Pope Benedict XVI, the spiritual leader of some 1 billion Catholics worldwide, announced on February 11 that he will retire from his post by the end of the month, citing weakness and age. It will make him the first pope to resign in 600 years.

Perhaps the most visible religious figure in the world, Pope Benedict has attracted a significant share of news coverage over the years. Since Pew Research Center began tracking the U.S. news media in 2007, the pope has been by far the central figure in mainstream religion coverage.[i]

A new analysis of 2,700 religion stories in newspapers, websites, cable and broadcast news programs and audio outlets over a five-year period finds that:

  • When covering religion, the U.S. media gave Pope Benedict far more attention than any other figure. The pope was the main newsmaker in 32% of all religion stories studied from July 2007 through May, 2012. That is nearly three times as much as the No. 2 religion newsmaker, Barack Obama (12%).
  • Looking across all topics and the many thousands of people in the news over the last five years, Benedict still ranks high. The pope was the 27th most-covered individual, the focus of more attention than figures such as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, John Boehner or Hamid Karzai.
  • In the context of religion coverage, not all media sectors have given equal treatment to the pope. On network TV, fully 38% of the religion coverage studied over the five years has focused on Benedict. On cable TV, however, only 14% has done so. Among other sectors, newspaper front pages (20%), audio news programs (23%) and major news websites (27%) fell somewhere in the middle.

Despite all the pope’s activities over the years, the U.S. media primarily focused on two main stories, with little attention to religious issues the Pope dealt with during his tenure.

  • Benedict’s 2008 visit to the U.S. accounted for nearly a third (31%) of all pope-related news over the five years studied: That is nearly twice as much as the No. 2 story, the Catholic priest abuse scandal (18%). (For more analysis of media coverage of the Pope, see the Pew Research study of Benedict’s visit to the U.S. and a study of the clergy abuse scandal.)
  • Benedict’s other travels, including visits to the UK, Cuba and Africa, accounted for another 17% of the coverage.
  • Hot-button social issues accounted for very little of Benedict’s coverage. The pope’s positions on abortion and same-sex marriage together made up less than 1% of his media coverage over the five years studied.

Related Research:

Resources on Catholicism and the Pope

Infographic: Catholic Views of Catholic Leaders

[i] The data include all stories in which Pope Benedict was the main newsmaker—442 stories in all. The date range is July 1, 2007-May 31, 2012. The sample includes approximately 50 major news outlets in print, web, network TV, cable TV and audio platforms. The methodology can be found here.