It’s odd to see Catholic media take a starring role in the ongoing saga of the breakdown in traditional journalistic values, but the web-based startup the Pillar has managed to do that with a story that speculated on the sex life of a prominent priest.
As anyone following Catholic media knows, the Pillar outed Msgr. Jeffrey D. Burrill, the now-former general secretary of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, as a priest whose cellphone was inside a gay bathhouse in Las Vegas on June 22, 2018. To do this, the Pillar acquired the “commercially available” but anonymous location data emitted from the Grindr app it said was on Burrill’s cellphone, then identified him by matching locations to his family vacation home and similar places. And then there was the visit to Entourage in Vegas, the one specific piece of allegedly incriminating evidence the Pillar scraped up from scrutinizing a year of Burrill’s movements (besides his simply having the hookup app on his phone). Burrill resigned from his position on July 20.
As the Washington Post reported, it was “the kind of story mainstream news organizations would be unlikely to touch.” But the traditional journalistic standards for privacy and verification continue to unravel as younger media organizations, eager for attention, publish what legacy media would reject under its hallowed ethical rubrics. So in 2017 BuzzFeed News published the explosive allegations against Donald Trump in the Steele dossier even though they couldn’t be verified. In 2012 Gawker posted a sexually graphic video of Terry Bollea (aka professional wrestler Hulk Hogan) even though its news value was dubious. And now we have Msgr. Burrill’s phone caught in an establishment that advertises itself as “Where the Hot Guys Go.”
Journalistic values are moral values, encoded in ethics guidelines that seek to balance the public’s need for information and the individual’s right to privacy. One reason I enjoy working in journalism is that there are so many moral decisions to make, often quickly. Deciding which stories to pursue and which to bypass can be a moral decision. Writing the story—what to prioritize, what language to use—can be a moral decision. I realized this when serving as city editor at Newsday’s New York City edition in the late 1990s—so many quick decisions to make. Later, I taught journalism ethics as a professor, trying to pose difficult scenarios for the students to consider.
The news organizations that break ranks to report such stories as the Steele dossier, the Bollea video, or the monsignor’s hookup app justify their actions on the basis of the news value of the information at issue and the need for transparency and accountability. My initial reaction to the Pillar story was to recall that a jury awarded Bollea $140 million for invasion of privacy and infliction of emotional distress for posting a video of him engaged in sex with the wife of a radio host he knew.
In its article, this is how the Pillar set out the case for the news value of reporting that app data suggested Msgr. Burrill is gay: that he is “widely reported to have played a central role in coordinating conference and diocesan responses to the [clergy sexual abuse] scandals, and coordinating between the conference and the Vatican.” In a subsequent story, the Pillar reported that it had decided not to seek the identities behind Grindr pings located at ten rectories in the Archdiocese of Newark absent some “compelling public interest regarding individual priests.” That is, the privacy rights of those involved outweighed the news value of reporting on their sex lives.