Quarterly report: February — April 2019

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Quarterly report: February — April 2019

Executive summary

This report is a result of the Media IQ monitoring — a monitoring of Belarusian TV and online media’s compliance with journalistic standards when reporting public-political news and a tool to decipher propaganda, disinformation and manipulative techniques. It is held by Press Club Belarus in cooperation with Detector Media (Ukraine), with the support of USAID/Pact (USA). This is the first quarterly report, which covers

three months: February, March and April of 2019. The report is based on the monitoring of 15 online media outlets and 4 Belarusian TV channels, in both Russian and Belarusian languages and monthly reports issued by the monitoring team and available in Russian only. The monitoring and analysis was held in compliance with the Media IQ monitoring methodology elaborated between September — December 2018 and updated in March 2019. 

The analysis showed that most of the reviewed media to some extent violated the journalistic principles, including a failure to provide facts and sources, lacking balance and accuracy. However, the overall picture was not that grim and the compliance with journalistic standards was rather ‘good’. Most violations related to the non-compliance with the principles of fairness, separation of opinions from facts and balance of opinions when covering the conflicting parties. In the reporting period the media monitoring team only tapped into identifying cases of propaganda, manipulations and disinformation, primarily due to the Media IQ monitoring methodology updates in March 2019 and PCB aspires to fine-tune its approach. 

Major recommendations for focus media to enhance their credibility included a more careful attitude towards reference to information sources, ensuring a clear separation between facts and opinions, avoiding value judgements and providing a good range of opinions, enabling the audience to draw conclusions independently. There was identified a need to improve the quality of reporting on various issues, such as trials, pre-trial detentions, etc. 

The February — April 2019 Media IQ monitoring report was presented and discussed with a number of reviewed media in a public event. During the event the monitoring team substantiated the violations and showed examples of trend-errors and provided general recommendations. PCB has been in contact with some media for individual feedback and recommendations. Notably, chief editors and staff generally positively assessed the findings of the reporting period.

 

Introduction

The Media IQ monitoring methodology was elaborated by Press Club Belarus in close cooperation with Detector Media (Ukraine). Its purpose was to address contemporary challenges faced by the Belarusian media through raising the profile of media literacy and strengthening Belarus’ information security. 

The monitoring goals were to 

  1. reveal cases of violation of journalistic standards, misinformation, propaganda and manipulative techniques; 
  2. enhance Belarusian media and journalists’ capacity in creating quality and objective materials in compliance with journalistic standards; 
  3. inform the public about such cases of violations to help to prevent them in the future. 

Media, which were selected as the object of monitoring had to comply with the following criteria: 

  • private or public/state ownership; 
  • HQ located in Russia or the EU but having field offices in Belarus; 
  • regional or national wide circulation; produce own news content.

Media IQ was monitoring the compliance with the following standards based on BBC guidelines: accuracy, fairness, separating facts from opinions, balance of opinions, completeness of information, relevance (timeliness) of information and revealed cases of propaganda, disinformation and manipulative techniques. 

Each month, Media IQ monitoring team issued a report, which, among other things, ranked the media subjected to the monitoring and pointed to the most common violations. Overall, during the reporting period monitoring team has monitored 12,828 public-political pieces of news and revealed more than 160 cases of propaganda. Two of three months BelaPAN independent news agency top-ranked the Media IQ rating (maximum 5.89 points of 6 possible), while CTV TV channel closed the list for two months in a row (minimum 4.2 points of 6 possible). That said, the overall picture could be assessed as rather “good”. Following an important update to the monitoring methodology in March 2019, the monitoring team could reveal propaganda more accurately, leading to a higher number of registered cases of propaganda and manipulations and the fact that among all media subject to the monitoring, only Mogilevskiye Vedomosti (state owned regional media outlet) and Onliner, BelaPAN, Euroradio and Intex-press (Baranovichi) were free from direct propaganda. 

The analysis of compliance with journalistic standards has revealed that all media subject to the monitoring violated journalistic standards, however, most of such violations were not malicious or serious and could be addressed and resolved without alterations in the editorial policy. The analysis has found that most frequent and common violations related to the non-compliance with the principles of fairness, separating facts from opinions, and balance of opinions. For example, this was evident from the publications on sensitive issues, such as covering trials, Belarus’ international cooperation, domestic political events, the president and the constitution, the NPP in Astravets. There were often cases when numerous violations of media standards were registered in one news item. In some cases, this led an identification of a manipulation of public opinion. Cases of direct propaganda were uncommon and primarily practiced by the CTV channel, a national TV channel, and Belarus 1, a national state TV Channel. Propaganda has been identified in one quarter of CTV channel reports and in 17% of news reports by Belarus 1. Most frequently, state affiliated media was used in the interest of domestic political leaders. Specific violations and non-compliances with journalistic standards are elaborated in detail below.

 

Media IQ statistical infographics

 

Most common violations of journalistic standards by standard 

Fairness

A reference to the source of information is the primary marker of compliance with the fairness standard. In the reporting period, TV channels led in the number of violations — less than a half of their news reports were not fair. CTV TV Chanel was the ultimate ‘leader’ in providing reports without referring to sources (lowest indicator 26% in February 2019), while ONT was the fairest among TV Channels (highest indicator 77.2% in April 2019). Online media outlets were generally more compliant with fairness indicators ranging from 65.9% (Mogilevskiye Vedomosti in April 2019) to 98% (Euroradio in March 2019). That said, Mogilevskiye Vedomosti’s fairness of reporting sharply reduced in April — by 25.5 percentage points. 

Most common cases of non-compliance with this principle included the lack of reference to any source or references to ‘generalised pseudo sources’ or references to anonymous sources. When analysing the compliance with this journalistic standard, the monitoring team often registered related violations of other standards, such as accuracy, or separating facts from opinions. 

Case 1. CTV TV Channel reported on April 2nd, 2019 about the president’s meeting on regional development in an article entitled “No one will persuade anyone of anything anymore”. In the article the author made several general statements without referring to the source. “This year, not all governors have fulfilled even the task to create jobs with decent salaries. Not to mention the profitability of existing productions” … Spring field works began with problems. 503 units of equipment were out of order. 1 500 units failed the technical inspection test” … “About a quarter of Belarusians work in agriculture”.

The lack of reference to the source is a violation of the fairness standard. Moreover, in the first two quotes the author most likely retold in his own words what he had heard at the president’s meeting (which could be corrected just by adding a source), while the last quote was presented as a well-known fact.

Meanwhile, the statement about a quarter of Belarusians engaged in agriculture (25%), is not true. According to the National Statistical Committee of Belarus in late 2017, the average number of employees in agriculture was some 3.1% of the population or 7.8% of the total number of employees throughout the country. That said, according to Belstat, rural residents accounted for 29.5%. This indicator is closer to the assessment “about a quarter of Belarusians” used in the article, but it relates to both, engaged and not engage in agriculture. 

Overall, the journalist not only failed to refer to an information source, the credibility of which could be assessed by the audience, but also acted as an expert, confusing the data. In this case, the author did not intend to deliberately mislead the audience, however such errors undermine the credibility of the media. Therefore, it is important not only to refer to the sources, but also to double check random numbers from one’s head.

 

Accuracy

Almost all focus media have high accuracy indicators — ranging between 90–100%, except Nash Gomel (68–84%), The Village Belarus (85.5%), Belsat (87.6%) and CTV TV channels (88.7%).

Case 2. On April 26th, 2019 a non-state online media outlet, Nash Gomel, in an article entitled “Grodno governor received a complaint from the city theatre workers” used a misleading lead and only in the second paragraph indicated that the article was not about current events: “This story happened in 1903 under Peter Stolypin”.

The fake news hook was used to tell about Stolypin‘s work in Grodno, and, further announce the “Stolypin Readings” conference held in Minsk on April 26th. This whole set of confusion was crowned with the phrase: “Later on, a talented leader and reformer became the Chairman of the Council of Ministers in the territory of modern Russia and Belarus.” That said, Peter Stolypin’s position was entitled the Chairman of the Council of Ministers of the Russian Empire.

The replacement of the “Russian Empire” with “the territory of modern Russia and Belarus” was simply inaccurate, due to the fact that other modern states were then also a part of the Russian Empire. It appears that such inaccuracy was deliberate, manifesting a manipulative technique designed to justify the placement of Stolypin in the pantheon of heroes of Belarus-Russia integration.

 

Separating facts from opinions

As in the case with the compliance with the fairness standard, TV channels were the most ‘malicious’ violators failing to separate facts from opinions, CTV leading among them with only 11.3 % of news complying with this standard in March and some 20% on average in the reporting period. BelaPAN and Intex-Press showed the best compliance. That said, the media monitoring team in no way wanted to compromise the journalist’s right to expressing his/her own opinion, however, this was not appropriate in the news format, which was the subject of the monitoring. 

Case 3. On April 26th, 2019, ONT TV Channel (Second National TV Channel CJSC) in a report entitled “Digital banking development strategy was discussed during a conference in Minsk” the author, in addition to quoting experts, filled his news piece with opinions and value judgments. “More than half a million people use mobile banking, and over two million — internet banking. The practice of making deposits online is developing too. Clearly, this will lead to the emergence of other services, for example, in conjunction with mobile companies”… “Considering that now there is no need to visit a bank in person, the requirements towards financial institutions also increase. Hence, the focus is on cybersecurity, robotization and artificial intelligence. In addition, since a new user identification system by appearance is being developed, legislative issues have become in the spotlight of the Digital Business Confederation”.

The article contains generalisations, such as “more than half a million”, “more than two million”, which hide exact data (e.g. a violation of the accuracy standard) and serve to reinforce the estimate (compare 500 001 and “more than half a million”). The phrase “Clearly, this will lead to the emergence of…” prompts the audience to a conclusion which does not follow logically from what has been said before (statistics on using mobile and internet banking by itself do not justify the appearance of some other services). Moreover, when the author said “other services, for example, in conjunction with mobile companies,” he did not explain anything to the audience. Finally, the statement “now there is no need to visit a bank in person” is a clear exaggeration, it would be more correct to refer to the possibility not to visit a bank for some operations.

 

Balance of opinions

According to the Media IQ methodology, if the standard is not applicable to a publication of a specific genre, it is considered that there has been no violation. Therefore, due to formal criteria, reports by “parquet journalists” from meetings with the president do not violate the balance standard. Having this in mind, almost all media showed 100% compliance with the standard. Except Belsat (79.4% in March to 88.7% in April 2019) and The Village Belarus in April — 88.7%.

Case 4. On April 28th, 2019 Belsat TV channel in its report entitled “A Vitebsk entrepreneur renews his manor” quoted the hero of the publication: “ ‘We are arguing with the Vitebsk Water Administration. Because they have put forward unacceptable technical requirements, due to which we have to make capital repairs at Water Supply Facility in village Vyalikya Letsi independently’, says entrepreneur Maksіm Zhukau”.

There is a marker in the text — “we are arguing with the Vitebsk Water Administration”, which indicates the presence of the other side in the conflict and, accordingly, requires providing an opinion by that side, clarifying the circumstances of the dispute. However, the major focus is on the restoration of Vladimir Adamov estate, which was a botanical garden a hundred years ago, and on crowdfunding to finance the restoration. The dispute with the Water Administration is only a secondary detail in the article without any further development. In this case, it would have made sense either to abandon the mention of the dispute altogether or cover the dispute from all sides.

 

Completeness of information

The compliance with this standard ranged between 74% by Vecherniy Mogilev to 100% by ONT TV channel and KP in Belarus in February, joined by Inex-Press and Onliner in March and only ONT in April. The average compliance among focus media was circa 90%. During the reporting period, six media outlets improved their compliance and 11 somewhat decreased. 

Case 5. In its report on March 15th, 2019 entitled “The Belarusian State model is based on the Constitution. Major messages by the Constitutional Court” CTV TV channel reported that on March 15th the Constitutional Court adopted an annual message to the president and parliament on the state of compliance with the constitution. The author referred to the circumstances existing during the adoption of the Constitution in 1994, including archival reports with protest demonstrations and, for some reason, red-green, and not the white-red-white state flag which was the state flag at the time of the Supreme Council. Voiceover: “The constitution was adopted at a difficult time for the country. Serious disagreements inside and devastation around. The old legal norms had outlived themselves, and the new ones were only in their infancy. Society wanted to live by the law. Then, in 1994, the document really united the state”.

This piece is regarded as a violation of the standard of completeness of information due to the fact that it only mentioned the events of 1994 in the history of the Belarusian Constitution, without referring to the constitutional referendums of November 24th, 1996, which fundamentally changed the distribution of powers between branches of government, and of October 17th, 2004, when the limit on the number of terms one and the same person could be elected as president, was lifted. Instead, the author could use real archive footage of the adoption of the Constitution by the Supreme Soviet. In addition, he could request a comment from the then head of state Miachyslau Hryb, who signed the 1994 Constitution.

 

Relevance (timeliness) of information

In the reporting period all focus media complied with the relevance standard by 100%.

 

Manipulations, propaganda and disinformation

The Media IQ monitoring recorded an increase in the number of propaganda and manipulations in the news pieces by the focus Belarusian media from 14 cases in March to 153 in April. In March 7 media outlets resorted to manipulations and propaganda and in April — 13. To a large extent, such dynamics could be explained by the fact that in March Media IQ methodology received an updated, which facilitated the identification of propaganda and manipulation. Hence, a month-by-month comparison would be inaccurate. 

In April, Mogilevskiye Vedomosti, Onliner, BelaPAN, Euroradio, and Intex-press (Baranovichi) were free from propaganda. The ultimate leader in terms of propaganda was CTV TV channel.

Case 6. On April 4th, 2019 the CTV channel reported about the outcomes of the president’s visit to China. The author used many epithets: “The golden era of the golden relations between Belarus and China arrived three years ago with the establishment of an ‘all-weather strategic partnership’. We have common principles of domestic and foreign policy, our views on world matters coincide and we are ready to support each other in international organizations”.

In addition to the striking tautology “golden era of golden relations” in this statement, the author imposed conclusions on the audience and did not provide any useful information. The author attempted a deliberate influence on the audience based on exaggerated value judgments, which constitutes a sign of propaganda. If one aims to describe the level of relations between Belarus and China, he or she should use facts, figures, provide expert opinions for the audience to draw own conclusions.

 

Case 7. For the first time, the media monitoring team revealed a manipulation in a publication at TUT.BY, a popular news portal. On April 6th, 2019 in the article entitled “ ‘They repaired all the city roads in one season’. How atomists change cities”. An anonymous author, already in the lead, passed his opinion off as a fact: “The Belarusian Astravets, which was not even a city before 2012, is difficult to recognise. However, houses, roads, kindergartens and schools are not everything which modern technologies can give to the city and its inhabitants. That said, several problems faced by single-industry towns require a special attention, where the Russian experience may be useful”.

The article was written exclusively from the viewpoint of supporters of the nuclear power plant construction (quoted by TVEL JSC President Natalya Nikipelova, Rusatom Infrastructure Solutions CEO Ksenia Sukhotina, Saratov Mayor Alexey Golubev, Deputy Chairman of the Astravets District Executive Committee Viktor Svillo) and without mentioning protests held by the Belarusan “greens”, Lithuania’s negative assessment of the project and so on (a violation of the balance standard).

The article only focused on the benefits to become available to the Astravetsky district from the NPP construction. The article neither mentioned the risks nor the fact Belarus would have to store nuclear radioactive waste in the future.

The article elaborated on the arguments about the benefits of the «peaceful atom» for environment. The author quoted TVEL JSC president Natalya Nikipelova: “ ‘Resource conservation and minimizing the impact on the environment is not even discussed’, she said, noting as an example that the group’s enterprises take dirtier water from the rivers than they return”. Indeed, she is unlikely to mention periodic radioactive emissions that are made by all nuclear power plants. Such emissions are not believed to affect the natural background radiation, but, nevertheless, environmentalists do not welcome them.

“Also, nuclear scientists in all countries take a responsible approach to those enterprises that are no longer needed and must be decommissioned. ‘We have already launched more than 20 such projects. Many of them were launched for the first time in the world or for the first time in Russia. In particular, the uranium-graphite reactor in Seversk was the first in the world — before Brownfield, to be removed by burial at the site. For the first time in Russia, we decommissioned a nuclear facility at a chemical-metallurgical plant in Krasnoyarsk to become a green site — now a civilian production is developing there instead’, Nikipelova said.

This quotation confirmed the responsible approach by TVEL JSC and that in 60 years Belarusians would not be left alone with the problem of decommissioning their nuclear power plant upon completion of operations. However, the article did not explore how much the construction of a nuclear waste repository would cost and who would finance the burial of the NPP.

This one-sided publication did not contain direct markers of propaganda; there were no exaggerated value judgments; however, the story about the positive effects of the NPP construction, while silencing the negative aspects, was a clear manipulation of public opinion.

 

Conclusions and recommendations 

Monthly reports on the results of the Media IQ monitoring are published online and disseminated to PCB subscribers (circa 3300 e-mails). As a rule, some focus media addressed PCB for feedback requesting additional information or recommendations. The results of the monitoring in February—April 2019 were presented and discussed at an open public event, including with some media subject to monitoring (those willing to communicate). The monitoring team explained in detail how exactly different media non-complied with journalistic standards, sited case studies and recommended how to develop the editorial policies to improve compliance with journalistic standards. Present chief editors and creative staff of media in general showed understanding and solidarity the Media IQ monitoring team, they asked many questions, provided meaningful feedback and requested further details on how to improve the professionalism of their reporting to receive better scores for their reporting and climb up the Media IQ rating. 

The report has revealed that, generally, media have most difficulty complying with journalistic standards of fairness, balance and separating facts from opinions, including when reporting on sensitive issues in Belarus. For example, this was evident from the publications on such issues, as trials, pre-trial detentions, Belarus’ international cooperation, domestic political events, the president and the constitution, the NPP in Astravets. 

The Media IQ monitoring has revealed a need to hold regular discussions of the legislation, ethics, the context of media reporting, and to clarify the terminology. 

The media monitoring team has issued general recommendations which would help all focus media to improve the quality of their news reporting.

 

Fairness and Accuracy

  • Reference to an information source is a must. Without such reference, the audience cannot judge the credibility of the news report. Editorial offices, especially TV editorial offices, should require that their journalists made explicit references to information sources (for example, “according to Belstat”, “according to the Finance Ministry”).
  • Reference to generalized sources constitutes a ‘bad practice’. People usually do not speak in chorus, so by the standards of news journalism references to ‘collective’ sources are unacceptable.
  • Reporting from a courtroom should be explicitly indicated so. Such reports require not only a reference to the source of information and its procedural status, but also to the circumstances when the quoted statement was made, e.g. before the start of the trial, during the process, during a break, after the trial, etc. The place and time of a conversation with the source can be an important detail when reporting about trials. If it is a closed trial, a journalist must explain how he or she knows about what is going on there.
  • Reference to anonymous sources must be justified and explained. Passing off opinions as a reference to an anonymous source is unacceptable. 

 

Separating facts from opinions

  • TV channels editors should bear in mind that when adapting a TV report for posting a text version on the website, some fragments of visual reporting may disappear and facts in the subsequent text may appear as a journalist’s opinion.
  • Journalists must avoid clichés, especially clichés containing value judgments. 
  • In reporting, unlike in the hardcore news items, the effect of the presence is an important element. A journalist usually tells what he or she sees and feels, what impressions he/she has. However, a journalist should not tell the audience how he or she evaluates this news item.

 

Balance of opinions

  • Justifying the lack of balance with the fact that one side is ‘bad’ or ‘guilty’, and so on is unacceptable. 
  • Balance standard is not always applicable in reporting. When reporting breaking news, a media outlet may use a news flash without the reference to all parties in a conflict. However, in such cases, the breaking news report should contain a reference that the report will be updated. Furthermore, when updating such reports with commentaries by parties involved, a journalist should indicate that there is a different opinion and that he/she intends to obtain it.

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