RNZ ‘pro-Kremlin garbage’ enquiry has lessons for all newsrooms

The penetrating review of Radio New Zealand’s “pro-Kremlin garbage” scandal by an independent panel has a clear message for all news media: Make sure your own houses are in order.

The expert review panel – long-time media lawyer William Akel, broadcaster-turned-lawyer Linda Clark, and former Australian Broadcasting Corporation Editorial Standards Director Alan Sunderland – found the sub-editor who doctored Reuters content had breached editorial standards. However, the panel also found a swathe of systemic issues within RNZ that could well be repeated in other news organisations.

To recap: In June, RNZ was accused of publishing overseas wire stories on its website which had been deliberately edited to include unattributed statements that were one-sided and contested. RNZ subsequently found 49 stories that were inappropriately edited. This included adding pro-Russian content to stories on the invasion of Ukraine. The RNZ board ordered an independent review.

The review found the journalist at the centre of the controversy “genuinely believed he was acting appropriately to provide balance and accuracy, and was not motivated by any desire to introduce misinformation, disinformation or propaganda.” Nonetheless, he breached editorial standards.

It could have ended there: A misguided individual who had since resigned and was no longer a problem for the public broadcaster. But the review panel did not stop there. It found that RNZ’s structure, culture, systems, and processes contributed to what had happened and sheeted home responsibility for that to RNZ’s leadership.

Other media might say it ended there: It was RNZ’s problem and a result of its unique way of doing things. But those ways are not unique, and other media organisations could face their own embarrassments if they do not audit their processes and, where necessary, make the sort of changes recommended to RNZ by the review panel.

No two media organisations are structured or operate in identical ways. Therefore, they should not simply be looking for direct parallels with the RNZ case. Yet within their cultures, policies and modus operandi will be the ingredients that can create the sort of recipe for disaster that unfolded a couple of months ago.

Take the way the former staffer worked: He worked from home, had limited contact with his superiors and, because of the nature of his work, was left to get on with the job. The job was sub-editing foreign stories supplied by syndicated agencies such as Reuters and the BBC. All the content had been pre-vetted and edited at source before being uplifted by RNZ. I can tell you from personal experience that, as it comes from the most reputable news agencies in the world, this content is regarded as ‘safe’. It is generally edited only for length and to conform to in-house styles and sub-editors are trusted to abide by the rule that it must not be substantively changed.

How many news organisations today allow their staff to work from home? All of them, to one degree or another.

How many of them operate without mandatory days-in-the office? Quite a few, I suspect.

How many have operated on that high level of trust in their handling of world news copy? Most, I would think.

How many have found the chain of command and processes of upward referral (a failing on the part of the RNZ sub-editor) have become less clearly delineated through the practice of working from home? That’s a somewhat rhetorical question.

The review panel noted that there had been a relaxation in the multi-level vetting of content as it passed through the production process. That is not surprising as the workload in newsrooms has increased through the binary effects of growth in media formats and paring of staff. The reviewers conceded this was an issue. So, how many news organisations can say they have rigorously applied the three-pairs-of-eyes rule (copy taster, sub-editor, check sub or their equivalents) to every published or broadcast story? Workload pressure inevitably leads to shortcuts on some stories…and once-over-lightly on too many.

One of the review’s principal findings was that RNZ’s separation of digital news (where the sub-editor worked) from the main RNZ newsroom and its authority was a major contributing factor in the saga of inappropriately edited stories. RNZ’s digital news team has been under the management of the Head of Content, while the main news team came under the Head of News

The reviewers said: “Having a single, unified daily news operation ensures that editorial standards, processes, and practices are consistent across all platforms. It creates one line of editorial control and maximises cooperation, communication, and consistency.”

RNZ’s international counterparts have integrated newsrooms and most other newsrooms in this country have the same, although there are organisational differences in how digital content is handled. RNZ says it will integrate the two teams.

RNZ’s separation of those two teams highlighted cultural differences – which extended to using different internal messaging systems – and herein lies an issue that even integrated newsrooms can face.

If digital is regarded as ‘modern’ and traditional media as ‘old’ or ‘sunset’, there is a danger that established values are equally seen to be ‘past it’. Producing a newspaper with one or two deadlines every 24 hours is light years away from a digital environment with constant publication of news in multiple formats. I can hear the catch cry: “We do things differently now, old man.”

Certainly, the storytelling has changed, with wide-eyed opportunities to employ new communication techniques to inform an audience. It would be folly, however, to think that the tenets of journalism have likewise been re-invented. The ethical imperatives that have guided journalism for a century ­ – and moral philosophy for a lot longer – are not changed by the way a story is told. If the digital producers of any newsroom don’t understand that fact, they need to be told.

The RNZ sub-editor thought he was observing one of those tenets of journalism – balance – by injecting pro-Russian lines into stories about the invasion of Ukraine. He similarly altered other stories to reflect Chinese and Palestinian positions.

He believed that he was restoring balance, and this led the reviewers to examine how well the issue of balance was explained in RNZ’s editorial policy. They suggested greater clarity was needed.

Concepts of balance have changed over time. For example, for almost four decades the U.S. Federal Communications Commission’s Fairness Doctrine decreed that broadcasters must carry opposing views on controversial subjects. Today, balance does not extend to giving equal voice to climate change deniers or anti-vaxxers, on the basis that it would create ‘false equivalence’.  And in increasingly polarised societies, media are constantly accused of bias by one end of the spectrum or the other (and sometimes both).

The RNZ sub-editor’s belief does, however, suggest that there is a serious discussion to be had in every newsroom on how balance should be applied. It is no more pertinent than in coverage of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

Most journalists have a reasonable grasp of the concept of balance, but war complicates the equation.

Vietnam was described as the first television war and coverage of that conflict – and criticism of U.S. policy and tactics – was controversial. Controversy continued over coverage of conflicts from the Falklands to Afghanistan. And the issue of balance has often been at the heart of the debate.

Where does the balance lie in coverage of the conflict in Ukraine?

International law and just war theory should tip the balance. In international law, jus ad bellum justifies resort to war in self-defence. Russia’s claim to that is hollow and Ukraine’s is not. Just war theory, which dates to early Christianity, would suggest that in defending itself against invasion, Ukraine is fighting a just war and Russia is not. Therefore, it is not unreasonable to characterise Russia as the aggressor and Ukraine as the victim. There is undoubtedly less ambiguity than in many other 21st century conflicts.

Does that mean media should carry unquestioning coverage from Kyev’s perspective? No, coverage still requires that facts are verified and that the actions of both sides be judged according to international law. But it does mean media are justified in refusing to counter every statement by Volodymyr Zelenskyy with one from Vladimir Putin, and in refusing to characterise the invasion as a “special military operation” to eliminate a “serious threat”. It means seeing disinformation for what it is.

The findings suggests it would  be prudent for all newsrooms to produce periodic advisories for staff on how balance should be interpreted in given situations that justify the weights being shifted.

The review panel’s 53-page has numerous recommendations and observations that all news organisations should measure themselves against, not least their complaints procedures. However, there was one observation that those in positions of authority may have difficult recalling when it is most needed.

RNZ chief executive was criticised for using the phrase “pro-Kremlin garbage” when the transgressions were discovered. That public comment was described by the reviewers as “unhelpful in maintaining the public’s trust”.

I put myself in Paul Thompson’s shoes and, recalling an episode from my editing past, felt more than a little sympathy for a perfectly accurate comment made in the sort of situation where anger and disappointment produce a reaction like an exploding lithium battery. It takes more than wise words from an expert panel to put out that sort of fire.

5 thoughts on “RNZ ‘pro-Kremlin garbage’ enquiry has lessons for all newsrooms

  1. Jim Tucker – Supposed to be retired, after quitting journalism teaching in 2013 (after 25 years, preceded by 22 years as a newspaper journalist and editor), but find myself busier than ever with various book projects, advising law firms, and writing articles for magazines like North & South and Live.
    Jim Tucker says:

    As another who continues to work in a media world dubbed “old” by those who believe the digital one now prevails, I agree with your analysis that balance remains a cornerstone whose foundations can be severely challenged in times of significiant global conflict.
    I’m just finishing a book that has a long chapter on a Kiwi family’s tragic experience of WW II. Nothing much has changed in terms of the media’s role, hampered though it always is.
    One of the interesting questions now is what will become of RNZ’s leadership…

  2. Thank you. A timely reminder for those who think that balance is old-fashioned, imo. My memory is that five years ago that an article a balance view from viewpoint. it may be one line at the end end of the article But it was showed that the journalism is covering issue, and not just promoting one view as unassailable fact,

  3. Jim Tucker – Supposed to be retired, after quitting journalism teaching in 2013 (after 25 years, preceded by 22 years as a newspaper journalist and editor), but find myself busier than ever with various book projects, advising law firms, and writing articles for magazines like North & South and Live.
    Jim Tucker says:

    I used to teach students to get a balancing quote into the second par and return later to such alternative viewpoint(s). Haven’t seen that for a long time. Hard to do well, admittedly.

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