Analysis by Keith Rankin.
I was concerned when the story broke last month about inappropriate subediting by RNZ staff of ‘wirecopy’ from international sources such as Reuters. The wire-tampering story broke with particular reference to stories about the war in Ukraine; and, at least for that story, it needs to be understood that Aotearoa New Zealand is an aligned party to that military conflict, so certain sensitivities will apply.
I was then concerned when RNZ chief executive Paul Thomson called the RNZ subedits “pro-Kremlin garbage”. For background see Mediawatch: Further fallout as RNZ takes out the ‘Kremlin garbage’, Evening Report, 18 June 2023. For a senior professional communicator, the RNZ CE set a particularly bad example.
Subsequently, RNZ has undertaken an audit of stories published on its website, so its possible to check out the bias of the sub-edits. It turns out that there is a clear anti-Washington rather than pro-Kremlin sub-editorial line. A number of the stories brought to light – and corrected – relate to Latin America; in addition to stories featuring Ukraine, China, Taiwan, Israel and Ireland. (I have heard it said that the sub-editor in question is not only pro-Kremlin, but also has a disposition towards anti-democratic regimes. I cannot agree; I would assess the sub-editor in question to be an old-fashioned democratic left-winger who, in Cold War times, might once have had some pro-Soviet sympathies.)
Before looking at specific themes of the sub-edits, I present the following quote (8’20”) from Mediawatch, RNZ’s Russiagate, 14 June 2023.
The programme features Hayden Donnell talking to RNZ’s Anna Thomas about the purpose of subediting a “pre-subbed” wired story from an international news agency: “It’s already gone through a pretty robust process at Reuters or AP or wherever you’re sourcing it from. Most of the time it’ll just require an editor formatting it to in-house style, maybe removing some Americanisms, cutting it to length, and plonking it on the website.”
And then: “What can [ie should] you edit with wirecopy? Even if you agree with this person’s edit, the heart of the issue is that you cannot take copy and make substantive changes to its meaning. But you can add context, you can delete sections for length, you can insert relevant local information or quotes. If you cannot make any changes at all, that’s untenable.” [I have sub-edited bits of this second quotation to shorten it, to remove repetition, and to make it more like written rather than spoken language.]
The problem is that even very small additions, deletions and substitutions can subtly alter the meaning of a text. That’s of course a problem here, and it is clear that there has been an intent to steer the meaning in an anti-Washington direction. By way of contrast, disinterested subediting will be like a ‘random walk’ [a statistical concept] meaning that, on average, altered meanings are unbiased. Subeditors who are close to an issue may display unconscious bias, whereas outsourced subeditors (including robotic subeditors) who are distant from the issues in a text may be unbiased but ‘noisy’; such subeditors will on average make more mistakes, and will struggle to appreciate nuance in a text.
While the problem subeditor in question was clearly inserting an anti-Washington bias, his defence may well have been that he [other media stories refer to ‘he’] was correcting a pro-Washington bias in the material he was working on. Certainly, in any Goodies versus Baddies narrative – inherent in war stories – academic or journalist disinterest is largely absent from most stories; these are narrational contexts where a person who is not overtly on one side is too easily characterised as being on the other side. As the question goes: ‘Which side are you on?‘.
Editorial biases are commonly worse than sub-editorial tampering. These in particular involve the decision whether or not to run a story. While these are often dictated by the fast-moving news cycle – meaning that stories about Covid19, for example, were biased towards the beginning of that pandemic, and created an ‘exceptionalism’ towards that disease at the expense of contextual discussion and other health risks – they also reflect self-censorship (partly but not only because of the fear of the wrath of authorities or other power-brokers).
Another form of bias arises in the need to create headlines which will draw readers to a story; a bias compounded by the fact today that most stories have ‘click-bait’ headlines (hyperlinks) which are even more sensational and less qualified than the actual headlines to the stories.
Consider this story: Organization of American States head ‘one of worst in history’ – Ebrard. The changes made and then unmade are listed at the end of the story. With respect to former Bolivian president Evo Morales, the mischievous subeditor replaced “resigned under pressure” with “resigned and fled under threat”. Both versions are essentially true, though the original (and restored) version may have understated the danger Morales faced; or perhaps the modified version overstated the danger.
We also see, in that story, the clause “a presidential vote that the OAS said was rigged” was changed (and unchanged) to “a presidential vote that the OAS claimed was rigged”. This leads to the issue of the degree to which some synonyms are more ‘loaded’ or ‘accusative’ than others. (Note here that if the original story had used the word ‘claimed’, there would have been no issue; the question is the motive of the subeditor in making the change.)
A common sort of story takes the form ‘A abuses B’, where ‘to abuse’ means any action that is in some sense ‘bad’. Consider this story, about the November 1975 regime change in Australia (commonly known there as ‘The Dismissal’). The allegation is of Washington involvement in precipitating this particular political crisis.
This is an A abuses B story, where (in this case) ‘A’ is the American CIA, ‘abuses’ means ‘dismisses’, and ‘B’ means ‘the elected government of Australia’. The story at its most disinterested level is [passive voice] that ‘The Government was dismissed’. In the active voice, the most neutral version is that ‘sources said that the Dismissal was instigated by the CIA’. The next level would be ‘sources claimed that the Dismissal was instigated by the CIA’. Up another notch would be ‘The CIA allegedly instigated the Dismissal’, or [passive voice] ‘The CIA was accused of instigating the Dismissal’. Finally, the most overt form is the unqualified ‘The CIA instigated the Dismissal’.
In the various stories we read and hear, many which are in the ‘A abuses B’ form, we will encounter the full linguistic range from neutral (‘something bad happened’) to the presentation of an accusation as a fact. Actually, the way a story is narrated is ‘rhetoric’; and neutral rhetoric can be a way to intentionally downplay something, just as accusative rhetoric upplays that same story.
Back to the Main Narrative
We see this in this RNZ story, Two activists involved in land dispute killed in Brazil: police, in which the restored headline is in the passive voice and the word ‘said’ is only implied. The inappropriately sub-edited version is in the active voice with the abused named without ‘alleged’ as a qualification: ‘Death squad shoots dead two Brazilian land activists’.
This story Chile passes bill to boost taxes on rich, spur investment, small business shows that the subversive RNZ sub-editor is coming from a somewhat conventional left-wing perspective, and not from an autocratic ‘far-right’ Russian perspective. People who are anti-inequality don’t usually regard Russia these days as an exemplar country.
This story for a while contained an inserted and unqualified allegation of a “2014 US-based coup”:Serbia accuses Ukraine and unnamed EU country of Air Serbia bomb hoaxes. It’s an example that shows the anti-Washington stance of the sub-editor. Indeed, articles like these are not the correct place to debate the extent of United States’ involvement (or otherwise) in the regime-change event in Ukraine in February 2014.
In this story we see the explicit anti-Washington subeditorial stance with respect to China over Taiwan, and also the more neutral word ‘says’ preferred by the subeditor over the word ‘worries’ with respect to Japan: South Korea’s president seeks closer Tokyo ties after latest North Korea missile launch. Yet this story’s subediting uses the rhetorical word ‘blunders’ with respect to China, not exactly an endorsement of Beijing.
I would regard Paul Thomson’s use of the rhetorical word ‘garbage’ to be more problematic than the sub-editors’ word ‘blunders’. Garbage is ‘waste’, not ‘lies’. Waste is a reality of life that should be regarded as normatively neutral, not wicked. In ecology and sustainable economics, waste is indeed a ‘good’, not a ‘bad’; an input as well as an output. It is not professional to oppose bad rhetoric with worse rhetoric.
And, I wonder if the mischievous subeditor has a point in interpreting much of the copy that came his way as having its own bias. If the generative AI chatbot ChatGPT was trained only on copy acceptable to today’s western authorities and power-brokers, would the bot’s outputs really be any more truthful than the ‘pro-Kremlin garbage’ that a frustrated socialist RNZ minion was (for a brief while) turning out?
Keith Rankin (keith at rankin dot nz), trained as an economic historian, is a retired lecturer in Economics and Statistics. He lives in Auckland, New Zealand.