Pope Francis and the trendy new world of 'omniscient anonymous' journalism

It may be time to introduce a new term into the world of writing, and alleged hard-news journalism in particular.

First, a few notes about news craft. Normally, hard-news journalism is written in third-person voice in past tense, with a heavy emphasis on the use of clear attributions for quoted materials, so that readers know who is speaking. That crucial "comma, space, said, space, name, period" formula is at the heart of traditional, American Model of the Press journalism.

The bottom line: It's a key element in retaining the trust of readers. Traditional journalists are, as a rule, going to tell the reader the sources for the information they are reading. If something comes from the Family Research Council, say so. If something comes from Planned Parenthood or a company linked to Planned Parenthood, say so.

This is less crucial in opinion-based writing, since writers -- usually in first-person voice -- are sharing their own biases, beliefs, etc. The world of journalism needs both, in my opinion, but it is impossible to have good, healthy public discourse without lots and lots of basic, accurate, fair-minded, balanced hard-news journalism with clear, concise attributions.

In fiction, people can be very creative in terms of the point of view used in telling a story. In journalism? Basically, it's clear third-person or first person.

This brings me to what I see as a disturbing trend in journalism -- the creation of a point of view that could be called "omniscient anonymous" voice. Here is a sample from a new story in The Washington Post. I ask readers to look for the source of these stated facts about, yes, Pope Francis and his upcoming visit to the United States:

Pope Francis’s popularity has soared since he began his papacy a little more than two years ago, especially among non-Catholics and disaffected Catholics who prefer his emphasis on helping the poor, fighting for social justice and protecting the environment, rather than on hot-button sexual issues on which Catholics disagree. (Conservatives in the United States at times struggle with his critique of capitalism and wish he would make more references to those sexual teachings.) A March 2015 report by the Pew Research Center found that Pope Francis enjoyed a 90 percent favorability rating among U.S. Catholics and a 70 percent favorability rating among all Americans.

Now, note that -- in the online version -- there are hyperlinks for the poll data, which means we have clearly attributed public opinion in this crucial paragraph.

However, what are the sources for the rest of this -- let's face it -- analysis material?

In particular, what is the precise meaning of the phrase "conservatives in the United States"? Are these Republicans? Are we talking about political conservatism? Are we talking about doctrinally conservative Catholics, the folks that I often call pro-Catechism Catholics? Who are they? Why aren't they quoted?

Does it matter? Does it matter that previous popes often addressed the very same issues as Pope Francis in remarkably similar language, but did not draw similar light-headed press coverage? Does it matter that Pope Francis has, on issues of morality and sex, consistently affirmed Catholic orthodoxy, often in language (he talks about Satan a lot, you may have noticed)  more earthy and striking than other recent popes?

Honest. Click here and play the "name that pope" game.

How far can this game go? Hang in there with me for a moment.

This week, the world of GetReligion readers served up a URL for a story that I had spotted, as well. It was from LodiNews.com in Lodi, California. In the words of one correspondent:

If modernism is the "synthesis of all heresies," this article is the synthesis of everything ridiculous and distorting about reading American politics into Catholic Church governance.

The headline for this article said: "Pope Francis drawing criticism from some conservative Catholics."

The story itself was found at this URL. 

I did not copy the story when I read it. I should have, because it is now gone. I have found a fragment of the report on another website, leading to the broken URL. Note that this site says this was an Associated Press report:

By AP, Aug 27, 2015 Lodi News
NEW YORK -- For decades, through the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, conservative Catholics in the United States believed they had a strong ally in the Vatican. Now they find themselves in the unusual -- and uncomfortable -- position of criticizing the leader of their church.

Across the country, 86 percent of Catholics look favorably on Pope Francis, a Pew Research Center survey in June found. But some conservative Catholics view a number of his positions and statements with growing alarm, according to a Gallup poll and interviews with experts.

After Francis issued his landmark encyclical “Laudato Si” in June, some conservative Catholics criticized the pope for wading into the arena of environmental and economic policies. They also cited what they call his failure to emphasize church teachings on issues such as abortion, homosexuality and the bar against divorced Catholics receiving Holy Communion.

The fragment ends there. Can anyone else find the full text? Is it from the AP?

What struck me was the fact that, in another passage written using omniscient anonymous voice, the "conservative Catholics" crowd was defined, essentially, as people who believe the church's teachings on marriage, abortion, homosexuality and sexual ethics in general. In other words, "conservative Catholics" are people who affirm the Catechism of their church.

Which makes Pope Francis, in the eyes of the journalists producing this story, what kind of Catholic?

You see, I know lots of conservative Catholics. Most of them are upset about Pope Francis, but not because of what the man has actually said and written. They are mad that journalists have yanked pieces of what he has said out of context and turned them into someone else.

Yes, there are other theories and whispers out there about him As I once wrote here at GetReligion:

It is ... clear that there are a wide variety of positions on the Catholic right, at the moment, when it comes to the work of this pope.
There may be a few -- repeat few -- who see him as a secretly liberal Machiavelli who is steering the Catholic boat toward icebergs in order to cause massive doctrinal changes. There are others who think he is fine, when you read him in context, and that the press is totally to blame for any confusion that exists. There are others who think he means well, but that he is naive when it comes to how his off-the-cuff papacy will be presented in the media. I am sure there are other options on the right that I missed.
So how do you cover all of that? Well, you quote people -- on the record whenever possible. You quote insiders and outsiders and you cover that debate.

In other words, the minute you are reading a story about Pope Francis and the news source launches into this new omniscient anonymous voice, distrust everything that you read. In fact, ditch that particular article and go find a news source that is willing to cover Pope Francis by quoting his actual statements (a wide variety of them, in context) and then quote people who know his work (critics and supporters, left and right) and are willing to be quoted by name, on the record.

Comma. Space. Said. Space. Name. Period.

Attributions are crucial, folks, if you want to be able to trust the news that you are reading.

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