Papal election shows television is still plugged into events

Social media complemented rather than displaced the broadcast coverage

Vatican ambassador to Nicaragua Fortunatus Nwachukwu applauds as he watches a local television channel in Managua announce the election of Pope Francis. Photograph: Reuters

Vatican ambassador to Nicaragua Fortunatus Nwachukwu applauds as he watches a local television channel in Managua announce the election of Pope Francis. Photograph: Reuters


Some social commentators have argued in recent years that as a society we are retreating from simultaneous consumption of mass media into individual silos in which we watch and read those who agree with us, befriend our own kind on social media and follow a limited community of like-minded tweeters.

We will, some say, dwell increasingly in tailor-made virtual worlds. Some suggest we are at risk of losing the sense of global community engendered by mass communication, particularly by television, in the latter half of the 20th century. Some also argue that television (and newspapers) will ultimately be undermined by the internet.

All the indications this week, however, were to the contrary.

For 45 minutes last Wednesday evening the top five news channels available on cable in this country – RTÉ News Now, Sky News, CNN, CNBC and Euronews – showed the same image of an empty Vatican balcony overlooking St Peter’s Square. The four mainstream channels – RTÉ One, TV3, BBC One and UTV – either extended news programmes or broke into their schedules to cover the election of the new pope. The blanket coverage of the event on television in Ireland was replicated in most countries, including those not culturally Catholic.

Mass gathering
When white smoke issued from the chimney installed in the Sistine Chapel it set in train an extraordinary movement of people, a mass gathering, to watch the revelation of the new pope’s identity.

Thousands rushed across Rome to be in or near St Peter’s Square for the first glimpse of the new pope. Globally, millions ensured they could see it on television. It was one of those occasions when children were told to watch TV so they would be able to say later in life they were watching as the pope made his first public appearance.

Hundreds of millions of people watched on television as French cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran came out on the balcony. Many in countries with high internet penetration doubtless watched it online but the sound and vision was generated by television stations. It was fascinating to flick across the TV stations to gauge the various reactions to the news of Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s election as pope. Surprisingly, many outlets were flummoxed by the use of Latin and by Bergoglio’s name.

Coverage complemented
Social media and microblogs complemented rather than displaced the broadcast coverage. More than seven million tweets about the papacy had already been posted on Wednesday before the news of the pope’s election.

In the immediate aftermath of the announcement there were 130,000 tweets every minute as people reacted to the news.

As Cardinal Tauran finished speaking, the official papal Twitter account @Pontifex, which had been sealed since Pope Benedict XVI’s retirement, jumped back to life with the message “Habemus Papam Franciscum”. Shortly thereafter the president of Argentina, with whom it seems the new pope had a confrontational relationship, tweeted her letter of congratulations with a speed that suggested her office had a draft ready.

While the papal election has dominated all media in recent weeks there has not been unanimous agreement on the appropriateness of the prominence given to Benedict’s retirement and Pope Francis ’s election.There has been a trickle of on-air comment and a stream of online griping here about the resources, reporters and air time RTÉ has given to covering the papacy. Some of this griping has come from supposed liberals, revealing an intolerance of even neutral coverage of the Catholic Church.

There can be no doubt, however, that as well as being a massive Catholic story this is a massive story generally. The change of pope, as well as having spiritual significance for those of the world’s 1.2 billion practising Catholics, also has a political and cultural significance. The pope holds one of the few offices with the potential for a truly global impact. In these times a new pope also immediately becomes a new global celebrity.

Interest in the papal succession has also probably been heightened by a desire in these troubled times within the church and outside it for a more active and communicative papacy. Whatever about his impact within the Vatican and the wider church, it seems those looking for international political leadership on poverty and disadvantage have reasons to be happy with the fact that Cardinal Bergoglio is now Pope Francis.

Thursday saw a change of personnel in another globally significant office. Xi Jinping replaced Hu Jintao as president of China. Xi’s election was more easily foreseen and it attracted in these parts only a fraction of the attention which Pope Francis got. Xi, however, is likely to have a more enduring global impact.

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