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News conference on plane with pope has different protocol

Members of the Armed Forces Full Honor Cordon

Members of the Armed Forces Full Honor Cordon from the Military District of Washington roll up the red carpet after a practice run for the arrival of Pope Francis on Sept. 22, 2015. Credit: AP / Susan Walsh

ABOARD THE PAPAL PLANE -- When the pope comes to the back of his plane to give a news conference to journalists after leaving each country, it's not like an unruly news conference in places like Washington, D.C., where reporters shout out questions to politicians.

Instead, there is an unofficial protocol governing how journalists will ask questions, who will ask and even in what language.

Depending on the length of the flight -- and the pope's energy level -- journalists get to ask Francis anywhere from three to 12 questions. Sometimes he'll speak for an hour or more. Not infrequently he'll make news -- like the time he said, "Who am I to judge?" when asked about a gay priest.

On Tuesday's relatively short flight from Cuba to Washington, D.C., the news conference lasted about a half-hour, with seven questions.

Typically, the journalists divide themselves up among language groups to figure out the questions they want to ask -- Italian, Spanish, French, English. Then they get to ask questions more or less in rotating order based on the language group.

Before the flight takes off, each group huddles in the airport to decide what their questions will be, or a leader -- or leaders -- go around asking for ideas. It often turns into a debate, until they finally settle on a key question or two.

Tuesday, the debate carried on into the plane and shortly before takeoff, until finally one of the pope's press aides sternly told everyone to sit down.

Sometimes the different language groups collaborate, trying to agree on questions and plotting a strategy. For instance, if the pope dodges the first question, have the second questioner press him again.

Reporters reached a consensus Tuesday that they would ask the pope about the U.S. embargo against Cuba and about dissidents who were arrested in Cuba and allegedly prevented from meeting with him.

They also debated whether to have an embargo on anything newsworthy he said. Some wanted to impose a one-hour embargo on releasing the news after the plane landed to give news outlets time to polish their stories. Others wanted no embargo and to allow reporters to send out their dispatches immediately.

There were votes on both sides. In the end they decided no embargo.

Shortly after takeoff, the pope appeared before the journalists. His spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, announced the name and news outlet of each questioner who took the microphone.

Sometimes it's hard to hear over the plane's loudspeaker system, so journalists taped their tape recorders on the ceiling near the loudspeakers so they could use their hands to type or write notes.

After the news conference ended, journalists huddled to help translate the pope's answers for those who didn't speak Spanish or Italian, the languages he used. Then debates ensued about what was the biggest news of the conference. Many thought it was his comment that he isn't left-leaning -- he's just following the social doctrine of the church.

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