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Jennifer McGuire

General Manager and Editor in Chief

Comments about our Papal coverage

Categories: World

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Pope Francis greets the crowd in St. Peter's Square after being elected to lead the Catholic church. (Associated Press/L'Osservatore Romano)

Our coverage of the Catholic Church and the recent papal conclave generated a significant number of comments from our audience. As is the case with all major stories, the comments reflected all perspectives, from those who felt we produced too much coverage to those who thanked us for bringing them an important story.

One letter took the time to list examples of what the writer saw as "unmistakable bias" in favour of the Roman Catholic Church. "No other religious organization receives the coverage that is given to the Roman Catholic Church in length, frequency, content and tone," it said. The letter focused on our coverage of the naming of saints, our Canadian lens, and our lack of coverage of other religions.

CBC's journalistic policy acknowledges that balance does not necessarily mean some sort of mathematical equivalency. Balance does not, for instance, mean that every story about Catholics must be immediately juxtaposed with equally strong stories about Baptists, Jews, Anglicans, Muslims, Jains, Buddhists and so on. Such a requirement would effectively end intelligent journalism. We do and have covered significant stories of interest about all of those religions and more. The most important thing is to ensure that all religions, and indeed all points of view, are treated in an equitable manner.

And I believe we are doing that.

We responded to this particular letter by addressing all of the examples and making the case that our coverage was well-considered, consistent and appropriate.

The letter said our stories about the naming of saints have been frequent and inappropriate. We replied that reporting on the canonization process, in and of itself, does not constitute partiality. It also does not imply that CBC News has determined saints exist or that the Roman Catholic Church has a monopoly on naming them, as was implied in the letter. And we have certainly not catalogued every person named a saint.

Our coverage has been limited to stories of wide public interest, usually with a Canadian connection, such as our October 21, 2012, report on Kateri Tekakwitha, the first aboriginal North American to be canonized. She died in 1680 in what's now Kahnawake, Quebec. And when we have tackled a canonization story in depth, we have acknowledged the skeptical view of sainthood in general, as in this October 18, 2010, online story about Montreal's André Bessette, "The life and times of Canada's newest saint". The story included this background:

"To non-believers, much of this talk of healings is the stuff of hocus-pocus or quackery. Particularly as many of these cures don't involve him directly but rather prayer medallions bearing his likeness, or notes left at the foot of a statue of St. Joseph in the gargantuan shrine built at Brother André's behest. What's more, this talk of miracles hardly seems to fit today's more secular Quebec, with its near-empty pews and huge antipathy towards its Catholic past."

The letter also asserts that we have regularly reported on newly named Canadian cardinals while systematically ignoring the appointment of other religious leaders. In February last year, we did report about the induction of Thomas Collins, the Archbishop of Toronto, into the elite club of cardinals. Cardinal Collins is one of only three living Canadian cardinals, the 16th Canadian cardinal in the history of the church. It is a prestigious appointment for a Catholic and one we feel was of interest to all Canadians, not just members of the Catholic Church.

CBC News has regularly reported the appointment of religious leaders in other churches as well. Among them:

  • Earlier this month, we reported about the appointment of Bishop Mina as Canada's first Coptic Christian bishop.
  • On August 17, last year, CBC Radio reported that Gary Paterson had been named the new moderator of the United Church of Canada.
  • And two months later, on November 4, we reported the appointment of Tawadros II, the new Coptic Christian Pope.

The resignation of Pope Benedict and the selection of his successor was the first time in almost 600 years that a pontiff had retired instead of dying in office, and a Canadian cardinal was widely considered a serious candidate to replace Benedict.

And it is also the case that many stories about the papacy go beyond coverage of a specific faith. The Catholic Pope is an influential world figure, and Vatican City is a sovereign state, recognized by the United Nations, and with diplomatic relations all over the world. Just as we regularly cover changes in the leadership of many countries, especially when they have direct links to Canada, we consider changes in papal leadership newsworthy.

And we have not systematically ignored other faiths. Take the United Church of Canada, for example. In August 2012, we covered a vote by the United Church's general council to endorse a contentious boycott of goods from Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. And last month, CBC News ran radio stories on tough decisions that the United Church is making about property it owns in Halifax, about a food bank program the United Church is running in Ottawa, and about a United Church minister from New Brunswick who is in Bethlehem as part of a World Council of Churches human rights observer program. This is just a sampling of our overall coverage of different organized religions.

It's worth noting that, just as in the selection of a new Pope, our coverage of Roman Catholicism has been guided by news judgment, and therefore much of it has been focused on sexual abuse scandals, dwindling church attendance, and challenges to conservative stances against gay marriage and the ordination of women by outside critics as well as by some Catholic parishioners. We have also regularly covered aspects of Catholicism that are an entrenched part of Canadian society and culture, such as battles over private school board funding in communities across the land. These are all valid and relevant stories.

Tags: Coverage, Policy

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