At dawn tomorrow, as networks and 24-hour cable channels point their cameras and microphones at Pope John Paul II's funeral, an estimated 2 billion television viewers from around the globe will not hear much color commentary, many voice-overs or chatter from the newscasters.
Instead, producers say, they are urging their anchors and correspondents to stay out of the way, allowing the solemnity and magnitude of the occasion to prevail. Television's marching orders are clear: Tomorrow's coverage must not only tell viewers the news from Rome, it must allow room for the rich and ancient ritual of the Roman Catholic Church to make viewers feel as if they are part of the congregation inside St. Peter's Basilica for the funeral Mass.
"I believe it will be rare to hear the voice of an anchor or correspondent during any of the funeral ceremonies," CNN anchorman Bill Hemmer said from Rome yesterday. "I believe this story is so rich with pictures, and it will be so rich with sound emanating from St. Peter's Basilica - and then St. Peter's Square when his body is brought back out - that words from people like us are not necessary at those moments. And I think as a broadcaster, it's your responsibility to recognize those moments and not interfere."
Jonathan Klein, president of CNN, said such moments can offer viewers a compelling sense of belonging to a community brought together by television: "There's a yearning on the part of audiences everywhere for connection with one another. That is in large part what's behind the rise of the Internet. But television is the most connective medium - better than the Internet - because it provides not only information but also emotion. When you hear the chanting in Vatican City, you're transported there emotionally."
Some news executives described the thinking behind such coverage as the opposite of conventional wisdom on most major news stories. Instead of bringing the story to viewers in their homes, "What we're trying to do is bring the viewer to the event," said Marcy McGinnis, senior vice president for news coverage at CBS.
"I recently talked to my mother, who is in her 80s and loves live news events," McGinnis said yesterday. "And she said she was supposed to go out to lunch with her friends the other day, but didn't because she wanted to see them carry the pope's body through the square to St. Peter's Basilica. 'I was just mesmerized by it. I felt like I was there. I love being part of history,' my mother said. And I think she is quite typical of viewers who want to actually be there, but can't - so we help them be there on these kinds of special events."
A sense of being there
Religion and media analysts described that sense of being "there" and feeling "mesmerized" as indications of television's inherent capacity to embrace and record ritual and then expand its sacred sense of time and space exponentially through TV satellite technology to a global audience of billions.
"The power of television is to make people in disparate locations feel as if they are one with the spectacle that they are seeing in front of them," said Diane Winston, Knight chair in religion and media at the University of Southern California. "As the camera works to take viewers into close-up proximity of the actual ritual, for people who are believers there is a real sense of being a member of that congregation in St. Peter's. You have a ringside seat."
Winston compared the experience that some viewers will have tomorrow to the one had by many during the first wedding of Prince Charles: "It's not unlike Diana's wedding, where they were sitting inside the church where she was married. And we all knew what she looked like and what her dress was like and how she walked down the aisle. Just as people felt they were 'there' at that event, and were 'mesmerized' or lost in the ritual of her wedding, I think people will feel as if they are participating in the pope's funeral.
"It's a very different kind of occasion," Winston said, "but it's one of those times when television really does work its magic and brings people together to share in a ceremony that has world importance."
Roy Peter Clark, senior scholar at the Poynter Institute, a journalistic think tank in Florida, called the pope's funeral "a story that cannot be overcovered," due to the importance and stature of the man and the institution involved. But there is coverage, and then there is coverage, he said.
"There are two different ways in which journalism functions," Clark said. "One way is to give us information - to point us to an event. The other function of journalism is to give us not information, but to give us experience. ... When they're broadcasting these ceremonies in Rome, they will not be pointing us there, they will be putting us there. They will be transporting us to another place ... if they do it right."