Radio New Zealand, the public broadcaster and the most trusted news outlet in the country, has been rocked by an ethical crisis that would be a nightmare for any journalism outlet and which may offer lessons to other newsrooms.
The radio and online publisher has uncovered dozens of surreptitious edits — mostly in agency reports from Reuters — that twist the perspective of the original material. Stories about the war in Ukraine were edited to include lines that favour the Russian position, and stories about Israel-Palestine were changed to shift the tone of militants and the Israeli government. But there is a wide range of subjects in which balance or tone was moved or removed.
It is seldom a good thing when the news outlet becomes the news story. The edits quickly became a major controversy calling into question RNZ’s working practices and credibility in a media environment where mis and disinformation exploded during the pandemic and has become firmly rooted in the media environment ahead of national elections later this year.
That the scandal was uncovered only when a New York-based Twitter user noticed a pro-Russian talking point in what was labeled as a Reuters story on the RNZ Web site — leading Reuters to make clear the edit was not in its original — was cause for alarm. It emerged that a warning from a staff member about editing practices and a complaint from Ukrainian New Zealanders about the tone of some stories had not exposed a long history of poor edits:
The scandal will send a shudder through any editorial leader and prompt them to ask if it could happen in their newsroom. A shortage of editing resources, distributed working out of the office, and hard-to-enforce or unenforceable ethics policies are hardly unique to RNZ.
The editor involved has left RNZ and the service has appointed a three-strong inquiry team — including a noted media lawyer — to investigate. An internal audit covering perhaps thousands of stories edited by the same person has so far uncovered 49 stories (of 1,268 assessed up to July 17) which the news services says did not meet its standards and have been re-edited.
RNZ Chief Executive Paul Thompson described the case as a “serious breach” which led to what he called “pro-Kremlin garbage” being injected into otherwise clean Reuters copy.
The affair has engulfed RNZ just as it was awarded NZ$26 million (US$16 million) in new government funding to expand its online services after the Labour government scrapped a controversial plan to merge the radio service with Television New Zealand. It also comes as trust in New Zealand media continues to fall, though at a slower rate than many others.
Here’s my checklist of what may have gone wrong in this case and could go wrong anywhere:
Unclear policies on how to handle agency copy and add perspective or combine agency reports, often by adding a byline from the publisher or making clear reports have been melded.
Poor understanding of escalation policies and responsibilities where there is a clear risk to reputation requiring action at the earliest stage.
Supervision of remote-working staff and their output, including the core principle of having open conversations and avoiding a culture of blame that can lead to problems being hidden.
Inadequate reinforcement of or agreement with editorial guidelines on adding personal opinion to material without justification or transparency to users.
Radio New Zealand has a perfectly serviceable code of conduct which includes a section on injecting personal opinion that arguably should have covered this situation. It states: “Staff will have opinions of their own, but they must not yield to bias or prejudice. To be professional is not to be without opinions, but to be aware of those opinions and make allowances for them so that reporting is judicious and fair.” A PDF of the code is here.
However, the editor involved — whom I have contacted to talk to but who has not yet responded — told a radio colleague he had edited stories in the same way for years, adding: “In fact since I started RNZ and … I have done that for five years and nobody has tapped me on the shoulder and told me that I was doing anything wrong.”
I wrote a commentary on the case for a New Zealand publication, BusinessDesk, in which I argued that the furore across the media, while understandable, was overdone and required some reflection on how such problems could surface in almost any news operation. It really is a lesson for us all in terms of process, but it is also a clear breach of trust.
Reuters and other agency reports are generally written by experienced journalists in the field and edited in line with their own strong ethical policies and traditions. I am yet to be convinced that an editor handling that copy at another publisher should require what we called “a second pair of eyes” when I worked for Reuters unless they have added context or combined reports.
“Reuters has addressed the issue with RNZ, which has initiated an investigation. As stated in our terms and conditions, Reuters content cannot be altered without prior written consent. Reuters is fully committed to covering the war in Ukraine impartially and accurately, in keeping with the Thomson Reuters Trust Principles,” a Reuters spokesman told me.
The RNZ inquiry is still underway, and I will let you know what it comes up with.
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