Nobody in journalism really knows exactly what’s ethical or unethical, but a standard that we could perhaps come to some sort of consensus on is if a reporter is moved to the point of tears by a person, she shouldn’t write about that person in her capacity as an impartial news reporter.
Ellie Hall is a national news reporter for BuzzFeed News, covering domestic and foreign affairs. She’s a fine reporter—her profile of an ISIS defector was a standout. She’s also a devout Catholic, and an unabashed Pope Francis fangirl. She’s made no attempt to hide the fact that she’s ecstatic about the Pope’s first visit to the U.S., an event that’s clearly moving her deeply (and repeatedly). This, on its own, is fine—liking the Pope is fine!—but when it’s coming from the person tasked with providing news coverage of the Pope, it seems a bit untoward.
We may roll our eyes when an Apple reporter tweets rapturously about the new iPhone and the genius maneuvering of Tim Cook—we might even discount their coverage altogether, in favor of coverage from someone who isn’t emotionally compromised by their love for a corporation. But gadget fandom isn’t that big of a deal next to the spiritual leader of the planet’s 1.2 billion Catholics meeting with heads of state.
Given Hall’s documented history of papal adoration, her editors had to expect fawning coverage:
I love this pope. https://t.co/GbmtTAqvyR— Ellie Hall (@ellievhall) May 31, 2015
Guys, I just really love this pope, okay?— Ellie Hall (@ellievhall) October 29, 2013
Sure enough, Hall’s tweets while on assignment—covering the Pope’s visit as a reporter for an ostensibly objective news organization—have been equally worshipful:
THIS IS REALLY EXCITING OKAY. I WAS TIRED AND THIS IS GIVING ME LIFE.— Ellie Hall (@ellievhall) September 22, 2015
OMG please take note of the amazing image that pops up when you tweet: #PopeInUS— Ellie Hall (@ellievhall) September 22, 2015
POPE FRANCIS HAS HUGGED TWO PEOPLE. Security hovering, but not keeping the shepherd from his flock. #PopeInDC— Ellie Hall (@ellievhall) September 23, 2015
Wow. It's one thing to talk about Pope Francis's pastoral approach to the papacy, quite another to see it in action. #PopeInDC— Ellie Hall (@ellievhall) September 23, 2015
(I'm not teary-eyed, you're teary-eyed, leave me alone, I'm Catholic.)— Ellie Hall (@ellievhall) September 23, 2015
Despite the tens of thousands, what a respectful silence. Wow. Just, wow. #PopeInDC— Ellie Hall (@ellievhall) September 23, 2015
I apologize for not updating while Pope Francis addressed us on the lawn, I may or may not have burst into tears. #PopeInDC— Ellie Hall (@ellievhall) September 24, 2015
I haven't seen a single angry person amongst the crowds as we all leave Capitol Hill. Just happy people who were happy to see the pope.— Ellie Hall (@ellievhall) September 24, 2015
Etc. Try to imagine these tweets about a presidential candidate, or Barack Obama himself. It’s unthinkable that a reporter who openly worships Rand Paul and weeps in his presence would be trusted to report the news about Rand Paul. Of course, politicians aren’t supposed to be literally worshipped, while the Pope is—you’d think it would be possible (and preferable) to find someone within the large staff of BuzzFeed News who doesn’t consider Francis to be an infallible representative of God’s will on Earth.
BuzzFeed News is the only straight-faced division—carefully silo-ed away from the “Buzz” operation—at a media organization where criticism, whether directed at celebrities or books, is frequently dismissed as “hating.” Indeed, the Buzzfeed Brand is built in large part on explicit and outspoken fandom. But the News side at BuzzFeed works as seriously as as traditional newsroom, and has put into place ethical guidelines to cement that: the BuzzFeed Editorial Standards And Ethics Guide urges reporters against taking selfies with subjects, and prohibits partisan political speech. It also notes, murkily, that “for a number of issues, including civil rights, women’s rights, anti-racism, and LGBT equality, there are not two sides.” It’s hard to imagine how these guidelines jibe with teary-eyed fandom for the Pope, an elected political entity with a broad swath of deeply political views that include (a longstanding opposition to) women’s rights and LGBT equality.
Hall seems to dispense entirely with this problem by saying the Pope simply isn’t a political figure:
Friendly reminder that Pope Francis is the leader of the Catholic Church and not a politician with an agenda. (ﾉ◕ヮ◕)ﾉ*:･ﾟ✧— Ellie Hall (@ellievhall) September 23, 2015
While at the same time reporting things like this:
A reporter can certainly admire a subject. We at Gawker don’t believe in traditional “objectivity.” Every writer brings biases and a worldview to everything she writes, and the honest thing to do is to be forthcoming, not to pretend to lack a point of view. But pure, uncritical adoration goes beyond the usual biases, and makes a reporter seem incapable of grappling with the complexity of her subject. And the Catholic Church is a complex subject. This isn’t a Foo Fighters fan interviewing Dave Grohl. Can you imagine Ellie Hall writing anything even mildly critical of Pope Francis?
Grandiosity and incoherent, contradictory rules are inherent to the Church; so, in a sense, BuzzFeed is the outlet most fit to cover it. But it owes it to its readers (and to its own serious and dedicated reporters) to send out reporters who can write about the pope’s visit without the blinders of idolization.
Ellie Hall didn’t return an email asking for comment.
Image by Jim Cooke