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 CNS Story:

VATICAN LETTER Nov-30-2006 (720 words) Backgrounder. With photos posted Nov. 28 and 30. xxxi

Learning curve: Pope Benedict's approach to media, speeches evolving

By Cindy Wooden
Catholic News Service

WITH THE POPE IN TURKEY (CNS) -- Offering his thanks to journalists who help him get his message to the world, Pope Benedict XVI also highlighted the responsibility that goes with summarizing someone else's thoughts and words.

In part, the pope's remarks at the beginning of his Nov. 28-Dec. 1 trip to Turkey could be read as an acknowledgment that he, like many people, thought the trip to Turkey would be delicate because of somewhat tense Catholic-Muslim relations.

With that in mind, it made sense for the pope to give a little pep talk to the 69 reporters, photographers, producers and media technicians accompanying him to Turkey.

Speaking on the plane before takeoff from Rome Nov. 28, the pope told them he wanted "to express sincerely my gratitude for the work you do."

While not exactly excusing them for occasionally making mistakes, the pope told the reporters he recognized that theirs is a "difficult work, a work often done in difficult conditions."

Understanding and effectively communicating the pope's thinking in a world of 24-hour instant news is not so easy, he said.

Pope Benedict said he understood that "giving a synthesis and making the essence of what happened and what was said understandable" cannot be easy when it must be done quickly.

"All events reach humanity only through your mediation and, in that way, you really render a service of great importance, for which I am truly grateful," he said.

Journalists who repeatedly hear Vatican officials complain that the media often miss the subtleties of papal statements and Catholic teaching took the pope's words as an admonition, or at least a strong caution.

Some Vatican officials said the negative reaction of so many Muslims to the pope's September speech in Germany was sparked by media reports that had taken out of context the quotation the pope used expressing concern about Islam and violence. The pope later said he did not share the quotation's criticism of Islam and that he was sorry Muslims were offended.

But media attention to the speech and to the Muslim reaction also drew greater worldwide attention to Pope Benedict's trip to Turkey and particularly to his meeting in Ankara with Muslim leaders.

In the end, the meeting went off without a hitch.

Pope Benedict and Ali Bardakoglu, director of the government office overseeing Islamic affairs, did not ignore the tensions, but they seemed genuinely pleased to have an opportunity to sit and talk and to explain their hopes and concerns to each other.

What journalists reported the pope and Bardakoglu as saying did not unleash confusion or protests; no one at the Vatican made any move to comment publicly on how the media covered the visit.

But one thing that facilitated the journalists' work in Turkey was the fact that, unlike the speech in Germany, Pope Benedict's speeches were relatively brief and were not filled with footnoted references and explanations.

Pope Benedict's approach to the media traveling with him is different from the approach of his predecessor, Pope John Paul II.

Especially in the early days of his papacy -- including a trip to Turkey in 1979 -- whenever a flight was longer than two hours, Pope John Paul would give a press conference in the air.

Until his own trip to Turkey, Pope Benedict, on the other hand, would walk back to the journalists' section of the airplane as it was taxiing to the runway and respond briefly to two or three questions asked by reporters in the front row.

Only those seated closest to the front would hear the answers, although the quotes would make the rounds during the flight.

The problem was solved before the flight to Turkey, with Vatican Radio installing a microphone and amplifier in the journalists' section of the plane.

However, instead of responding to questions asked by reporters, the pope made his initial remarks about the responsibility of the media, then answered questions read by Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, director of the Vatican press office.

The Jesuit selected the questions from among a dozen the journalists submitted in advance.

Although as a cardinal he handled the press with straight talk and even humor, Pope Benedict has yet to hold a full-blown press conference.

END


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