The accuracy of a piece of information often depends not only on the balance of sources, objectivity and impartiality. Omission, deliberate or out of ignorance, and failure to substantiate or provide the context that is absolutely necessary to understand some information, process or fact can sometimes damage the accuracy of a journalistic product more than any other mistake. This case study will show how, in the absence of the context, a news item or an article can lead to manipulation of public opinion or even to promotion of a person or group that are actually expecting that.
On 1 April 2014, several media outlets (noi.md, ipn.md, tv7.md, hotnews.md, independent.md, abcnews.md, mediafax.ro, tribuna.md, newsmoldova.md, ziare.com, 24h.md) published news about a letter sent to the Russian president Vladimir Putin by the governor of the Southern autonomy of Moldova, Gagauz-Yeri, Mihail Formuzal, and by the chairman of the region’s People’s Assembly Dmitri Constantinov, in which the two officials asked the Russian leader to simplify the procedure for Moldovan citizens seeking Russian citizenship.
The first examination of this piece of news reveals that the vast majority disregarded the context in which the above request had been made, and it determines a wrong understanding of the events. The context is the fact that the Russian Duma currently has under examination an entire package of legislative drafts (four drafts) that are aiming at that exact objective – simplification of procedures for the citizens of neighbor countries seeking Russian citizenship, especially for those in former soviet republics, for whom the Russian language is the basic language of communication and who are willing to move to Russia (Radio Free Europe informed about these drafts on 21.03.2014 / “Fast citizenship for Russian ethnics”, see link: http://www.europalibera.org/content/article/25305384.html, and in an interview on 24.03.2014 / “Alexandr Kalinin: a law regarding only the citizens who want to move to Russia”, http://www.europalibera.org/content/article/25307204.html). The main condition, besides knowledge of the Russian language, certified by taking a test, would be renunciation of the person’s other citizenship(s).
The news item on the TV7 television, “Formuzal asks Putin to offer Russian citizenship to the Moldovans working in Russia” (http://tv7.md/ro/politic/formuzal-il-roaga-pe-putin-sa-ofere-cetatenie-rusa-moldovenilor-care-muncesc-in-rusia/), completely ignores this coincidence between the intentions of the Russian Federation to provide fast citizenship to those willing to move to Russia and renounce their other citizenship(s) and the appeal of the Gagauz leader. The news item says only the following: “Gagauz leader Mihail Formuzal and the chairman of the People’s Assembly Dmitri Constantinov sent an open letter to the Russian President Vladimir Putin, asking for a simplified procedure for the Moldovan citizens seeking Russian citizenship. According to the information published on the official website of the Gagauz administration, the request was made in the context of new rules set for the migrants working in Russia. Gagauz representatives believe that Russian citizenship would allow Moldovans to benefit from the social guarantees offered by this country. Gagauz leaders motivate the need for simplified procedures for the Moldovans working in Russia and seeking Russian citizenship by the fact that they are able to contribute to the economic development of the Russian state and thus become respectable members of the Russian society.”
Without the information mentioned earlier, the reporter is in fact implying that the two Gagauz officials show care for the autonomy’s residents that had been working in Russia as migrants and are currently unable to do so due to the establishment of stricter rules for them. It is, in fact, suggested that the only solution for them is this citizenship obtained within a shorter time frame, that this solution was found in Comrat, and if Russia does simplify the procedure, the reader might easily reach the conclusion that it happens due to the request sent from Comrat. Mihail Formuzal will thus gain in popularity, and the potential beneficiaries will only later find out that they can use this solution for unrestrained work in Russia only if they give up the citizenship of their country. Even more important is the fact that without the necessary context this journalistic product might suggest unjustified conclusions about the purpose of simplified procedure for the seekers of Russian citizenship. Thus, information consumers might feel that Russia (and, indirectly, Gagauz leader Mihail Formuzal) is guided in this action by concern for the Moldovan citizens that lost their jobs in Russia. In fact, Russia itself recognizes that it wants, by this action, to attract highly qualified persons (it is actually the goal of language testing). In addition, it is possible that Russia also aims at extending the number of holders of Russian passports in the areas where it wishes to maintain its influence, since the pretext it usually invokes when attempting to increase this influence, with the latest example being the annexation of Crimea, is the protection of the rights of Russian citizens in these territories.
We have found that the news items on this topic published by the majority of the other media outlets have the same problem. But the most inappropriate is probably the news item published by 24h.md (http://24h.md/ro/news/la-rugamintea-bascanului-mihail-formuzal-rusia-ar-putea-simplifica-procedura-de-acordare-a-cetateniei-pentru-locuitorii-autonomiei-gagauze-137400/). It reads as follows: “At the request of Gagauz leader Mihail Formuzal, Russia might SIMPLIFY the procedure for Gagauz residents seeking citizenship.” The error is that this phrasing suggests the idea that the simplification of the procedure for seekers of Russian citizenship is actually determined by the actions of the Gagauz leader. Thus, if it happens, it will be the result of this action – an absolutely wrong conclusion.
The news item on hotnews.md (http://hotnews.md/articles/view.hot?id=24936), “A member of the Government asking Moscow for Russian citizenship for Moldovans”, is a good example of news. First, it stresses the Gagauz leader’s quality of member of Government – an important detail in the context of this information, which information consumers did not have to know. When a member of a country’s government asks another country to grant citizenship in a simplified procedure to the citizens of his own country, it should be presented as such.
In addition, the news item contains the necessary context information that we mentioned earlier: “The letter of the two Gagauz officials, one of whom (Mihail Formuzal) is a member of the Moldovan Government, was sent at the time when the Russian parliament is examining a draft law on granting Russian citizenship on the basis of simplified procedures for the citizens of some former Soviet territories. The draft requires that the applicants give up the citizenship of their country.” The insertion of the text of the letter is also welcome, as thus information gains authenticity. Also, the journalist’s efforts were spent, as recommended, on researching information rather than on providing excessive coverage of the letter.
In conclusion, the news published by the majority of Moldovan media outlets have distorted the message, omitted important background information, and only produced a message that manipulated public opinion.
Whether it happened due to lack of professionalism or deliberately, both situations are equally dangerous for provision of balanced and impartial information to consumers.
The case study has been produced within the project “Promoting media literacy among Moldovan citizens”, implemented by the IJC with financial support of the U.S. Embassy in Moldova. The study does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the funder.