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V. Avdeev. On Elections, Professional Journalism Skills and the Cost of Mistakes
It seems that there is no need to repeat the universal truth: elections are a permanent condition in our society and the permanent field of business of the mass media in the Russian Federation. It is for this reason that the relationships between those in power and the press and growing conflicts in the information area should be regarded not as something extraordinary but rather as an emerging reality. It increases the political struggle and growing responsibility of all participants in the process including voters, candidates and the mass media. More importantly, an election campaign gives voters an opportunity to sum up opinions that will allow them to make the right choice. It is impossible to underestimate the role of the mass media in this. Central issues include the guidelines of the mass media, the position of editors-in-chief, and the daily efforts and professional skills of each individual journalist.
Interests of the Mass Media and Public Interests
In their book entitled Television and Elections, Ellen Mickiewicz and Charles Firestone identified three areas of interest which are generally in opposition to one another. They are:
a) the interests of a candidate aiming to establish links with the public;
b) the interests of television as a specific form of self-expression proper to journalism;
c) the interests of the public seeking information that will enable them to participate in elections.
(This could be equally applied to the activities of the print media which, differing from television in their specific aspects, nevertheless operate within the same «triangle.»
As with anything, an election campaign is an ever-changing and improving process. As Washington Times correspondent Martin Ziff stated when talking about the pre-election campaigns of some parties prior to the 1995 parliamentary elections: «A number of Russian political parties just waved their flags and demonstrated their candidate.» Today, most political figures rely upon the services of image-makers and sociologists and listen to the advice of advertising and mass media experts. As candidates improve the process, a serious responsibility is faced by journalists whose knowledge in the area of law, ethics and professionalism seriously affects the public electoral behavior.
The problem of the higher professional, ethical and legal knowledge of journalists has been extensively dealt with in numerous publications. However, most articles on electoral topics end up as reference material for the editors-in-chief, founders or owners of mass media. Topics such as political advertisements, the provision of air time or corresponding print space to candidates, ensuring equality among candidates, and the distribution of funds during the course of an election campaign are all relevant issues for legislators, editors-in-chief of mass media and their owners, observers and non-government organizations.
Of course, there are a number of problems which, while coming under strategic planning, still relate to the interests of both journalists and editors-in-chief.
Features of Advertising Materials
Here is an interesting example which seemed to be not expressly of a legal and administrative nature being related directly to a journalist. It is a mass media advertisement that either violated the established norms and rules or was used at an inappropriate time. Alexandre Gliskov's article «Legal Problems of Pre-election Advertising in the Mass Media» which appeared in the regional supplement to the magazine Legal and Practical Aspects of Mass Media which is published by the «Law and Mass Media» Center identifies principal features which the election commission in Krasnoyarsk used to determine whether materials published in the mass media were for advertising purposes:
- there is mention of negative or positive personal qualities of any candidate;
- there is a description of possible election consequences of any candidate;
- there is a description of possible non-election consequences of any candidate;
- there is an expression of preference for any candidate (particularly, to indicate who this or that voter will vote for).
Of course, these features cannot constitute a law for journalists of all Subjects of the Russian Federation but they illustrate the need for the journalist to be very familiar with those norms by which a local election commission is guided. Knowledge of these norms will help to avoid some mistakes and violations which journalists often make during the course of an election campaign in the mass media.
Responsibility and Professional Skills of Journalists
The opening chapters of the proposed guide contain a thorough analysis of legal aspects of the mass media activities in an election period. I will dwell upon just one important aspect the responsibility of journalists but not because the mass media is called «the fourth power» (frankly speaking, this is a debatable point). The mass media is a powerful weapon for influencing voters, and those who are allowed to use it should be aware that this is the case. Manipulation of the public conscience through the press is often so intricate that it would not be fair to blame the journalist for «unwillful collaboration.» But the press itself can sometimes contribute negatively to change public consciousness in unexpected ways. Let us recall an aphorism expressed a while ago: «It was the press that made Zhirinovsky.» A follow-up analysis of the situation allowed some people to rephrase it: «It was Zhirinovsky who made the press.» Where is the truth? Most likely, it is on both sides. The press «made» Zhirinovsky, and he was himself «made» for the press. The analysis of the Zhirinovsky phenomenon was intended less as an investigation than an advertisement for the leader of liberal democrats.
But this, I believe, is not the time to proceed with this analysis. It is better to remind ourselves that Zhirinovsky was made not only by those who were interested in his rise, nor by Vladimir Zhirinovsky himself, nor only by those who were interested in his upsurge, nor the managers and owners of mass media who regarded him as a «gift horse:» He was also made by journalists who admired (albeit negatively) his intolerant, «independent» position, his aggressive behavior and his ability to repel strikes. Zhirinovsky's aggressiveness was regarded as camera-friendly and dramatic.
I would agree that whoever was interested in promoting Zhirinovsky would most profitably push forward his acting skills. I was, however, disappointed by journalists because from Zhirinovsky's very first public appearances it was clear that his weak (even weakest) point was his economic policy. If one had pressed him about economics, conversations with the «charismatic leader» would have taken a different course. But this did not happen. There are two main reasons for this: first, a serious conversation about the economy, even with such a non-economist as Zhirinovsky, would call for solid knowledge. Second, in any conversation about the economy both journalists and the public (voters who listened became the public) lost interest in Zhirinovsky. Words such as «budget,» «deficit» and «inflation» leave little room for excessive body language and sharp criticism of political enemies. This is why a journalist bold enough to suggest a discussion of the economy or finance was probably thankful to Zhirinovsky for an immediate change of topic which relieved both sides from the very painful feelings of incompetence and general boredom.
Responsibility as an Ethical Norm
One of the indicators of how responsible journalists are in their profession is strict observance of a professional code of behavior. Following such Western mass media as the Washington Post or the BBC, Russian mass media are seriously looking to have their own codes establishing rules of professional behavior for journalists.
While Vladimir Yakovlev was campaigning for the position of governor of Saint-Petersburg, the city was deluged with photocopied leaflets of a reprimand from his former Communist Party days (!) issued several years ago for abuse of authority in allocation of automobiles. It was easy to predict the reaction of hardened adversaries and friends. But «outside» observers reacted differently. Many of them spoke and wrote about the inadmissibility of this sort of thing. The archives contain nearly 19 million files of former Communist Party members including reprimands formulated as the time then dictated. If you add to it the mass of files on private individuals who worked in «special» organizations, you would get an amazing picture: once you transfer the sins of the past to potential actions in the future no compromising facts will be needed for those who are in their forties. Of course, the Yakovlev case concerned leaflets and not the mass media, but current tendencies in some mass media would suggest that they are not immune from the above approach.
Inevitably, the approaching elections will be accompanied by an onslaught of compromising materials. A pre-election campaign is the best time for this strategy, and one does not have to be a prophet to predict this fact: compromising materials may look fairly authoritative but it is unlikely that they can be confirmed by satisfactory evidence.
In one word, we may have a situation similar to the one described in Mark Twain's story «As I was elected the governor.» This story talks about newspaper publications being required to «bring down» a candidate at any cost. None of the authors cared to give evidence of guilt because the most important thing here was sheer scale and confidence in the infallibility of one's own ideas. This process is further aggravated by the fact that compromising materials appear in newspapers and on television up until the last moment when it is too late to remedy anything. Therefore, a candidate who fails to be elected mayor or MP has to prove his innocence afterwards, when even a positive result looks bleak in the aftermath of defeat.
Information Conflicts and the Language of Publications
This situation is fraught with danger not just for the candidate but also for the journalist. Practice shows that conflicts in the area of information tend to grow dramatically during the course of election campaigns. Causes of conflicts differ but, as evidenced by statistics of the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation, the bulk of lawsuits against journalists and mass media (by the way, a large share of them is won) relate to attacks on honor and dignity. For reasons of justice we need to acknowledge that, along with those lawsuits brought to acquire wealth or bestow a scandalous reputation, there are those that come about by fault of the journalist, his ignorance in matters of law and poor language skills. As we know, a lawsuit can be satisfied if the information disclosed within it is not true (if the defendant in this case the journalist and/or editorial board - fails to prove the reverse) and it constitutes an attack on the honor, dignity or business reputation of the claimant. Unlike criminal prosecution for assault, this case does not provide for the use of improper, offending words and expressions although a disdainful tone with respect to another person will obviously increase the chances of the claimant and dramatically reduce those of the defendant.
We will limit ourselves here to just one example. The newspaper Voronezhsky Courier of February 11, 1995 (not the latest but a typical example) published an article on the activities of Igor Muravyov, a State Duma MP. The author of the article blamed Muravyov for diverted budget funds, «eating away» public money, and a not quite disinterested affection for Sergei Mavrodi etc. Muravyov filed, and won, a lawsuit for protection of honor, dignity and his business reputation. (The newspaper was forced to pay Rb 10 million to the claimant.)
Without attempting to analyze the degree of objectivity and competence of the judges, their possible likes and dislikes, we note that the newspaper lost the case for two reasons:
1) The editorial board failed to provide the court with sufficient evidence of the deputy's guilt.
2) The editorial board's position was further weakened by the fact that the author used in his article a number of expressions which the judges determined as attacks upon the honor and dignity of Muravyov. You can see for yourself:
«Well, Muravyov gave himself to Mavrodi for free to the full»;
«Ah, the deputy exclaimed like a virgin...»
«...while «street gasification» money you successfully «ate away» with colleagues and assistants»;
«What do you, Igor Vladislavovich, want us to believe you are...» etc.
The newspaper possibly had good reasons to doubt the MP's sincerity (after all, they are not saints). Nonetheless, the absence of tangible evidence makes such articles «losing» material.
By the way, we can additional support comes from some more expressions from the same article not dealing with Muravyov himself, but directly related to the professional skills of the journalist:
«...A Moscow-based firm which does not give a fuck for the needs of Voronezh electors and gasification of local streets».
The question is what language should journalists use to express their ideas that of the electorate? The language of the electorate varies since it includes those who speak standard Russian, those who prefer to communicate with body language and interjections to designate the problem of interest by fairly unrelated parts of speech, and those who avidly absorb language «novelties» (of which most are English borrowings or slang words). Should this be the language of candidates? They differ in education, their degree of aggressiveness and communication culture, and vocabulary. What should journalists do: follow those who failed to see in this article a single rudeness or disdainful attitude? Write articles full of such words as razborka (clash), strelka (shooting party), kidala (wheeler-dealer) etc.? Using such language we only allows terms from the criminal world to become standard language to be used in television even in the Kremlin and White House.
It is well known that a «forbidden fruit» such as offending language always attracts teenagers by the mere fact of «forbiddenness.» But what forbiddenness can we speak of now when these formerly forbidden fruit grow quite legally? What should we do next: bring down the pale and switch completely to the language of the crowd mixed with foreign borrowings or try to lift it? (The second option is still more difficult since everyone will have to start with himself.) When applied to elections, this point also brings into focus the following: the language used by journalists and candidates is often more suggestive to voters as to the overall portrait than the details of the problem under discussion. An analysis of publications suggests that the problem of language and style largely afflicts the central and regional press.
The problem of language is related to the use of terminology which extends well beyond the election topic and is related to all areas of professional journalism. All areas including economy and finance, sport and business, crime and justice, ecology and foreign policy incorporate a large number of special terms. What might be the consequences of terminological ignorance? The first answer is obvious: the public may be drawing conclusions based on the incompetence of a journalist. However, this only happens when a specialist reads a terminologically incorrect article. But what if the mistake goes unnoticed? A reader may absorb an incorrectly interpreted term and use it later and also, when coming across the same term used correctly, either fail to understand or misunderstand it. This situation relates directly to the problem of the journalist's responsibilities to the reader and the viewer.
And, finally, there is still another very serious consequence of terminological mistakes. But first let us ask the following question: can an incorrect term used by a journalist cause any legal consequences for him and the related mass media? The obvious answer is yes. This is largely true of publications related to the investigation of criminal and civil cases, court coverages and other investigations. These often result in lawsuits for protection of honor, dignity and business reputation so unpleasant for mass media and journalists.
It is very logical. Why should a witness in a case not protect himself, once this person was to his disgrace publicly called «on remand» or «under suspect?» What might be the feelings of a person facing court proceedings who was hastily called criminal by a journalist (while this person lives in a small place where everyone knows everyone)? What reaction could be expected from a person publicly blamed for sins yet to be proven? Only a court can plead a person or group of persons guilty.
The question is not just there. You can ask yourself and your colleagues whether you can answer how such notions as «publicity,» «propaganda,» «accomplice,» and «defamation» are interpreted in the Law. The court will abide by the definitions that are contained in laws. Therefore, other versions taken from the most authoritative language dictionaries have no authority for the judge.
Mr. Cherotaikin, a member of the Krasnoyarsk regional election commission did an impressive job for those interested to increase their level of knowledge. He compiled a so-called «Concise Law Dictionary for Electors» which incorporates standard definitions of basic legal notions which one may come across during the election process. There may also be a need to compile a «Law Dictionary for Journalists» which would undoubtedly render a good service to everyone in the mass media.
Private Life Secrets
Another problem which in practice cannot be fully resolved regards personal information or, more exactly, drawing a line beyond which the private life of a person (in this case a politician, social activist, person of power the one who in the West would be normally called a public figure) would end and socially important information would start. This is an extremely difficult question and includes a variety of aspects: personal psychology, social psychology, ethics, popular ideas regarding the private life arena to be protected and secured. While legislators worldwide are trying to resolve this problem and find reasonable standard definitions capable of regulating relations in this extremely complicated field, each person involved is making an independent decision, including journalists who either accept or deny certain limits in their desire to write or disclose information on the personal life of a candidate, deputy or MP that is made available to them. During the course of the forthcoming elections we will undoubtedly face this problem many times.
Personal Likes and the Objectivity of Journalists
The question of personal information and imposed and self-imposed limits is closely tied (especially in an election period) with the political likes and dislikes of journalists or, at the very least, with the ideas and opinions of target audiences. A journalist, judge, prosecutor, investigator, politician or anyone else who is expected to be objective and impartial will also place his or her vote in the ballot box. They have their own partialities, they know who they support (or, as the reality of today's Russia would suggest, who they vote against). They have political bearings «in time and space.» However, likes and dislikes cannot be expressly shown in any genre of journalism. It is impossible to avoid criticizing political adversaries in an analytical article while coverage of a political rally where emotions are on the boil and will reveal the author's reaction to the event in its very tone. For example, during television debates where the journalist, like a good actor, is expected to be capable of reincarnation and play the role of both host and referee, expressively revealed likes and dislikes showing a lack of professional skill. Moreover, since the principal and most socially important election participant is the voter, any position taken by a journalist which lacks impartiality can in this situation obstruct adequate understanding of events by the audience and ultimately have a negative affect on the free expression of will by voters.
One important component of professional skills is undoubtedly the ability to debate in the course of interviews and conferences. Not attempting to rob the bread of those who concern themselves with the professional education of journalists I will identify only two things which are clearly manifested in the professional behavior of journalists in these situations. It is how they react to answers and how they prepare themselves for the meeting. Even readers and viewers ignorant in political and election business often observe that a journalist, having compiled a list of questions, may fail to react to the interviewer's answer with a new, unplanned question thus depriving the audience of the possibility of knowing more interesting details of the plans, program and current activities of the candidate, his character, outlook and views on the problem. Lack of reaction is often due to inadequate preparation for the meeting on the part of the journalist. Elections are particularly exacting on journalists and the mass media, and serious work therefore must precede any interview with a candidate or participation in a press-conference. It is rare to hear a journalist say: «Excuse me, but back in 1997 you said the following...» Meanwhile, these things add «weight» to the journalist himself and reveal the history of opinions and judgements of the candidate.
It seems that for readers and viewers to have a better understanding of things written and shown it is time they are told of some of the most important «rules of the game» in journalism. An audience with some knowledge of the written and presumed laws which govern your behavior would understand your calm and calculated tone and thoughtful materials, and would not require «blast-off» articles and coverage's which disturb the mind and obstruct adequate understanding of a situation.
Advice to Colleagues
In summary, I would like to remind you again of the recommendations which have been formulated in various manuals, reference books and articles.
Try to familiarize yourself with election laws as best you can. Monitor changes in laws and regulations concerning the course of an election campaign and the activities of the mass media.
Remember that objectivity is evidence of high professional skills. Your objectivity gives the audience the chance to make an adequate judgement of the candidates and make the right choice.
Keep in mind that one can unwillingly collaborate with dirty strategists. Check any information, investigate what may hide behind seemingly harmless phrases and descriptions of facts which do not directly relate to the professional activities of the person.
Do not coin quasi-heroes. Remember that you can publicize a scoundrel and a caretaker.
Prepare yourself for a meeting with a candidate. Successful coverage depends on how prepared you are.
Decide for yourself what language you speak to your reader or viewer. Lowering the tone and attempting to mimic the illiterate speech of some voters looks like the populism of a politician sweeping the pavement in front of a school building which is never going to be completed.
Ask yourself once again: who is the most important person in an election?
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