Shade cast over shaky journalistic foundation at The Pillar

the pillar

Just hours after the announcement that a top official for the U.S. bishops’ conference had suddenly resigned on July 20 citing “possible improper behaviour,” a newly launched Catholic media venture, The Pillar, published a nearly 3,000-word article alleging that the priest, Msgr. Jeffrey Burrill, had engaged in “serial sexual misconduct” by frequenting gay bars and using Grindr, a phone app for dating and sex.

The article was premised on an analysis of app data signals that the authors allege were “correlated to Burrill’s mobile device.”

The signals, they write, “suggest he was at the same time engaged in serial and illicit sexual activity.”

Missing in the story by The Pillar and in a subsequent response to questions about the ethics of the piece is the name of the vendor that provided the data, details about who paid to purchase the data and how it was obtained by the outlet, as well as any information on how the investigation was conducted to determine the signals were transmitted from Burrill’s mobile phone.

The story also lacked any confirmation of Burill’s conduct beyond the location data.

The outlet has since published two subsequent articles alleging use of hookup apps within clerical residences in the Archdiocese of Newark, New Jersey, and in the Vatican.

Experts in journalistic ethics who spoke to NCR raised multiple concerns about The Pillar article.

“Ethically this is a softball. The article is scummy,” Todd Gitlin, a professor of journalism at Columbia University’s Journalism School, told NCR via email.

“The hack using data tracking is illicit, indefensible, and all-around contrary to journalistic ethics.”

“It’s redolent of the depredations of [Rupert] Murdoch’s News of the World busting into private phones,” he added, referencing the enterprise’s 2011 hacking scandal that led to the closure of the storied tabloid and millions of dollars of litigation after it was revealed that the publication hacked into the phones of politicians and celebrities.

Although The Pillar article said there was “no evidence” to imply the priest had contact with minors, it went on to suggest that his possible consensual sexual behaviour risked the possibility of clouding his judgment on the church’s handling of the clergy sexual abuse crisis — another problematic leap, according to experts in journalistic ethics.

“The story casually links this case to others involving pedophile priests, but in fact, there is no evidence of that here,” observed Bill Grueskin, a professor of professional practice at Columbia Journalism School.

“A good editor would have sussed out these issues, and likely eliminated the many references to unrelated cases that give the patina of criminal behaviour to a situation that lacks evidence of such conduct,” Grueskin told NCR via email.

Gitlin agreed: “The sneering references to paedophilia are nothing short of vile and McCarthyite,” he concluded. “Roy Cohn would be proud.”

Rick Edmonds, a media business analyst for the Poynter Institute, a nonprofit journalism school and research organization, told NCR, “The article raises a number of questions about cyber security and personal privacy and presents an alarming question of whether you can be tracked wherever you go.”

Edmonds described the methods used by The Pillar as “unusual” and without any known journalistic precedent.

Flynn and Condon did not respond to NCR’s requests for comment for this story.

(Editors of The Pillar have sought to compare their story to work by journalists at The New York Times to locate individuals for the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection, although one of The New York Times reporters has noted that their reporting, on a criminal incident, only quoted the one individual who consented to being quoted.)

The outing of Burrill through questionable journalistic practices has sparked a contentious debate among many Catholics and for some, represents a stark departure from the “serious, responsible sober journalism about the Church, from the Church, and for the Church,” that The Pillar pledged to provide when it launched on Jan. 4.

Yet while The Pillar’s controversial reporting on Burrill has forced the new startup website into the national spotlight, a review of their past operations, connections of its top editors, along with undisclosed conflicts of interest and improper use of anonymous sources, reveals a history of questionable journalistic ethics.

Canon lawyers or journalists?

The Pillar was founded by its editor-in-chief J.D. Flynn and editor Ed Condon after the two resigned from EWTN-owned Catholic News Agency (CNA) in December.

At CNA, Flynn and Condon were at the helm of an agency that bills itself as being “one of the fastest-growing Catholic news providers in the world.” During their tenure, the two would frequently boast of their independence from church hierarchy, their ability to uncover and report stories without fear or favor, and their accuracy and fair-mindedness in the process.

The two have also vowed to bring those same standards to their new operations. Yet while The Pillar has recently spilled considerable ink outlining allegations of sexual misconduct against one priest, including inferences of how his alleged behavior may have affected his judgment on matters related to sexual abuse of minors, their publications have not always disclosed their own professional involvement in clergy sexual abuse cases — not as journalists, but as legal advocates.

The left and right Catholic commentariat is lining up to say that @canonlawyered and I are “canon lawyers not journalists.”

Meanwhile the two of us are breaking stories that make change while the chattering classes are pimping their increasingly irrelevant and partisan opinions.

— JD Flynn (@jdflynn) January 6, 2021

Both Flynn and Condon are canon lawyers.  Continue reading

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