Quarterly report: September – December 2019
This report concludes the Media IQ monitoring in 2019 – 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. The monitoring has been held by Press Club Belarus in cooperation with Detector Media (Ukraine), with the support of USAID/Pact (USA). This is the third (Q1 2019 monitoring report, Q2 2019 monitoring report) and the final quarterly report in 2019, which covers four months from September 2019 to December 2019. The report is based on data collected while monitoring 15 online media outlets and 4 Belarusian TV channels, and four monthly reports issued by the monitoring team and available in Russian only. The monitoring and analysis have been held in compliance with the Media IQ monitoring methodology elaborated between September – December 2018 and updated in March and September 2019.
The analysis showed that most of the reviewed media to some extent violated the journalistic principles, most common violations being a failure to refer to sources of information, separating facts from opinions and the lack of balance and, to a lesser extent, accuracy. However, the overall picture was not that grim and the compliance with journalistic standards was rather ‘good’, not requiring significant changes in the editorial policy. Meanwhile, there has been a clear dividing line between how TV channels and online media complied with the journalistic standards, with the former consistently scoring fewer points and allowing greater number of violations. In November, ONT TV channel violated the standard “Separating facts from opinions” in every single news-piece. In turn, BelaPAN non-state news agency was the ultimate leader in compliance with all journalistic standards having a near perfect record.
The picture with propaganda and manipulations was somewhat ‘worse’. State TV channels were also the ultimate leaders in producing news reports containing propaganda and manipulations. Moreover, in September — December 2019 the Media IQ team registered an upward trend in the share of news reports by state TV channels containing propaganda and manipulations (up to three of four news pieces). Most frequently, the state affiliated media was used in the interest of domestic political leaders and policies and while covering the parliamentary elections.
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, reference to anonymous sources and providing a good range of opinions, enabling the audience to draw conclusions independently.
The September-December 2019 Media IQ monitoring report will be presented and discussed with reviewed media in a public event scheduled to take place in February 2020.
Introduction and overview
The Media IQ monitoring methodology was elaborated by Press Club Belarus in close cooperation with Detector Media (Ukraine) and with the support of USAID/Pact (USA). 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 outlets, selected as the object of the 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.
Starting from September 2019 the Media IQ team carried out the media monitoring only one week in a month. Such a change has been introduced further to consultations with partners and stakeholders to reduce the workload on the Media IQ team. As a result, the Media IQ team monitored almost four times fewer news-pieces than in previous months. This enabled to see a general picture of compliance with standards by each media outlet, however, did not record all violations. This had also led to some improvements in the ranking for some media for compliance with some standards, but it should be borne in mind that such improvements were not due to alterations in the editorial policy, rather due to a smaller number of recorded violations. Specifically, the monitoring was carried out on September 23rd-29th, October 14th – 20th, November 11th -17th and December 2nd – 8th. The week of the monitoring was decided before each month.
Each month, the Media IQ team issued a report in Russian, which, among other things, ranked the media, subject to the monitoring and pointed to the most common violations. For ten consecutive months BelaPAN, a non-state news agency, top-ranked the Media IQ rating (maximum 5.94 points of 6 possible), becoming the ultimate leader among all monitored media with a near perfect record. Meanwhile, TV channels, CTV, ONT, Belarus 1 and Belsat continued to demonstrate ‘poor’ compliance with the journalistic standards. CTV TV channel closed the list in September (4.46 of 6) and December (3.5 of 6), ONT TV channel scored the lowest in October – 3.91 points and Belarus 1 hit the bottom of the list in November at 3.59 points. In November, ONT TV channel violated the standard “Separating facts from opinions” in every single publication. In December, almost all media outlets referred to an anonymous Telegramm Channel entitled the “First Pull”, which was treated as an unofficial voice of the Presidential Press-service, thereby establishing a precedent.
Meanwhile, judging by the data collected throughout 2019, the overall picture could be assessed as rather “good” with average points scored by all reviewed media ranging between 5.42 in March and 5.13 in December, and the ‘average article’s’ score throughout the year fluctuating insignificantly around 5.5 points. However, there has also been a stable downward trend in the average score of the media’s compliance with journalistic standards since March towards the end of 2019. This downward trend was primarily due to deteriorating scores by state TV channels.
State TV channels were also the ultimate ‘leaders’ in producing news reports containing propaganda and manipulations. Moreover, in September — December 2019 the Media IQ team registered an upward trend in the share of news reports by state TV channels containing propaganda and manipulations. For instance, in September CTV TV channel was the leader among them, followed by ONT and Belarus 1, with 32% of all monitored news reports containing propaganda and manipulations. In October ONT has taken the lead with 47.83%, in November — Belarus 1 with 77.27%, and Belarus 1 and ONT in December with 75%, immediately followed by CTV with 73%. Propaganda containing content has also increased in December at the non-state Belsat TV – 53% of reports contained signs of propaganda and manipulations.
Monthly and quarterly reports on the results of the Media IQ monitoring were 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 monitoring team, in each case individually 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. That said, state TV and online media have never requested any feedback from the Media IQ team or in any way liaised with the team in relation to the monitoring.
The results of the monitoring in 2019 will be presented and discussed at an open public event in February 2020 along with the updates and changes to the monitoring methodology. The monitoring prompted the Media IQ team to respond to demands of the Belarusian media in response to the monitoring and organize two media talks, one in October and the second one in November, about the sources of information and about experts as sources in media reports. Both events led to a lively discussion and raised the profile of these issues among the Belarusian media community.
Specific violations and non-compliances with journalistic standards are elaborated in detail below.
Most common violations of journalistic standards by standard
A reference to the source of information is the primary marker of compliance with the fairness standard. In the reporting period, TV channels continued to lead in the number of violations — they lacked the reference to the source in 54.66% of their reports on average. CTV TV Chanel was the ultimate ‘leader’ in providing reports without referring to sources (62.4% of reports contained propaganda on average in the reporting period), while Belsat TV was the fairest among TV Channels with 48.33% on average. Online media outlets were generally more compliant with the fairness indicator, but in September and December not a single media outlet complied with this principle by 100%. The Village Belarus complied with this principle by 100% in two consecutive months, October and November. In September, Vecherniy Brest set a record of non-compliance with this principle among online media outlets, failing to refer to sources in 78.6% of publications.
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. An ONT TV channel piece, dated December 3rd, entitled “On December 6th newly elected parliamentarians will hold first sessions: who are they? What do they do? What are their plans?” has violated several standards with its statement “In the Oval Hall, Vladimir Gatsko will represent the interests of almost 60,000 voters and also ‘part-time patients’: almost every campaigning meeting with voters ended with face-to-face conversations and medical advice”. The author did not refer to the source, that is, the standard of fairness was violated. Equally, the author did not say that he was present at a face-to-face meetings between Gatsko and his patients-voters. It is not clear where from he has received information about the content of such conversations.
Almost all focus media have high accuracy indicators – ranging between 90-100 %, except The Village Belarus – the poorest compliance in October at 60%, Nash Gomiel – the poorest compliance in December and September at 73.3% and 78.6% accordingly, and ONT – the poorest in November at 77.8%.
Case 2. On October 16th, 2019, “Nash Homiel” published a piece entitled “A new autonomous IT-University will be founded in Belarus”, which had multiple violations of journalistic standards. A reader learned from the article that the university yet had not been founded, that sometime in the future the president would approve a regulation for the university’s operations and so on. Then once of a sudden the author wrote, “Although the university’s leadership says that the training of specialists will be a paid basis, of course, state-funded places will be envisaged”. This statement is inaccurate. If there is no university, then there can be no leadership. However, the author refers to the opinion of non-existent leaders of a non-existent university, which is an anonymous pseudo-source (also a violation of the principle of fairness). It may be assumed that potential founders of the university would take this stand, but this is not known for certain.
Separating facts from opinions
As in the case with the compliance with the fairness standard, TV channels further were the most ‘malicious’ violators failing to separate facts from opinions in more than half of their reports. During this reporting period, ONT has anchored as the most non-complying with this standard TV channel – only 11% of news reports clearly separating facts from opinions on average. In addition, ONT has set the anti-record in November, non-complying with this principle in 100% of its news reports. Belsat’s average compliance with this standard was also poor at 75% of reports violating it. Belarus 1 has shown the ‘best’ average compliance at 70%. Among online media outlets, KP Belarus showed the worst compliance in October, violating this principle in half of its news reports. In November and December, Nash Gomiel showed 100% compliance with this principle. When analysing the compliance with this principle, 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. In a piece by Belarus 1 TV channel on September 26th, 2019, entitled “Ukrainian media market: Minsk and Kyiv are friends with a great potential for deepening relations” the author elaborates on the communication between the Belarusian president and Ukrainian journalists. In particular, he refers to a generalized pseudo-source, i.e. Ukrainian journalists, who allegedly praise the Belarusian leader as one man, “They did not expect such sincerity from a politician. This is, perhaps, the most vivid impression Ukrainian journalists had from communicating with the President of Belarus”. This sentence not only violates the fairness principle but also presents the author’s opinion as a fact. It gets worse, “This week’s political soundtrack in Ukraine was comprised of two very high-profile tracks. We’ll talk about the situation in the USA later, but Aleksander Lukashenka’s communication with the largest Kyiv-based media was named by colleagues from the ‘nezalezhnaya’ [independent] as a re-boot of relations with Minsk”. In this paragraph, in addition to violating the standards mentioned above, the author attempts to convince the audience of the event’s grandeur. The author refers to a generalized pseudo-source, claiming that the Ukrainian media allegedly regarded the conversation as a ‘re-boot of relations between Kyiv and Minsk. Perhaps, some Ukrainian media indeed came to this conclusion, but the author failed to refer to a concrete example. In addition, in his piece, the author twice refers to Ukraine as ‘nezalezhnaya’, which is often done by the Russian media in a sarcastic manner and may pursue other goals related to complex relations between the former metropolis and a colony. However, the word ‘independent’ in Belarusian completely overlaps with the Ukrainian word and Minsk and Kyiv are not in the former-metropolis-colony relations, hence the epithet appears to be unconsciously borrowed from the Russian media lexicon. Both, Belarus and Ukraine are independent states, therefore, the expression “a wordsmith of the nezalezhnaya”, which separates Ukrainian journalists from Belarusian, appears to be a symptom of the author’s injury from watching Russian television, or his attempt to consolidate the Kremlin’s propaganda narratives for the Belarusian audience.
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 “protocol journalists” from meetings with the president do not violate the balance standard. Having this in mind, almost all media showed near perfect compliance with the standard. The most vivid exception was Belsat TV in September – November (at 86.4%, 75%, 71.4% accordingly) and ONT and Silnyje Novosti in November (at 83.3%).
Case 4. Belsat in a piece dated October 4th, 2019, entitled “”We live like homeless!” Inhabitants of agro-town Urytskaye live without water, gas and electricity”, has presented a conflict between the residents of agro-town Urytskaye (Homiel Region) and the authorities. While the inhabitants’ voices are heard, voices of public officials are not represented at all, neither collectively, nor individually. The piece refers to a “representative of the authorities”, the director of the UKS, Vladimir Senozhensky. However, the acronym UKS stands for Capital Construction Management, so he is working for a municipal enterprise «Management of capital construction of the city of Gomel.» Undoubtedly, the UKS subordinates to city or regional officials, but Senozhensky is not an official, he is not a civil servant, he does not have organizational and administrative powers. Officials in the piece are not a source of information, they are indirectly mentioned when quoting a resident, Nina Melnikova: “Do we have a contract? We have made a contract. Based on the contract, we said, they should have their own vacuum cleaner … We were promised this. Senozhensky and Chief Engineer Semchenko, and the mayor of the city, and the governor, they all said: “Don’t worry.” Why were we afraid? I’m a pensioner, who will restore all this?” The role of the chairmen of the Gomel city and regional executive committees who are officials, was not disclosed in this story. Allegedly, they promised something. The words of the UKS director were ‘retold’ by the author. The balance of opinions in this piece was upsetting. Two-thirds was given to locals to express their discontent with the changes in the heating system which were not completed before the start of the heating season.
Completeness of information
In the reporting period, especially in December there was a downward trend in terms of compliance with this standard, primarily due to deteriorating statistics for TV channels. For example, in September CTV did not comply with the completeness principle in 25% of news reports and in December – 63.6%. Belarus 1 was the worst-complying with this principle media in December – violations recorded in 70.8% of news reports. Nash Gomiel has demonstrated the worst compliance with this principle among online media. Onliner, TUT.by, KP Belarus, and Euroradio were the ultimate leaders in complying with this standard, followed by BelaPAN, Vecherniy Brest and Mogilevskiye Vedomosti.
Case 5. CTV TV Channel in a piece dated December 8th, 2019, entitled “Sochi Talks: What Alexander Lukashenka and Vladimir Putin discussed”, failed to comply with almost all standards, including ‘completeness of information’. The word “friend” in a piece is used several times not by a chance – the author seeks to persuade the audience that it was a meeting of friends. “As you know, only friends are taken to the mountains. So, negotiations on regular integration issues were held before the anniversary not overlooking the Red Square, but with the view on the Caucasus. It’s time to conquer previously planned heights”. The manipulation with a reference to the supposedly existing axiom “only friends are taken to the mountains”, and even with the words “as you know” has made the traditional meeting place for Belarusian-Russian negotiations, Putin’s summer residence Bocharov Ruchey, an evidence of Lukashenka’s special friendship. Meanwhile, George Bush, Angela Merkel, Shinzo Abe, Tayyip Erdogan, and Mike Pompeo were received there.
All media complied with this standard by 100%.
Manipulations, propaganda and disinformation
The Media IQ monitoring recorded a significant increase in the share of propaganda and manipulations in the news pieces by TV Channels in September-December. Nine online regional and national media were free from propaganda in this period, including TUT.BY, Onliner, BelaPAN, KP Belarus, Euroradio, Intex-Press, Mogilevskiye Vedomosti, Vecherny Brest and The Village Belarus. Most cases of propaganda were registered in news reports by state-controlled TV Channels, the ultimate leaders being CTV, ONT and Belarus 1 TV Channels. They were also the leaders in terms of the share of propaganda in their reports, reaching 77,27% in November by Belarus 1. Among non-state media, Belsat TV and Sputnik Belarus had most registered cases of propaganda (more than 10% of reports contained signs of propaganda and manipulations). In November, a hidden agenda was traced in the state media. The audiences were being convinced that they needed to vote early, just like singers and athletes had. In addition, if one did not vote early, he or she should do so on Election day and receive a gift from the Trade Unions of Belarus. Overall, it appears that such a surge in reports containing propaganda in November-December 2019 was primarily linked to major developments in domestic politics, such as the parliamentary elections and due to the acute phase of Belarusian-Russian relations.
Case 7. In a piece by Belarus 1 TV channel dated November 12th, 2019, entitled, “Early voting started in the elections to the House of Representatives today and will last until November 16 including”, the media monitoring team recorded several violations, however, in this section the focus will be on manipulations. The report says that early voting is not at all wrong. «An example is the state of Florida — 77% of early voters in 2012.» However, there is no reference to the source of information and there is no justification why this particular example seven years ago was relevant. The piece is full of value judgments, and representations of journalist’s opinions as facts, which altogether create a propagandistic picture. “The ongoing observation is quiet, there are no shows like in the neighbouring Ukraine, everything is decent and without scandals, exactly the ‘Belarusian style!” – is a manipulative value judgement, which was rebuffed by the end of the week by both, the CEC and the President who lashed out at observers. Even if the author did not know at that time about observers’ concerns about the high early turnout, he opposed the Belarusian elections to the Ukrainian. Many years of propaganda efforts have created a stable stereotype in people’s minds of Ukrainian chaos, which is often opposed to the Belarusian order. In other words, the message is: “vote early, observe calmly, if you do not want like in Ukraine”.
«Elections are the only race where the majority wins” – is an example of manipulative semantics. Comparing the elections with the race is an eroded metaphor which has long become a media cliché. This sentence appeals by an alleged oxymoron, because usually only one wins the race. The author clearly alluded to the fact that the parliamentarians would represent the interests of the majority of voters and, in fact, therefore, they would win. However, Belarus has a simple majority system, envisaging victory not for candidates who won the most votes, but those who received more votes than others. For example, Miss Belarus 2018 Maria Vasilevich has become an MP with 28.94% of votes, which is far from majority.
One can only guess whether the author pursued any goals with this phrase about the majority. Quite possible, it was his sincere mistake and he really thought that MPs represent the majority of voters. However, a journalist in news reports should not evaluate what is going on, and should involve experts if needed. In this case, replacing the phrase “the winner takes it all” with an opposite “the majority wins” is inaccurate. In Belarus, the metaphor used in the report could be true only for non-alternative constituencies (counting votes “for” and “against” the only candidate), but there were no such constituencies in the 2019 elections.
Conclusions and recommendations
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 throughout the year 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, the parliamentary elections, the president’s foreign visits, his talks with Putin, Belarus-Russia relations and the ongoing ‘deeper integration’ process in general, domestic political events, such as rallies against the ‘deeper integration’, the work of public institutions and others.
Especially in November and December, cases of propaganda and manipulations were significantly more common as compared with the previous reporting period and primarily practiced by the CTV channel, ONT and Belarus 1 TV channels. As before, most frequently, state affiliated media was used in the interest of domestic political leaders and policies and while covering the parliamentary elections. However, in the reporting period media outlets completely free from direct propaganda also increased in number, there were nine of them: TUT.BY, Onliner, BelaPAN, KP Belarus, Euroradio, Intex-Press, Mogilevskiye Vedomosti, Vecherny Brest and The Village Belarus.
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.