The Italianisation of Journalism

April 28, 2005 • Ethics and Quality • by

Werbewoche, April 28, 2005

“Habemus papam”. Do we really need yet another opinion on the issue; now, after the new pope is chosen and the former buried? Yes, we do. Even if I might run the risk of contributing my own bit to what I intend to criticise, which is the way the media here and abroad seemed to focus on a single topic for weeks and how they turned the suffering and dying of a 84-year-old man into a worldwide happening.

Even before the Pope’s funeral was held, an internet search engine announced the Pontiff’s death had generated ten-times more media attention than the re-election of the world’s supposedly most powerful man, US-president Bush. Even the Wall Street Journal Europe, a paper usually not associated with agitated news coverage, was caught up in the frenzy and credited John Paul the II with having “the charisma of a rock star”; yet another hyperbole that henceforth will keep the likes of Madonna and Mick Jagger awake at night.So what was it that made journalists, or rather, less personal, the media (all across the world or perhaps only in the Western Hemisphere?) downgrade other news to an “also-ran status”? What is the reason behind all the attention for the suffering, dying and death of an individual; something that happens everyday and, for the most part, we prefer not to talk about.

Firstly I must admit that I was baffled by the sheer scale of the media frenzy. Even for seasoned observers it was hard to find a reasonable explanation for the disproportionate media attention, which stood in sharp contrast to the way religion is normally perceived in a strongly secular society, where sects tend to get more attention than established religious institutions. In light of empty churches, many regional newspapers no longer feature the local worship schedule as a matter of course, limiting themselves to the cinema guide. And the media itself has become a kind of substitute religion for many of us. Instead of going to church, we watch telly. Instead of confessing to a priest, some open their inner selves to a talk show host.

One explanation for the frenzy may be a strong herd instinct among journalists in the global village, combined with the powerful pomp staged by an institution which has existed for two millennia and stands for the non-rational, the unfathomable, something that makes it the object of man’s desire for salvation. Taking this into account, I must refute, once again, what Sacha Wigdorovits (14.4.2005) wrote in the Swiss weekly “Weltwoche”. Using labels such as “brand strategy” and calling the pope a “brand manager” will not get us far in explaining the communicative miracle that befell us for weeks. But this is not to say that the efforts of John Paul II and his church to capture the public’s imagination hadn’t been a success. On the contrary.

But what we went through was certainly not one of the great moments in an ever more globalising journalism. In my view, what we saw is evidence for a trend I would call the “Italianisation of journalism”. Because nowhere in the Western world are journalists more prone to „tematizzazione“, i.e. focussing on a single topic than in Italy; and nowhere in a liberal Western media environment do journalists seem more dependent on and controlled by influential people in policits and society.

Stephan Russ-Mohl

Werbewoche, 28 April 2005

Translation: Florian Faes

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