Like a lot of people, I’ve been following the controversy surrounding Catholic News Agency’s reporting on U.S. bishops who met with Pope Francis recently as part of their ad limina visit.

A story from yesterday cited at least two unnamed bishops, who said the pope appeared upset about the coverage that had been given to his meeting with Father James Martin.

Friday, Archbishop John Wester of Santa Fe, who was in the meeting, took issue with several details. He appeared to contradict — or at least dispute — the reporting. He went on the record, writing about his recollections of the meeting in the National Catholic Reporter.

There appears to be a lot of he said/he said going on here. But something that can’t be overlooked is the way the CNA story used anonymous sources for its reporting.

A common reference point for basic journalism is the Associated Press, whose stylebook and guidelines remain, for many in the business, the gold standard for fair and accurate reporting.

Here is what the AP has to say about using anonymous sources: 

Transparency is critical to our credibility with the public and our subscribers. Whenever possible, we pursue information on the record. When a newsmaker insists on background or off-the-record ground rules, we must adhere to a strict set of guidelines, enforced by AP news managers.

Under AP’s rules, material from anonymous sources may be used only if:

  1. The material is information and not opinion or speculation, and is vital to the news report.

  2. The information is not available except under the conditions of anonymity imposed by the source.

  3. The source is reliable, and in a position to have accurate information.

Reporters who intend to use material from anonymous sources must get approval from their news manager before sending the story to the desk. The manager is responsible for vetting the material and making sure it meets AP guidelines. The manager must know the identity of the source, and is obligated, like the reporter, to keep the source’s identity confidential. Only after they are assured that the source material has been vetted should editors allow it to be transmitted.

And there is this:

The AP routinely seeks and requires more than one source. Stories should be held while attempts are made to reach additional sources for confirmation or elaboration. In rare cases, one source will be sufficient – when material comes from an authoritative figure who provides information so detailed that there is no question of its accuracy.

We must explain in the story why the source requested anonymity. And, when it’s relevant, we must describe the source’s motive for disclosing the information. If the story hinges on documents, as opposed to interviews, the reporter must describe how the documents were obtained, at least to the extent possible.

The story also must provide attribution that establishes the source’s credibility; simply quoting “a source” is not allowed. We should be as descriptive as possible: “according to top White House aides” or “a senior official in the British Foreign Office.” The description of a source must never be altered without consulting the reporter.

You can read more here. 

This falls in line with the standards we followed when I worked at CBS News; I suspect most professional news organizations adhere to similar policies.

If you want to use the AP as a guide, I think the CNA story falls short in a couple areas.

  1. It doesn’t make clear why the sources quoted are anonymous — or if they even asked to be anonymous. They are just “one bishop” and “another bishop.” Why were they not named?
  2. It doesn’t describe the sources’ motives for conveying this information, some two weeks after the fact.
  3. On a broader journalistic level, CNA does not appear to have sought comment from the Holy See press office, or attempted to get someone to go on the record to confirm the account of this particular meeting.

Whatever the full story may be, the one reported by CNA was incomplete and should have been more thoroughly vetted.  Based on the published guidelines of the AP, the story would not have been published as it was by the Associated Press (or a lot of other news operations).

In fact, it should not have been published as it was by CNA.

UPDATE: One more thing worth noting is the author of the CNA story.

The byline belongs to J.D. Flynn, a canon lawyer, accomplished essayist and editor-in-chief of Catholic News Agency. Just a few days ago, he wrote an opinion piece for First Things, More Than Our Appetites, which was highly critical of Father James Martin and his views on homosexuality. Just days later, Flynn filed this CNA report, once again expressing criticism of Martin, through unnamed bishops, but under the guise of a straight news story.

UPDATE II: A second bishop has weighed in on the record, disputing the anonymous sources. Read more here.