AP’s Chief Italy and Vatican Correspondent Nicole Winfield’s tenacious reporting has already delivered numerous exclusives over a two-decade career covering three popes. Yet an on-camera, sit-down interview with a pontiff had eluded the AP.
After years of lobbying, the pope finally agreed to an interview with Winfield, whom Francis has for years called the “prima della classe,” or “first in class,” as a sign of respect for her tough but fair reporting on his pontificate. In fact, during the interview, he mentioned how Winfield’s questions about sex abuse during a 2018 airborne press conference led to his own "conversion" moment when he realized that Chilean bishops had been covering up cases for decades.
For weeks, Winfield prepared the interview with Rome Senior Producer Maria Grazia Murru, who for decades has led the Vatican video operations. They coordinated every detail and prepared the right questions and approach for the interview. Murru designed the video coverage plan and spearheaded the production of social media promotion material. And together, they wrote letters in the most formal Italian to Francis’ private secretaries, until a date was finally arranged — for late January, a time that seemed ripe to make news. It was one week ahead of his planned trip to Africa and just over a month ahead of the 10th anniversary of his pontificate.
During the planning, no one knew that Benedict XVI, Francis’ predecessor, who had cast a long shadow as pope emeritus, would die on the last day of 2022. After Benedict’s funeral, work continued to ensure that the interview would proceed as planned.
Video’s Paolo Santalucia and Photos’ Domenico Stinellis planned the lighting at the venue and sorted out technical details to make sure that on the day of the interview, all the focus was on the questions.
During the interview, Nicole pressed the pope on bishops and clergy who support laws in dozens of countries condemning homosexuality even, in some cases, with the death penalty. His answer — “Being homosexual is not a crime” — made headlines all around the world, trumping what had been expected to be the interview’s main topic: Francis’s plans for the future of his papacy after the death of the emeritus pope.
Winfield decided to conduct the interview in Spanish, primarily to cater to AP’s Spanish-language client base and millions of Spanish-speaking Catholics, but also to elicit a more natural pope, speaking in his mother tongue.
With the support of the Italy team members and others outside of Rome, as well as Spanish language editor Cristina Fuentes-Cantillana, transcribing and translating the full interview, AP produced dozens of print stories in English and Spanish, video edits, photo packages and even Instagram posts taking customers behind the scenes of the story.
The Interview was the top story on APNews.com, and it made newscasts around the world, with U.S. and some European morning TV shows highlighting it as breaking news.
The pontiff’s comments triggered conversation in talk shows, podcasts, editorials and columns around the world, including in the New York Times, Washington Post and New Yorker magazine.
Winfield’s interview reverberated in newspapers from Italy to France to Francis’s birth country of Argentina. Much of the developed world celebrated the comments, but the response was different in South Sudan, where the government doubled down on intolerance for homosexuality and gay marriage — just a week before welcoming the pope at home.
For demonstrating the ultimate in source building, which would not have been possible without decades of aggressive and just reporting, Winfield and the entire AP Italy and Vatican team are this week’s Best of the Week — First Winner.