To the surprise of virtually no one with long memories, a leaked copy of Pope Francis’ encyclical letter on the environment appeared in the Italian press Monday. The Vatican swiftly denounced the move as “heinous,” calling upon journalists to respect the official embargo until midday Thursday Rome time.
The leak sent reporters into a tizzy, trying to discern what their ethical obligations are in such a situation. (As a footnote, for all those who see the media business as lacking scruples, the fact that so much time has been spent noodling out what embargo obligations mean in this context ought to invite a serious re-think.)
This is hardly the first time a major Vatican document has leaked out prior to publication, and the dynamics are virtually always the same — Church officials decry the leak and demand that everyone cool their jets until the official version is released.
Exacerbating things this time around, however, is that the scoop appeared in the widely read Italian news magazine “l’Espresso” under the byline of veteran Vatican commentator Sandro Magister, whom many see as a conservative voice hostile to Pope Francis.
(Magister told The Associated Press that his editor, not he, obtained the document and decided to publish it. Magister said he just wrote the brief introduction.)
Picking up on Magister’s report thus seemed ethically problematic in two senses: First, does it mean violating the trust of a source, in this case the Vatican? Second, does it make anyone who does so complicit in someone else’s political agenda?
The first step toward an answer requires a brief review of what an “embargo” actually means.
In general, embargoes are imposed by institutions willing to give reporters an advance look at something — a speech, a scientific document, this year’s federal budget, etc. — in exchange for a promise not to publish or broadcast its content until it’s officially released. The idea is to give reporters time to digest and understand a document so their stories can be more complete and ready to go as soon as release occurs, rather than delayed as reporters spend time poring over the text afterwards.
The force of an embargo thus isn’t a blanket obligation not to report something before officialdom gives a green light; it arises from the circumstances under which information is obtained.
If a source gives a reporter something on condition that he or she waits until a certain moment before revealing it, you wait. If a source imposes no such condition, then you’re good to go.
In this case, Magister said he came by his copy of the encyclical through an anonymous source in the Roman Curia. Only he can speak to whether that source imposed any conditions on use of the information, but in any event, it’s no violation of an official embargo if your material doesn’t come through official channels.
(That’s clearly not how the Vatican sees things, however. On Tuesday, the director of the Holy See Press Office, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, posted a copy of a brief letter to Magister in the hall calling publication of the encyclical a “source of strong discomfort for many journalistic colleagues and grave disturbance to the good service of this press office,” and informing him that his accreditation has been suspended.)
For everyone else, the situation raises different questions. There’s no restriction on something posted online by a news outlet, but one has to ask whether repeating someone else’s violation of an embargo makes you guilty, too.
That brings us back to the issue of how the text was obtained, and given Magister’s description, it would seem there was no ethical breakdown involved. The Vatican has not yet distributed official under-embargo copies of the encyclical, which is not scheduled to happen until 6 p.m. Wednesday Rome time, so Magister had to have obtained the document another way.
Instead, the consideration that matters in this case is news judgment: How seriously should one take what might turn out to be an earlier version of the encyclical, especially one that might not fully capture what the pope plans to say on Thursday, and that may have been published, at least in part, as a result of murky political machinations.
On the other hand, for better or worse, the leak is now part of the encyclical story, and people have a legitimate interest in knowing at least something about what the early version contains.
The competing values seemed to call for a balance between an acknowledgment of the leak and the Vatican reaction to it, along with reporting on what the leak contained, set against all the due cautions about how nothing’s authoritative until the official presentation.
In the end that seemed to be how most media organizations played the story, including Crux.
As a final observation, the frenzy probably will boost interest in Thursday’s official presentation, if for no other reason than to see whether there actually are substantial changes between the leak and the real deal.