Inside the conclave: Personal news vs. political news

Let’s flash back, for a moment, to the early stages of the tsunami of papal conclave coverage. Readers will recall that I wondered — in light of existing New York Times guidelines on the use of anonymous sources — why the Gray Lady’s offerings in Rome were built almost entirely on anonymous sources.

Of course, I understand that all kinds of people have motives to speak off the record in and around the Vatican. The key was that the members of the Times team were not quoting, on the record, the actual addresses being given by the cardinals and, when using anonymous voices, they were providing very little information that provided context for this anonymous information (as sought by a famous Times self-study that tried to protect the newspaper’s credibility). Click here for background and links on all of that.

Anyway, what we were seeing were phrases like these:

Several cardinals have also said …

Several cardinals have also emphasized …

Many of those mentioned as papabile are said to have …

But several of those prelates are known to be …

Cardinals Erdo and Ouellet are said by associates and former students to …

Now, when it comes to reporting on Catholic life, the ultimate closed-door environment is the conclave itself, with the cardinals holding their worship services and votes behind locked doors, in rooms swept by electronics to prevent bugs and powered-up cellphones. When they come out, the cardinals are sworn to silence about the proceedings, although some anonymous, advocacy material — much of it contradictory in nature — inevitably leaks out.

However, in recent days I have noticed some interesting patterns. It’s clear that the cardinals have been told they can talk about some elements of the conclave, but not others. Consider, for example, an interesting Associated Press story by veteran Godbeat scribe Rachel Zoll that included many fascinating details about events behind those closed doors. And the attributions for these facts?

Consider the opening:

VATICAN CITY (AP) – Three rounds of ballots had been cast with no winner, but it was becoming clear which way this conclave was headed.

When the cardinals broke for lunch, Sean O’Malley of Boston sat down next to his Argentine friend, Jorge Bergoglio.

“He seemed very weighed down by what was happening,” O’Malley said.

Hours later, the Buenos Aires archbishop would step before the frenzied masses packed into St. Peter’s Square as Francis, the first pope from the Americas.

Cardinals take an oath of secrecy when they enter a conclave, promising never to reveal what goes on inside. But as is customary, the cardinals involved share memories of their experience.

Note the “it was becoming clear which way this conclave was headed” language. This sets the stage for the somber encounter with the soon-to-be Pope Francis, but it does not violate the promise not to share the details of the voting. In other words, O’Malley could talk on the record about personal details, but not political.

This patterns runs all the way through this delicate, fascinating story.

At least, it’s fascinating if you are more interested in people and faith than you are conjecture about Vatican politics. Here is another example of how Zoll walked that fine line:

Each man wrote a few words in Latin on a piece of paper: “I elect as supreme pontiff…” followed by a name. One by one, they held the paper aloft, placed it on a gold-and-silver saucer at the front of the room, and tipped it into an urn. And then the tallying began, with three cardinals — known as scrutineers — reading out the name on each slip.

When they finished counting, it was clear the field remained wide open, said Cardinal Sean Brady, leader of the church in Ireland.

“There were a number of candidates,” he said.

A cardinal threaded the ballots together and put them in a stove.

Clearly, O’Malley is a key voice here, as well as Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York. But here is the key: The cardinals were talking about the man who won, not the politics behind how he won. They are describing the scene itself, often in personal and spiritual terms.

The key is whether journalists, and readers, are interested in that side of the story.

In the first afternoon ballot, the cardinals were getting close to a decision. But not quite. They started over, and the scrutineers read out the names. And it began to dawn on the men that their work was done.

“It was very moving as the names were sounding out,” Brady said. “Bergoglio, Bergoglio, and suddenly the magic number of 77 was reached.” …

A cardinal asked Bergoglio whether he accepted the papacy. “I am a sinner, but as this office has been given to me, I accept,” he said, according to three French cardinals.

Now, contrast that story with this Los Angeles Times story, which ran with the headline, “Pope Francis was high on cardinals’ lists before vote.”

All of a sudden, we are back to you know what.

VATICAN CITY — In private meetings before their conclave to elect a new pope, Roman Catholic cardinals took note when one of their number rose to speak — clearly, quietly and persuasively — about the need to purify the church and streamline its unwieldy bureaucracy.

Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio seemed to sum up the very themes and challenges the leaders were debating. He was forceful without being abrasive, one cardinal recalled Thursday.

Now, I do not oppose the use of anonymous sources. But would it have been possible to have told readers something about this cardinal? Could the newspaper have give a bit of context?

As you read the rest of that story — which includes some interesting details and quite a bit of valid reporting — note the number of times readers encounter the analysis friendly word “may,” as in:

While support coalesced around Bergoglio, other candidates may have peaked or failed to gain traction because of serious criticism by numerous cardinals of the Italian-dominated Vatican bureaucracy.

The usually formidable voting muscle of the Italian bloc was weakened by the so-called Vatileaks scandal that pointed to allegations of corruption and infighting in the Curia, as the bureaucracy is known. That might have hurt the chances of the archbishop of Milan, Cardinal Angelo Scola, who had frequently been mentioned as a possible front-runner. Although some considered Scola an outsider, the controversy may have hurt all Italian candidates.

And in The New York Times? More of the same, with the occasional specific details. Thus, readers learned:

While the workings of the conclave are secret, Cardinal Bergoglio won the papacy, according to comments from cardinals, Vatican experts and leaks to Italian newspapers, in part because the Vatican-based cardinals protective of their bureaucracy snubbed the presumptive front-runner, and a favored candidate of reformers, Cardinal Angelo Scola.

At crucial points, the Times team quoted on-the-record sources, but these quotes were from Italian journalists who were quoting anonymous sources. Interesting.

So what’s the bottom line? If you want Vatican politics, if that is what matters to you the most, prepare to read anonymous voices and to read material that frequently is contradictory. If you are interested in learning more about the new pope, his words and his values, you will be able to read on-the-record journalism.

Go ahead. You are free to choose your publications.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    For all the info pouring out (or being squeezed out) I have yet to see in mainstream media accounts the fact that Pope Francis is named after an ordained permanent deacon–St. Francis of Assisi. Francis did not want to be elevated to the priesthood but wanted to be able to read the Gospel at Mass–so he allowed himself to be ordained a deacon.

  • FW Ken

    Rachel Zoll’s article delighted me, mainly because I felt secure that the information was solid, but that the oath of secrecy was not broken. An interesting balance, and ultimately faithful to the notion of the Church as a community more than a political forum.

    If I may, this address by Pope Francis to the media seems relevant to criticism of religion reportage (is that a word?). Does the Holy Father know the difficulties you journalists face? He is, by the way, media-savvy. I’ve seen pictures of him washing the feet of a boy with AIDS, teenaged drug addicts, and a single mother. He clearly has a message and the ability to broadcast it.

    http://en.radiovaticana.va/m_articolo.asp?c=674078

    There is also a press release regarding this speech.

  • mollie

    Manya Brachear tweeted out something related today:

    #PopeFrancis thanked media for working so hard on story that was difficult b/c nature of church is spiritual, not political.

  • ceemac

    I’m from one of the several Presbyterian tribes inthe US. It is the “politics” that interests me. In particular I’d like to know more about how this election compares to the election of a Presbyterian GA moderator or Stated Clerk. Yeah, I know it’s sort of inside baseball but I did a dissertation that involved reading 50 years of GA minutes.

    Based on my experience in church elections I would assume that there was a lot of praying AND politicking going on at the conclave.

  • FW Ken

    The part of the pope’s speech that struck me was how the Church and the media share Amy interest in truth, beauty, and goodness. Reporters share that “trinity” with the Church.


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