How information becomes misinformation
An article written for the Kyiv Posts considerably changes from the original draft version to the printed issue. A headline that betrays the content and a few deliberately addeded sentences mislead the reader. The dispute for the truth with the editor, the threat of not being paid. My personal experience.
- Tuesday, 31 March 2015
Today I use this blog to tell a personal case that just happened to me. I wrote an article for the Kyiv Post that has been turned into a piece of propaganda. With my signature below.
An experience that gave me yet another confirmation of how the war of information on the Donbass has reached levels out of control. At least, outside the control of those who want to do unbiased information, honestly. It also showed me how neither of the warring parts - Russian and Ukrainian media - is immune to a risk of propaganda that destroys good information.
I wrote the story of some young volunteers of the DNR. They are three Ukrainian girls – from Donetsk and Slovjansk - which, right or wrong, enrolled in the separatist militia. I told their stories, I wrote what they told me. I didn’t judged them, it’s not up to me. I let the reader formed his own opinion by reading their words and their stories. It's what in the jargon is called a "human interest story": it tells of the lives of the people, doesn’t express a media outlet stance.
The article, edited by a Kiyv Post journalist, was issued without my ok on the final draft. And with a hair-raising headline: "Kremlin’s Warriors Ready to Kill." Below there was a picture of the armed girls. It was scary. Moreover, a couple of additions in the text flipped the whole story. Especially among readers who just read the headline and the very first lines (the vast majority).
The result was something very different from my original piece of writing. I said to the editor that the girls are Ukrainian and that is misleading to refer to them as Kremlin warriors; they never told me they aim to kill anyone. Indeed, one of them is even a doctor. They removed the word "kill" from the headline on the web version (the printed issue was already at newsstands). The chief editor said it was just my opinion. True, too bad that it was the opinion of the one who wrote that article. After that I asked to publish a note “from the author” on the next issue, where I distances myself from the chosen headline. The chief editor refused. His answer was this: "Everything it's written in the headline is true," said the editor. "The separatists are backed by the Kremlin, so these girls fight for the Kremlin; Everyone who enlisted in the militia is ready to kill by implication." By implication, he said. I think a headline never says anything by implication.
Michael Phelps is a penguin
His reasoning took me back to the years of high school and studies in philosophy, and the concept of sophistry. A sophism is an argument apparently correct but logically specious and fallacious. Here's one example more: "Penguins are excellent swimmers. Michael Phelps is an excellent swimmer. Michael Phelps is a penguin."
I insisted with the editor, while remaining of his idea, to publish the note with my own idea. Indeed, the name under the article is mine. I was told that this is Kiyv Post’s position and that if I continued with my claims he would not have paid me.
We journalists almost never write the headlines and often are accused of things that are beyond our control and fall in sometimes inscrutable dynamic, sometimes - and this is the case – even too clear. This is how my article has been turned into something I no longer recognize.
How the story ended? The article is now gone with my signature and that obscene headline, some readers’ comments full of hatred show that the message of Kyiv Post’ chief editor (not mine) hit the target, and my note was never published. Ah, and I refused to be paid for a job I’m not proud of. My reward, this time, is a lesson I learnt.