It is, without a doubt, one of the most frustrating, infuriating things that can happen to a reporter.
You write your story. You are extra careful -- since it's on an emotional topic full of fact-claims that are in dispute -- to make sure that you have included several qualified voices offering competing points of view. You make sure your story is the length assigned by the editors.
You turn the story in. Then, when it comes out (this happens A LOT in ink-on-paper news) you see that the copy desk has -- for some reason, often page layout -- basically cut the story nearly in half. To make matters worse, the editors didn't thin the story in a way that left the balanced structure intact. They just chopped off the end.
Some of your sources are furious. They accuse you of bias, because the story is so one-sided. They have no way to know that the printed story is not the story that you wrote.
I bring this up because I saw an Associated Press story the other day -- with a Vatican dateline -- that had me really shaking my head. It had, I thought, all kinds of problems in terms of balance and essential information. It didn't help that this was on a very controversial topic, one cutting against the grain of most reporting about Pope Francis. The lede:
VATICAN CITY (AP) -- Pope Francis has quietly reduced sanctions against a handful of pedophile priests, applying his vision of a merciful church even to its worst offenders in ways that survivors of abuse and the pope's own advisers question.
Now, there is no need for me to go into the many problems that I had with this report. Why? Because the story that I ran into online was a horribly truncated version of the full report by veteran reporter Nicole Winfield.
Oh the humanity! When I saw the full story on the AP homepage I was left with very view questions. Only one, in fact. Hold that thought. This is a very solid story about a very complicated topic.
Here is the heart of the story. Yes, note the ironic fact that this pope's much-publicized emphasis on mercy -- journalists rarely place this in the context of his many statements on sin and confession -- is at the heart of the controversy. Also note that people are having to give the now-retired Pope Benedict XVI some high marks on this issue.
One case has come back to haunt him: An Italian priest who received the pope's clemency was later convicted by an Italian criminal court for his sex crimes against children as young as 12. The Rev. Mauro Inzoli is now facing a second church trial after new evidence emerged against him, The Associated Press has learned.
The Inzoli case is one of several in which Francis overruled the advice of the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and reduced a sentence that called for the priest to be defrocked, two canon lawyers and a church official told AP. Instead, the priests were sentenced to penalties including a lifetime of penance and prayer and removal from public ministry.
In some cases, the priests or their high-ranking friends appealed to Francis for clemency by citing the pope's own words about mercy in their petitions, the church official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because the proceedings are confidential.
"With all this emphasis on mercy ... he is creating the environment for such initiatives," the church official said, adding that clemency petitions were rarely granted by Pope Benedict XVI, who launched a tough crackdown during his 2005-2013 papacy and defrocked some 800 priests who raped and molested children.
Note the care with which Winfield used the anonymous sources. Yes, there are no names, but readers are left with crucial factual details that provide context.
There is much more. For example, Pope Francis appears to have ordered the dismissal of three veteran Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith staff members who handle sex-abuse cases.
The story flashes back to how St. Pope John Paul II eventually evolved to take a tougher stance on this issue. Francis has backed a "zero tolerance" stance, but now appears to have modified that in some cases. Why?
Victim advocates have long questioned Francis' commitment to continuing Benedict's tough line, given he had no experience dealing with abusive priests or their victims in his native Argentina. While Francis counts Boston's Cardinal Sean O'Malley as his top adviser on abuse, he has also surrounded himself with cardinal advisers who botched handling abuse cases in their archdioceses.
"They are not having zero tolerance," said Rocio Figueroa, a former Vatican official and ex-member of the Peru-based Sodalitium Christianae Vitae, a conservative Catholic lay society rocked by sex scandals. The Vatican recently handed down sanctions against the group's founder after determining that he sexually, psychologically and physically abused his recruits. His victims, however, are enraged that it took the Vatican six years to decide that the founder should be isolated, but not expelled, from the community.
The church official stressed that to his knowledge, none of Francis' reduced sentences had put children at risk.
So what part of this AP story do I question?
Well, for many abuse victims, it has added insult to hellish injury that the bishops supervising pedophiles and ephebophiles have paid little or no price for their efforts -- in many cases -- to shield these priests from justice, including quietly transferring the accused to new parishes with no warning to the faithful.
Thus, I was stunned when the following information was placed at the end of the story, rather than near the top. This paragraph concerns some proposals from Pope Francis' own sex-abuse advisory commission.
Francis scrapped the commission's proposed tribunal for bishops who botch abuse cases following legal objections from the congregation. The commission's other major initiative -- a guideline template to help dioceses develop policies to fight abuse and safeguard children -- is gathering dust. The Vatican never sent the template to bishops' conferences, as the commission had sought, or even linked it to its main abuse-resource website.
That is stunning news.
Nevertheless, this is a solid report on a major news story involving one of the most powerful and charismatic religious leaders in the world. How do journalists ignore this story?
Thus, look for follow-up coverage in other news outlets?