By Maria Danilova November 24, 2014
Several years ago, faced with accusations of incompetence and corruption, Ukraine’s central bank announced that it was hiring a leading auditing firm to evaluate its performance in the midst of the 2009 financial crisis. When I contacted a spokesman for the central bank and asked him to disclose how much taxpayers’ money would be spent on the audit, he balked and told me that my question was as preposterous as if he were to ask me for the size of my underwear.
In another telling episode, the press officer of a major transport company in Ukraine initially declined an interview request because she suspected that I had been hired by a top competitor in order to discredit the company. (I eventually won her trust.)
Journalists working in post-Soviet countries face hurdles that Western journalists often do not: government officials are not used to public scrutiny and often refuse to provide even the most basic information to the media, such as labor statistics or comment from the police, let alone sensitive material. (I once spent several days tying to get the Ukrainian Health Ministry to release figures on how much anti-flu medicine it had in stock, to no avail. Another health official refused to answer my question on vaccine provision because she found it “silly,” she told me.) But what makes gathering information harder still is that officials and the broader public often view journalists with great suspicion and distrust.
In many post-Soviet countries, journalism still carries the taint of corruption, given that it was so plainly used as a tool of state propaganda for decades, broadcasting the views of the government rather than attempting to keep the powerful in check. In Russia, that is still largely the case.
When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, journalism in the most of the region rebooted, and in the two decades since, many talented journalists and respected media outlets have emerged. But, in the absence of a strong history and culture of professionalism, some journalists in countries like Ukraine or Russia succumb to corruption and engage in what is referred to as “jeans” journalism, or paid-for journalism, in print, broadcast and online. According to one theory, the term originated in the tumultuous post-Soviet years when a jeans company asked a journalist to cover the launch of its new product for a bribe.
Sometimes, it’s obvious that a story has been paid for. Other times it’s more difficult to discern. An article in a second-rate publication praising a new drug may or may not have been paid for by the pharmaceutical company producing it. A TV story exposing a politician’s sins may or may not be the workings of a political rival who hired a journalist for the task.
Given that officials, business people and members of the public are often reluctant to talk, journalists who want good information have to go to extra lengths. With government officials, sometimes you simply need to make a nuisance of yourself, even to get access to a relatively harmless official statistic. Follow your phone call immediately with a written inquiry. An official record of your request may make the ministry or agency you are trying to reach feel obligated to react.
If you have no luck with the official body, you may have to turn to international agencies or groups working in the particular field you are covering, such as The World Health Organization and the United Nations’ children’s agency UNICEF, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. They may also be able to point you in the direction of government officials who will be more willing to cooperate.
To convince government and non-government sources that you are trustworthy, you may need to employ the art of persuasion creatively. Think ahead of time about how a source’s cooperation might benefit him or her. Perhaps past journalists have gotten the story wrong. You can offer to right the record, explain the story properly, give the official or source the opportunity to respond to critics.
If they agree to talk to you, many officials will demand to see the story before it is published or request to “authorize” an interview transcript as a condition for talking to you. A top government official once threatened to deny me access in the future if I would not allow him to see the transcript in order to “check” some of his quotes. While this is not uncommon in the U.S. among groups or individuals who are not familiar with the media, the practice is so widespread in some post-Soviet countries, that it is wise to lay down your rules in advance. Before the interview even begins, state firmly that you will use the interviewee’s verbatim quotes, but he or she will not be able to see the story until after it runs. It helps if your publication has a policy on the matter to which you can refer.
Watch out for misinformation, whether deliberate or as a result of sloppiness. The weak culture of accountably is not limited to public officials. I once worked on a story about the AIDS epidemic in Ukraine and a push by patient groups to increase government funding of AIDS treatment. One vocal advocacy group sent me figures illustrating that the government was spending too little on HIV/AIDS. But their numbers did not add up. Even if an organization seems reputable, double-check.
All of these extra steps mean extra work, and extra frustration, for journalists who want to get the facts. But it also means each story has the potential to have a greater impact, and that brings extra satisfaction, too. There are so many stories to tell and so many opportunities to set the record straight.
This entry was posted on Monday, November 24th, 2014 at 3:12 pm. It is filed under On the Beat and tagged with European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, International Monetary Fund, Soviet Union, Ukraine, UNICEF, World Bank, World Health Organization. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.
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