crisis situations.

I read the complaints of journalists who lament that they do not have access to doctor’s reports, or the possibility to interview them, as in the past. I do not know the basis of these complaints or of the situation in other surgical interventions of the past.

I know, instead, what is a principle of the manual of institutional communication: that the official interlocutor with the media in crisis situations should be only one. Everyone wins that way: the institution, the journalists and, of course, the public.

Q: Does your faculty prepare the Church for media crisis? Can the present situation be labeled a crisis?

Gaitano: If our faculty tried to prepare “the Church” to address crises, including those of the media — allow me the irony — we would have closed it or would work for another institution with a greater future in this area.

The Church has abundant, age-old experience in crises and yet, it has still not distilled the recipe to surmount them.

It resolves them somewhat mysteriously, from within, with enormous contradictions, but with powerful help that comes, at the same time, from within and without, in an unexpected and serene way; at times it takes one or two generations to resolve them.

We, more modestly, try to prepare people who will manage the communication of ecclesiastical institutions to address, from the informative point of view, the crises that arise from within.

Also, we train individuals to create crises outside, in society, the ones that the Christian message should create, and creates, when there is an effort to live and present the message in its fullness.

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