By Žarko Trajanovski, MA in human rights
„A journalist should: Test the accuracy of information from all sources and exercise care to avoid inadvertent error“.
(Code of ethics for journalists)
On Labour Day, several journalists couldn’t bother to check the veracity of information they published. As if they forgot that “testing the information and their veracity are moral imperatives of journalism” (Manual on Journalistic ethics).
On May 1, the following headline was published “Freedom House – Macedonia Drops 22 Places in Media Freedom Rankings”, claiming that “media freedom in Macedonia dropped 22 places in the ranking of the latest report released by Freedom House earlier today”. The article has been taken offline and is no longer available on the website of Radio Free Europe, and the link, which left a trace on the aggregator time.mk leads to another story.
So, what was the mistake? Macedonia did drop 22 places in the ranking provided by the report of Reporters Without Borders (PRESS FREEDOM INDEX 2013), and not in the rankings of Freedom House (Freedom of the Press 2013).
It is not the end of the world if a journalist makes a mistake. It is tragic, however, if the same mistake is replicated in many other headlines in other media („Macedonia Drops 22 Places in Media Freedoms Rankings“, „Freedom of media in Macedonia Drops 22 Places“, „Press Freedoms in Macedonia Drop 22 Places in Rankings“, „VIDEO: Macedonia Drops 22 Places, Shares Rankings with Tanzania“, „Disaster: Macedonia drops 22 Places in Press Freedom Rankings“). Publication of information which were not confirmed and verified reduces the readers’ trust in the media, rightfully asking the question: Do journalists read the reports they report on at all?
It is Virtuous to Admit when a Mistake was Made
„It is a sign of virtue to admit the mistake made; to cover it up is incompatible with professional dignity“. (Manual on journalistic ethics)
According to the “Manual on journalistic ethics,” “All mistakes have to be confirmed and corrected,” and “It is recommended that the journalist or his/her media outlet to offer an apology for the mistake”. Radio Free Europe corrected its mistake the next day, in the article „Freedom House – Press Freedom in the World Declines,” that stated:
”Macedonia is lowest ranked country in the region, in 120th place which it shares with Turkey, Congo, Fiji, Liberia and the Seychelles. Last year, Freedom House ranked Macedonia in 115th place, with 54 points on the scale of 0 to 100”.
Lamentably, the previously published article “Freedom House – Macedonia drops 22 places in the press freedom ranking” was taken offline, without proper explanation. Namely, it ignored the ethical point that:
”In general, one should avoid pulling out already published material from the Internet, and if changes were made or an article is taken offline, it should be properly noted”. (Manual on journalistic ethics)
It points out at the absence of personal integrity to admit the mistake publicly and make a public apology.
Most media that carried the news on the “22 places drop” didn’t offer even a correction of the incorrect information.
Inappropriate Comparisons and Conclusions
The publication of unconfirmed information also resulted in inappropriate comparison and conclusions offered in the headlines in some media:
- ”Drop of 22 places in press freedom rankings, Macedonia keeps company with Tanzania“
- „The media in Macedonia and Tanzania are the same”
If only the journalists took a look at the Freedom House’s report, they would have seen that Macedonia doesn’t share the rankings with Tanzania, which is actually ranked higher, in 106th place. The conclusion that the media in Macedonia and Tanzania are the same can’t be made even if we look at the RSF report, in which Tanzania is ranked 70th (and Macedonia was ranked 116th). Although Macedonia was mentioned together with Tanzania in the section on “significant declines”, Tanzania was still ranked 46 places above us. Therefore, even if we choose to ignore the major mistake made by confusing one report for another, such a conclusion is utterly inappropriate. In fact, we lag far behind Tanzania!
The following point is also highly unethical (or should we say “disastrous”: “The times when we compared ourselves with Zimbabwe in terms of press freedoms is long gone, now we are partners with Tanzania, Mali and Cambodia” (Disaster: Macedonia Dropped 22 Places in Press Freedom Ranking). First of all, we can’t say that Tanzania, Mali and Cambodia are our “partners in ranking”, but countries that, while mentioned in the section on “significant declines”, are ranked in different places in RSF’s Report. For example, Tanzania is ranked 70th (106), Mali is 99th (91), Macedonia is 116th (120), and Cambodia is 143rd (149) in RSF’s report (in the brackets are the rankings in Freedom House’s Report). The conclusion that @The times when we compared ourselves with Zimbabwe in terms of press freedoms” is inappropriate because of the fact that we still don’t share rankings with Zimbabve (in 133rd place), although the difference is dramatically falling (from 102 ranking places in 2009 to just 17 places difference in 2013).
Manipulation through Cover up of “Replacing one position with another”
„ The journalists shall publish correct, verified information and will not conceal essential information or forge documents.“ (Code of Ethics of the Association of Journalists of Macedonia)
Some pro-government media made another “replacement” of current for past report. Instead of the “fresh out of the presses” report of Freedom House, they reported on the “old and stale” one, released back in January: Report on press freedom in the world released, Macedonia’s score remains the same).
MIA news agency reported the following on May 1: Freedom House: There were 118 Electoral Democracies in the World in 2012, referring to the report “Freedom in the World 2013”. The article never mentions Macedonia, although that report has a special country report on Macedonia.
The report on the Republic of Macedonia was also completely ignored in the following news reports:
- Freedom House: There were 118 Electoral Democracies in the World in 2012
- Electoral Democracies in the World on the Rise
- Freedom House: There were 118 Electoral Democracies in the World in 2012
That approach to reporting can be interpreted as double manipulation. On one hand, the replacement of the actual subject of the report (freedom in the world instead of press freedom in the world) and optimist framing which covers up the declining freedom of the media. On the other hand, even when reporting the replacement topic (the freedom in the world), the criticism directed at the Republic of Macedonia is consciously omitted (for example, the explicit criticism that “corruption remains a serious problem” or that “media face political pressures and abuse, resulting in self-censorship”).
Translation provided by One World SEE.
This analysis was created within the framework of the USAID Media Strengthening in Macedonia Project – Media Fact-Checking Service Component, implemented by Metamorphosis. The analysis is made possible by the generous support of the American people through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). The contents are the responsibility of its author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Metamorphosis, USAID or the United States Government. For more information on the work of USAID in Macedonia please visit its website (http://macedonia.usaid.gov) and Facebook page (www.facebook.com/USAIDMacedonia).