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VATICAN LETTER Jul-26-2012 (970 words) Backgrounder. With photo. xxxi

Fast vs. facts: Vatican spokesman tries to quickly help media get truth

Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi walks through a crowd of media and demonstrators in Rome in this 2010 file photo. Measured, frank and open, the Vatican spokesman always answers journalists' questions patiently and in a timely way. (CNS/Paul Haring)

By Carol Glatz
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Throughout history, the Vatican has dealt with so many accusations and scandals, one would expect the Holy See to have a well-oiled PR machine primed to deal with the constant media onslaught.

Well, better late than never. Recent changes -- some official, some done on-the-fly -- demonstrate the Vatican is taking seriously its need to face the media clearly and directly both on offense and defense.

The first pivotal indication was the hiring of a seasoned lay journalist at the Vatican Secretariat of State to help "manage" the message.

The Vatican created the new adviser position in June and handpicked St. Louis-born Greg Burke, a member of Opus Dei and longtime Rome correspondent for Fox News.

The idea was to get someone knowledgeable about the church, yet culled from far enough outside the Vatican bubble to be able to see if any train wrecks were coming.

The Regensburg controversy is an example of one derailment that could have been avoided, many journalists have said, including Burke.

A deeply intellectual and nuanced speech citing a controversial 14th-century Byzantine emperor on the evils of a faith disconnected from reason may not present problems in a lecture to a group of theology students, "but in a sound-bite, headline culture, it's a whole different thing," Burke has told CNS.

Someone, in fact, who understood and sated the media's hunger for quick concise sound bites was Joaquin Navarro-Valls, another Opus Dei member and longtime lay journalist who headed the Vatican press office for 22 years.

Some have said, in fact, that the Vatican's tailspin into the media maelstrom began not long after Navarro's retirement in July 2006 -- just two months prior to the pope's speech in Regensburg.

He was replaced by a much more understated and paternal figure -- Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, a northern Italian mathematician, who learned to compute the media equation as head of Vatican Radio and the Vatican television station.

Measured, frank and open, Father Lombardi always answers journalists' questions patiently and in a timely way; he also tries to keep up with monitoring the deluge of what gets written about the pope and the Vatican.

One of his jobs, in fact, is to decide when to call out absurd or untrue stories.

He said his style is to hold back and not give added attention to something that doesn't deserve it.

One example was when an Italian scent maker created, on her own initiative, a cologne for Pope Benedict XVI; it morphed into headlines such as "Pope orders his own custom-made cologne."

When the Vatican was asked at the time if it were true, one journalist was met with an arched eyebrow and a shake of a head. Not even "no comment" was uttered.

Father Lombardi said prudence is key because making any kind of comment, including saying a story is false, often is taken as an "official" position statement from the Vatican and gives a baseless story even stronger legs to walk on, he told CNS.

He said he has had journalists respond to denials with "See! You are just defending so-and-so!" when the problem was that the claim was unfounded and no one bothered to verify it or back it up.

Part of the problem is media outlets competing to be the first out with the story or the first to repeat it to their own audience, he said. Writers may blindly rely on a shaky source, skip verifying or double-checking the facts "because they're afraid of being behind."

Father Lombardi went on the offense this year in an effort to preempt the preposterous.

He organized a landmark tour for journalists of the Vatican bank, which included a Q&A session and two-hour long presentation by the bank's director, as a way to bust its "secretive" image and help reporters get correct information.

He also had a Vatican judge give a 90-minute briefing on the complex workings of the Vatican court system and explain what could or might happen to the papal butler accused of aggravated theft of confidential documents.

Also on his own initiative, Father Lombardi started holding almost daily briefings. He said they were not part of a new communications strategy as much as a response to the nonsense and inaccuracies being written in the press in the wake of the "VatiLeaks" scandal.

"I wouldn't have had to hold so many briefings, and everyone could have gone on vacation," if so many false and unsubstantiated stories hadn't been coming out every day, he said.

The nature of the so-called news reports -- many bordering on libel -- also prompted him to intervene often and firmly, he said.

The "VatiLeaks" scandal, which saw private correspondence between the pope and Vatican officials published in the press, erupted in January. The leaked letters, revealing allegations of corruption and infighting, fueled an already sensationalist-minded press.

In criticizing poor journalism, Father Lombardi hasn't gone as far as Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, Vatican secretary of state, who recently blamed the ongoing scandal on unethical journalists "imitating Dan Brown," and continuing "to invent fables or repeat legends."

Father Lombardi has taken a more pastoral approach, peppering his statements and briefings with reminders that distortions and mistruths not only are not journalism, they are not in the public interest.

At a time when the press is clamoring for the Vatican to be more transparent, Father Lombardi said he agrees, but he added that truth, honesty and high standards also should apply to journalism.

Recognizing the pressure some writers are under from editors or management to favor fast over facts, he said he's tried "to get journalists to reflect on their real duty and a sense of serious professionalism."

Writers need to strive to "understand things more and better, to have a critical eye toward information," which will benefit their audiences as well, he said.


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