This case study is based on online news stories whose authors, contrary to professional norms, use judgmental language, thus developing a certain attitude on what they write about. According to the golden rule, reporters should not express judgments in news stories. Some reporters, however, ignore this rule. Here are some examples.
On August 4, 2015, the majority of media outlets wrote news articles based on the information from the Parliamentary secretariat about MPs’ attendance at plenary meetings in the spring-summer session. Timpul.md, for example, published an item titled “Nicolae Dudoglo is the most frequent parliamentary truant. The democrat is followed by Irina Vlah and Zinaida Greceanii”. The author highlighted the names of the three least disciplined MPs. The story is basically well written although the reporter used only the information offered by the Parliamentary secretariat.
Another portal, ziarulnational.md, noted in the headline the party with the most absences and published a news item titled “TRUANTS in Parliament. Democrats – CHAMPIONS in unjustified absences. Nothing condemnable. It is the newsroom’s prerogative to bring forth what they deem proper, but one thing in the story is bothersome: the sentence “The most disciplined MPs are those from the PLDM and PL.” These words are not just too much; they are also dangerous in a news story because they seem to show the newsroom’s attitude—in this case the preference for two parties—although it is not its mission and it is not what a news article should contain.
Unimedia.info also used the word “truants” in the headline: “Truants in Parliament! MPs with the most absences in the spring-summer session”. Since the headline does not tell us much, it makes us read the story to learn who the truants are. We read it, and … keep stumbling over phrases such as “only six absences were unjustified,” “as many as 11 unjustified,” “only 22 absences,” “only 20 MPs out of 101 attended all meetings,” and “as many as eight liberal democrats attended all Parliament meetings.” For several reasons, these phrases should be absolutely foreign to this so-called news item. The first reason is that they betray the political preference of the newsroom and invite the criticism of readers with other political preferences. The second reason is that they force an opinion on readers considering them unable to decide what is “only” and what is “as many as.” This is wrong because it shows disrespect for the intellectual capacities of readers. The third reason is that they reveal the reporter’s lack of logic. We readers and voters expect MPs to be at work. Even one absence is a lot, let alone the reporter saying “only 22 absences” and “as many as eight liberal democrats attended all Parliament meetings.” A normal situation would be for all 101 MPs to attend all meetings, so the fact that “as many as eight liberal democrats attended all Parliament meetings” is not at all a reason for praise. This story is not news but banal party propaganda.
It should be noted that the majority of news items on this topic were based on the information provided by the Parliamentary secretariat. Reporters did not go further and, for example, ask the most frequently truant MP why he plays truant or why democrat MPs are the least disciplined since in elections they decided together with the people who was to enter Parliament. Did this method fail or was everything just a bluff?
Thus, instead of searching, obtaining and offering relevant additional information to readers, the above-mentioned reporters limited themselves to a single official press release and excelled in making assessments. To readers it does not matter whether reporters did it out of professional ignorance or on someone’s orders. Readers, I believe, are not interested in explanations but can, however, use “capital punishment”on reporters: ignore their work.
Generally, words like “only,” “just,” and “as many as” present more risks than we might expect. For example, on August 7, 2015, several media outlets reacted to the news that the former head of Basarabeasca Region and two former junior officers were convicted of corruption. Realitatea.md wrote: “Former head of Basarabeasca region and two junior officers CONVICTED in a bribery case”; ipn.md wrote “Former head of Basarabeasca region sent to jail for 7 years for corruption”; and jurnal.md posted “Former head of Basarabeasca region sent to jail for bribery”. Timpul.md, however, reacted by publishing a news story under the headline “Convicted to seven years in jail for just 1,500 euros”. What does the word “just” in the headline suggest? Maybe that for a bribe of 1,500 euros no one should be convicted?! Does the author really feel sorry for those convicted? Perhaps, on the other hand, it is a signal for other corrupt officials “not to play” for 1,500 euros but for dozens or hundreds of thousands instead?! We are tempted to believe that the reporter wanted to underline the fact that in a case of bribery the punishment is harsh regardless of the size of bribe, but the fact that he inappropriately placed an inappropriate word destroys our temptation to believe that he acted in good faith. We cannot judge the author’s desire or intention. We can judge only his work.
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.