Pope Francis, Trump and Journalism Ethics: Looking for a Hail Mary

Pope Francis holds an in-flight press conference.
Pope Francis holds an in-flight press conference.

By Casey Bukro

Normally, AdviceLine considers the Society of Professional Journalists’ code of ethics its highest source for guidelines and standards on ethics.

But we’re always willing to be open-minded about new and thoughtful ways to think about ethics and do the right thing in journalism.

Take Pope Francis for example. The pontiff is unusually frank and quotable on his world tours, accompanied by media aboard the papal airliner. He gets involved in current and political issues that some popes might have shunned as too earthly, too secular.

On his way back to Rome from a six-day visit to Mexico, where he is known as Francisco, the pope weighed in on comments by Donald Trump, the Republican presidential hopeful. In a midair press conference, Reuters’ Phil Pullella asked for a response to Trump’s claim that the pope was a pawn in Mexico’s migration politics – an apparent reference to Trump comments on the pope’s trip airing on Fox Business. Pullella noted the candidate’s call to wall off the U.S.-Mexico border.

A transcript indicates the pope did not address Trump’s comments directly, but said that “a person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian.”

Trump said the pope heard only one side of the story. In later comments, the pope clarified: “I say only that this man is not Christian if he has said things like that. We must see if he said things in that way and in this I give the benefit of the doubt.”

So now we have an ethical conundrum. If he is not sure what Trump said, and gives Trump the benefit of the doubt, are media free to tie the “not Christian” remark to Trump? Media reports on the event tend to say the link to Trump is stronger than the pope himself will admit. Trump has vowed to force Mexico to build a wall and increase deportations.

That night, on the PBS News Hour, John Allen, a Boston Globe reporter who covered the event, said it is possible that the pope does not know who Trump is, and was taking the word of reporters that Trump made the remark. Essentially, reporters coached the pope.

Moderator Judy Woodruff rightly pointed out that other politicians have asked for border walls, not just Trump. So was this a media-created conflict?

What should an ethical reporter do?

The answer might lie in the pope’s own comments during another in-flight press conference, when he touched on journalism ethics.

In the wake of the so-called Vatileaks scandal, in which the mainstream press reported on corruption in the Vatican, the pope was asked about his opinion of the importance of a free press in rooting out corruption.

“The professional press must tell everything, without falling into the three most common sins,” the pope responded. The sins he named were:

  • Misinformation – telling half the truth.
  • Calumny – dirtying another person, with or without the truth.
  • Defamation – to take away the good name of a person who has not done anything wrong.

“These are the three defects that are an attack against the professionally of the press,” the pope said. “We need professionally, what’s right. … And on corruption? To see the data well and say it. … If there is corruption, they should say it. And if a journalist, if they are truly professional, gets it wrong, he should excuse himself. Things go very well like this.”

Writer Terry Mattingly, reporting on that in-flight press conference, wrote: “To be honest, I think it would have been interesting to ask the pope to define the line that he sees between ‘calumny’ and ‘defamation.'”

Possibly all three “defects” apply in Trump case, since the controversy appears to stem from information fed to the pope, rather than from his own knowledge. This is a nuance that was not explained in many reports on the incident, although John Allen clarified that in his PBS News Hour appearance. And it could be argued that the pope was telling one side of the story.

The controversy did cast a shadow on the character of a political candidate, intended or not.

In the rough and tumble of American politics, even a pope may be dragged into the fray. It’s possible he was duped into commenting on something he was not familiar. Even a pope should be wary during election time in America.

The SPJ code of ethics says: “Take special care not to misrepresent or oversimplify in promoting, previewing or summarizing a story.”

Pitting the pope against Trump might have been a misrepresentation or oversimplification. How would you have handled the story?

Edited by Stephen Rynkiewicz.

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