Concerning the latest (alleged) interview with Pope Francis

So how would you like to be a press officer for the Vatican these days? Honestly, they should be getting combat pay.

Here is the question that I have been asking, during the latest round of the game called, “What did the pope say and who says that he said it?”

In terms of basic journalism craft and ethics, what is an “interview”? Here is the top of a Reuters report that shows why I am asking this:

ROME, July 13 (Reuters) – About 2 percent of Roman Catholic clerics are sexual abusers, an Italian newspaper on Sunday quoted Pope Francis as saying, adding that the pontiff considered the crime “a leprosy in our house”.

But the Vatican issued a statement saying some parts of a long article in the left-leaning La Repubblica were not accurate, including one that quoted the pope as saying that there were cardinals among the abusers.

The article was a reconstruction of an hour-long conversation between the pope and the newspaper’s founder, Eugenio Scalfari, an atheist who has written about several past encounters with the pope.

And what precisely is a “reconstruction of an hour-long conversation”? Here is some additional information:

The Vatican issued a statement noting Scalfari’s tradition of having long conversations with public figures without taking notes or taping them, and then reconstructing them from memory. Scalfari, 90, is one of Italy’s best known journalists.

While acknowledging that the conversation had taken place, Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi issued a statement saying that not all the phrases could be attributed “with certainty” to the pope. Lombardi said that, in particular, a quote attributed to the pope saying cardinals were among the sex abusers was not accurate and accused the paper of trying to “manipulate naive readers.”

So this was a private conversation and the journalist did not — perhaps as an homage to Truman Capote — take notes or use an audio recorder. Instead, he left the hour-long conversation and then, with his razor-sharp (we can only hope) 90-year-old memory, he “reconstructed” the verbatim quotations from this event.

Reuters went out of its way to say, over and over, that Pope Francis “was quoted as saying” these words, thus distancing itself from the precise content. Is that enough?

So is the story what the pope allegedly said or the fact that this famous scribe Scalfari claims that the pope said XY and Z? I honestly do not know.

I am just as intrigued that the Vatican could confirm that parts of the interview were accurate and that other parts were not. Is the assumption here (a) that someone from the press office was in the room, (b) that someone was listening in or (c) that the Vatican tapes all papal “interviews” just in case — for the files, so to speak. I’d love to know the details. How about you?

You can see all of these issues surface, once again, in the first few lines of the BBC report on the same story:

Pope Francis has been quoted as saying that reliable data indicates that “about 2%” of clergy in the Catholic Church are paedophiles.

The Pope said that abuse of children was like “leprosy” infecting the Church, according to the Italian La Repubblica newspaper. He vowed to “confront it with the severity it demands”.

But a Vatican spokesman said the quotes in the newspaper did not correspond to Pope Francis’s exact words.

In an analysis of this dilemma, David Willey of the BBC Rome bureau asked the obvious questions:

When is a papal interview not an interview? Sunday’s edition of La Repubblica devotes its first three pages to an account of a conversation between Pope Francis and editor Eugenio Scalfari, which took place last Thursday. Papal spokesman Federico Lombardi said in a sharp note that it was not an interview in the normal sense of the word, although he admitted it conveyed the “sense and the spirit” of the conversation.

Mr Scalfari does not use a digital recorder, and Father Lombardi said Pope Francis never checked the accuracy of the interview.

It was not an interview “in the normal sense of the word.” Ah. I feel so much better now.

So one final question: When other journalists quote these remarks, as many are doing, how many sentences of content do they need to include in order to set the scene, to provide the right journalistic — or anti-journalistic — context for these words that the pope did or didn’t say?

BONUS LINK: Catholic conservative Phil Lawler asks the obvious, and appropriate, question: Would an American journalist be fired for producing this kind of “interview” material? Ah, but this article was produced by someone — as founder of the paper in question — on the management side of the room?

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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.

  • Winston Blake
  • Wolf Paul

    The answer to Phil Lawler’s question would have to be, How was this piece represented in La Repubblica? Was it presented as an interview? Or was it represented as the sort of loosely reconstructed conversation Scalfari is known for?

    If the latter, I would see no reason for firing the journalist (apart from the fact that he’s the founder and editor), as long as he acknowledges the corrections from the Vatican.

    The other question is whether the other media outlets which quoted the Repubblica piece properly characterized it, and the impression I get is that they did not.

  • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    What everyone seems to keep ignoring is this paragraph at the end of Vatican Insider’s reporting on the story: “But the most surprising thing of all is that this kind of private meeting ‘takes place following a clear verbal agreement,’ a source close to the Pope explains. ‘It is basically a cordial conversation to exchange ideas; the content of such meetings is never published. And Scalfari knew this.’”

    So why is this being overlooked? Scalfari broke the agreement. End of story.

  • Julia B

    Part of the problem I see is that many reporters and readers think the Catholic world treats every word from a Pope as being infallible. That’s why they jump on his words and why the press office is so concerned about the precise words used and the context. That very thing happened frequently to Benedict, too.
    A youngish priest I know was at the North American College in Rome a very short distance from St Peter’s on the hill overlooking the square. Sometimes John Paul would walk over and watch sports on TV with the American guys. Hed put his hiking boots up on the coffee table, have a brew or two and they would chew the fat about life. Popes should be allowed to do that, too. The priest friend never reconstructed any of their bull sessions for us.
    Benedict would have sessions for several days every summer with his former dissertation students. A formal paper would result, but the conversations and analyses and speculations were not made public so there could be free exchange of ideas.
    I’m sure we don’t read every single thing Billy Graham has ever said.
    And I think the Italian press is noted for 1) being obsessed with Vatican doings and 2) speculation, hysterical musings, conspiracy theories, exaggerating what prominent people say and taking things out of context. Readers love it and in Italy it seems the normal thing for a newspaper to do.

  • chrismarklee

    Every word the Pope says is not infallible. He also cannot change the Catechism.
    He is preaching mercy. He took on Obama in private meeting on the abortion issue and religious rights issue.

    Owner CEL Financial Services