Culpa lata dolus est
(Gross negligence is premeditation)
By Prof. Mirjana Najcevska, PhD, human rights expert
Surveys can be useful tools to investigative journalism. A professionally conducted survey can offer wide material to journalists who can further process it, put it in context of their own analyses or use it to open some unopened issues. Surveys that periodically repeat using the same questions are especially useful. Media can use this data to show the dynamics of certain processes/events, to follow the development of events, and also to attempt to identify causal relationships between events.
Surveys can be used to manipulate citizens, too. In the analysis entitled “Journalists love surveys,” I pointed to the reservations a journalist has to set when presenting results of a survey. Unchecked transmission of poll results, and especially, lack of critical attitude towards the used methodology and the survey implementer, can lead to unintended disinformation of the public.
However, it is much worse when media consciously use data from a concrete survey in a way that leads to disinformation or even lying to the citizens. This can be done either through inappropriate manner of presenting the data, selective presentation of certain data, with incomplete showing of tables, with distorted “reading” of the data, or by avoiding data from one table to be crossed with the data from another, to get a more realistic image of about certain position, or opinion of the respondents.
The first fact that draws attention is that no media published a link to the official IRI page, even though very few of them (Radio MOF, Fokus, Meta.mk) provided links to the original research report. No media provided an explanation about the organization that conducted the poll, their level of credibility, kind of research it does, and the research they have conducted in Republic of Macedonia so far.
The second issue is that very few media presented the parts of the poll that the implementer stressed in their original web presentation. Namely, the title presenting the poll is “Macedonians Concerned about Economy, Political Stability; Support for Representative Democracy, Euro-Atlantic Integration Remains Strong.”
None of the media presented the results that have been selected on the IRI front page, nor asked the researchers why they draw attention to the citizens’ perception that Macedonia is moving in the wrong direction, that over half of respondents thing that freedom of speech and expression “do not exist” in the country, and that 58% think that Macedonia is less stable than last year.
Thirdly, very few media (A1on, Plus Info,…) used the dimension of time contained in the IRI poll report. Even though certain media even showed the graphs from this report, they did not offer explanations what those graphs represent to their readers.
For instance, a number of media provided the data about how citizens perceive the track record of current Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski.
Regarding the question “Has prime Minister Nikola Gruevski done his job well enough to deserve re-election?”, 55% of respondents answered negatively, compared to 32% who think that the Prime Minister deserves a re-election.
However, very few media pointed that the percentage of citizens who think the Prime Minister does not do a good job has doubled since 2007 (66 per cent).
Media did not present the data showing that citizens continuously perceive that they have no influence on decision making, that they have no opportunity to influence public budgets, and have no contacts with elected members of Parliament.
The fourth issue is that media manipulate poll data and openly use them for political purposes. For instance an Alfa TV report claims that:
“This torpedoes the opposition theses that the elections were irregular. American Republican institute IRI published results about other issues on current affairs, including the data that 67% of respondents answered that they were was neither subjected to pressure nor know people who were forced, threatened, bribed or subjected to any other illegal means to vote a certain way.”
This tendency was even more drastically visible in the coverage by Sitel TV and the Public Service MRTV. They showed the data about “the most important foreign policy issue facing Macedonia,” noting that 23% responded “starting negotiations with the EU/EU integration,” 29% responded “recognition of the country’s name as Republic of Macedonia,” 18% responded “Increasing foreign investment in Macedonia,” 10% responded “relations with neighbors,” and 15% responded “becoming a member of NATO.”
Good polls enable connecting of questions which make way of understanding the misconceptions held by respondents, but also enabling to separate issues they indeed perceive as most important, from declarative issues. However, both media failed to mention that to the question “In your opinion, what are the two most serious problems facing Macedonia today?”, the respondents answered that they are most concerned about unemployment (53%) and poverty (31%). Only 5% each consider entry to NATO/EU, or the name of the state as priority issues. Or, in other words: the true problems are unemployment and poverty (indeed as 78% of the population is bellow or up to the level of family income to cover the so called “consumer basket”), and if by any chance EU/NATO can help with that – more power to them.
The fifth issue is that media apply the principle of non sequitur (a conclusion or statement that does not logically follow from the previous argument or statement). An example of this is reporting by Vecher, which under the title “Citizens concerned, SDSM pushes the country into abyss” places a text which does not contain any element that confirms the stance from the title. The above noted media did not consider it necessary to show, or to comment the data that the respondents think that the Government has no effective plan to address the economic problems facing Macedonia, or that this Government does not seek ways to solve the corruption issue. They did not attempt to collect the numbers of contextually related responses. Namely, a very high collective 81 percent of respondents think that the solution of the current political crisis lies in either the Prime Minister’s resignation, or resignation of current ministers, or forming of technical government! If one looks at these numbers, the logical conclusion is that the citizens perceive that it’s not the opposition SDSM, but the current Government that pushes the country into abyss.
Usually, pollsters present their own reading of the poll data, and present analyses they draw from the polls they’ve conducted.
In the case of IRI, at least by this time, media had the opportunity to receive the source data, which they can further analyze, cross and compare, put them in context of other insights, or offer them to experts who would provide them with expert opinions.
Unfortunately, at least until by this time, the media managed to recognize and use only the most superficial, daily-political presentation of the poll results. By handling the matter in this way, they in a way manipulated the public, instead of informing it. Considering the end result (misinformed citizens), it is irrelevant whether that has been done on purpose (with premeditation), unintentionally, or simply due to ignorance.
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 (macedonia.usaid.gov) and Facebook page (www.facebook.com/USAIDMacedonia).