People who talk to the print media take a risk - what they say may be misquoted, suppressed or teased into a completely different meaning than the speaker intended. If reporters and editors act responsibly, this risk is generally small. But when journalists ignore professional standards, their respondents are the ones who pay the highest price.
Sipox owner Jozef Majský gave an interview to The Slovak Spectator on March 9. On March 18, he was surprised and angry to find parts of this interview - parts that he did not remember having uttered - printed on page 5 of the daily Slovenská Republika. He said he had been beseiged by telephone calls since the publication of the Republika article, and angrily accused the Spectator of having put words into his mouth. He clearly felt he had been made out to be a political puppet master who was single-handedly responsible for the government's election victory last fall.
The problem, however, lay not so much in the Spectator's original transcript as in the cavalier way in which Slovenská Republika had reprinted the interview.
During the Spectator interview, reporter Slavomír Danko asked Majský exactly what tools he had used to support the current coalition during elections last fall. What Majský actually said, verbatim, was that "I used mass media, since as you might know, I have my fingers in different media. It was just a question of replacing certain people and telling them how to write. Other possibilities included television and radio broadcasting. I think the media were in this way influenced sufficiently."
The Slovak Spectator's readership includes many people who do not know much about Slovakia - who do not know, for instance, who Jozef Majský is, or the names of Slovak newspapers and radio stations. Therefore, before the interview went to print, the Spectator added two editorial notes to what Majský had said. We added that the media he was involved in included "the daily Sme paper and the private station Rádio Twist" - information confirmed by Majský himself - and we also explained that Majský had meant he had influenced the media sufficiently "to bring electoral victory to the present ruling coalition parties."
Both of these editorial notes were separated from the text of Majský's responses by square brackets - [like this]. These brackets are a journalistic convention that tells the reader that the respondent himself did not say these words, but that they were added by the editor, who did not feel the meaning of what was actually said would be clearly understood.
What Slovenská Republika did was to print this part of the interview without the brackets - leading readers to believe, of course, that Majský had said what he did not.
Was this an innocent mistake? Perhaps - those brackets are pretty small, and if your vision is obscured, they're easy to miss.
On the other hand, the text of the Republika article arouses the suspicion that malice was intended. Appearing on a page bearing the headline "Domestic News" - as distinct from "Opinion" or "Fiction" - the article accused the Spectator of being a one-sided paper "through which foreign channels prepared the change of conditions in the anti-Mečiar movement" (sic). Given the Spectator's orientation, Republika continued, it was not surprising that "the known Slovak speculator" and the "industrious pupil" of "more experienced capitalist teachers" - in other words, Jozef Majský - had been given so much space in its pages.
After misquoting Majský, Republika closed with the sentence that "maybe even Majský doesn't know his own face."
There is no point in getting involved in a mud-slinging match with Slovenská Republika. Newspapers which flout journalistic rules - like getting quotes right and not editorialising in ostensible 'news' stories - always get found out by intelligent readers. Republika's falling readership is the only judgement of its standards that really matters.
It is a pity, though, when 'mistakes' like the one in Republika do not trouble the people who make them. The writer of the Republika piece, who signed his name 'se,' was in fact deputy editor Emil Semanco. When contacted by the Spectator, Semanco said that his paper sometimes printed opinion pieces on news pages "for lack of space." Regarding the absent brackets and the misquotes, Semanco advised the Spectator to write a letter to the editor.
Having recently seen the care that Republika devotes to reproducing content accurately, the Spectator decided not to entrust a letter to Semanco's hands. But in the interest of repairing the wrong done to Majský, and of raising the issue of journalistic standards with people more receptive than Mr. Semanco, we wanted to bring this matter to the attention of a wider audience.
29. Mar 1999 at 0:00