Was the encylical leak a violation of journalistic ethics?

Vatican reporter Sandro Magister, widely seen as skeptical of the Francis papacy, has published an Italian draft of the pope's encyclical on the environment, which is scheduled to be released Thursday morning. One Vatican official called the leak "a heinous act." As word of the leak spread, my Twitter feed blew up with complaints that Magister had violated journalistic ethics by writing about an "embargoed" document. And Holy See spokesman Federico Lombardi, SJ, seemed to agree. Emphasizing that Magister's copy is not the final draft, Lombardi suggested that L'Espresso's decision to run with it was unprofessional. "The rules of the embargo remain in place," Lombardi said in a statement.

Magister got his copy from an unofficial source (obviously curial) who imposed no restrictions on its use. An embargo obtains when a source gives a journalist (or journalists) information with the understanding that it cannot be reported until a certain time. The Vatican, for example, is allowing accredited journalists to read the encyclical two hours before it is officially released. The embargo doesn't begin until Thursday morning, when reporters receive their advance copies. If one of them publishes on that text before at 11 a.m. local time, then the embargo will have been broken.

So Lombardi is mistaken. Magister didn't commit any journalistic sin. He got a legitimate scoop, decided making the Holy See Press Office crazy was a price worth paying, and wrote it up. What's unfortunate about the leak is that it will make the Holy See more wary of providing advance warning of the publishing dates of papal documents.

Grant Gallicho joined Commonweal as an intern and was an associate editor for the magazine until 2015. 

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