This case study examines the reaction of several information portals to a press conference held by Our Party leader Renato Usatii at the end of July. The purpose is to suggest ways for those interested to determine the extent to which news from press conferences deserves readers’ credibility. For that, we shall analyze media products through the prism of journalists’ professional obligations which is the most efficient way to assess the quality of news in this case. Reference points for evaluating news will be the extent to which stories comply with the professional requirements without which journalism loses its legitimacy. It is the nature of things. Every profession has a distinct occupational field: a doctor treats, a prosecutor investigates, a judge judges, a journalist informs. Nota Bene! A journalist shall not misinform or manipulate but rather should inform. In other words, journalists collect information, process it, verify it and offer it to the public. Journalists collect information wherever they can—including at press conferences—if they find the topics important for the public. It should be noted that a press conference can be a reason for a news item but not the news itself, especially if the topic is incendiary and offers conflicting information because not all parties in the conflict attend the conferences.
On July 27, 2015, Our Party leader Renato Usatii invited mass media to a press conference titled “Presentation of evidence and schemes on how the billion was stolen from the banking system and the external funding of the PLDM [Liberal Democratic Party of Moldova]”. The general topic of money is extremely attractive to the public, so it could be expected that mass media outlets would not ignore it. Also, the missing billion makes the topic very timely regardless of who addresses it: a banker, a prosecutor or a politician. Eventually, the journalist is the one who decides what information on the topic to present to the public in order to make them loyal readers.
Let’s examine what some news portals offered their readers.
On the day of the press conference, July 27, politics.md offered two news stories that were also published by point.md. The first story was titled “Filat is preparing to leave Moldova”. Upon reading the story, we notice its speculative headline. A correct headline written by an honest reporter would look something like “R. Usatii: ‘Filat is preparing to leave Moldova.’” Although the story is based on a concrete source of information, we find it only after reading the headline and the first sentence which raises reasonable doubt that the author wanted us to get the whole picture from the start. In addition, although it is a controversial news story, there is no second source, and the reporter did not even try to find one (forgot? was lazy?). The reporter “also forgot” the fact that a press conference can be a reason for news, but not the news itself. It is ridiculous to believe that organizers of a press conference will invite their opponents. Journalists are the ones who should find opponents if they want to inform readers. In this case, the news story gives us minimal chances to believe it, regardless of how much truth it contains.
The second news item on the topic was titled “DOCUMENT // Dozens of millions stolen from BEM to promote Filat’s image”. This time we find the source of information (“politician Renato Usatii”) only after the third sentence. We also notice the firm tone, without the right to reply, contained in the headline, even before reading it. It is this very thing that should put us on guard, and if we cannot find the opinion of the person it directly mentions (V. Filat) in the text we should ignore the story and the reporter’s effort to “inform” us in this manner.
Generally, information coming from politicians or parties should be treated with maximum caution given that their purpose is to come to power, and the fight for power makes parties and politicians, especially in a fragile democracy, use not quite orthodox procedures. Mass media should not become a mouthpiece for parties but should search for the truth instead. It is what politics.md failed to do. If it had done so, it would have offered more information to its readers, given that the statements at the press conference were made towards the end of the negotiations for creating a governing alliance, of which the PLDM was part.
In this sense, noi.md acted more correctly and honestly. On July 27 it produced the news story titled “PLDM reaction to Usatii’s declarations: Disinformation with the purpose of promoting the interests of another country”. In this case, the reporter simply presented for the readers’ judgment both positions in one story. She did not try to impose her own point of view or justify anyone because it is not a reporter’s prerogative to do so. She did what she had to do.
That was not the case at unimedia.info that on the same day published a story titled “Verbal exchange between Usatii and PLDM: More proof that we are the target of those who do not want a pro-European alliance”. The story appears to be well written since it presents the opinions of both parties in the conflict. We shall, however, draw attention to at least two elements that can undermine its correctness. First, the headline mentions a verbal exchange between two parties, but only one party is quoted which calls the author’s impartiality into question. The second element is the passage saying that R. Usatii, “…asked the US Embassy to verify the case, although he earlier said that if he were in power he would transform the American diplomatic mission into karaoke.” The reporter’s lack of bias is also doubtful as he “fights” with one protagonist in the story and appears as an advocate of the other one. Therefore, we cannot believe this story either although we have the positions of the two conflicting parties because the author, however clumsily, tries to make us think the way he wants us to. He might certainly do it in a commentary or an analysis with relevant evidence and arguments, but the news has a different imperative: news not views!
By the end of July 27, ziarulnational.md published the following item: “An American exposed Renato Usatii: “He presented FALSE DOCUMENTS’”. This news story offers more information: what R. Usatii said, what the liberal democrats replied, what an American blogger wrote and what former prime minister I. Sturza thinks about the statements of the “controversial businessman and mayor of Balti city.” It might seem that we have something to think about, but the headline (which is not fully correct or neutral) is worrisome as it tells us WHAT to think and not what to think ABOUT. It does not present the essence of the text but rather covers only a part of its content, and the word “exposed” seems to force us believe that it is pure truth. The initial presentiment that the headline wants to somehow influence us is strengthened/confirmed by the text of the article which is intended to fully convince us that what one of the protagonists said is not true because the other three protagonists are saying something different. The story, despite containing several aces that apparently confer weight to it—a “hot” topic, prominent protagonists, accurate quotes—does not eliminate the doubt that it might be biased because it criticizes someone and indirectly protects someone else. Doubt grows especially since on July 30, three days after the press conference, the same portal published the following story: “PHOTO // People from the entourage of Renato Usatii are involved in MONEY LAUNDERING SCHEMES at BEM”. The story begins thus: “Candidate no. 6 in the Our Party list for the position of Chisinau municipality councilor, Vitali Cebanu, falsified some documents that allowed him to run for elections with a loan of 7,000,000 lei from subsidiary no. 1 of Banca de Economii,” says liberal MP Iurie Chirinciuc who offers relevant evidence. Chirinciuc wrote in his blog that Renato Usatii is either unaware or protects the members of his team who are also involved in money laundering schemes at BEM.” A long quote from the MP’s blog post follows along with a diagram of the alleged money laundering scheme and the closing sentence: “Renato Usatii has not yet reacted to Chirinciuc’s accusations.”
This news item seems to offer additional proof: a “cast iron” source in an MP (at the time) from a different party than the PLDM and therefore more credible and a diagram of the embezzlement scheme, but such reporting should generate questions in anyone’s mind who believes in a more prudent approach to texts in the press. For example: Why do such issues appear in a blog if their author has a more proper place for expressing them like Parliament? Why is the text reproduced by the portal without verifying its truth first? Why does the portal expect R. Usatii to react “to Chirinciuc’s accusations?” and What reaction does it expect? Do they think that R. Usatii will prove the blogger MP right?! So, if a text in the press does not offer us answers to all these questions, it deserves to be ignored unless we are looking for confirmation of our own convictions in it, especially ideological ones. It should be clear that such texts are not journalism: They are party propaganda, the most boring of all first of all because their content is predictable. It is natural for an open-minded person to search for information in the press—something they did not know before reading—and it is natural for that person after reading not to have the pressing feeling that they were lied to. Of course reading a manipulative text is useful in the sense of learning something new: what reporters or portals to ignore in order not to waste time. We could, however, definitely live without such experiences.
General conclusion: News can inform as well as misinform and manipulate.
General recommendation: News should be treated cautiously, and its truthfulness should be tested whenever possible.
The case study has been produced within the project "Freedom of expression and media development in Eastern and South-Eastern Europe and South Caucasus", implemented by IJC with support by Deutsche Welle Akademie and financed by German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development. The opinions expressed in this material belong to the authors and do not necessarily reflect the financer’s opinion.