RNZ investigating series of ‘Kremlin-friendly’ story edits in audit

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One of the 15 online articles that have been the subject of RNZ's audit
One of the 15 online articles that have been the subject of RNZ's audit on coverage of the Russian invasion of Ukraine . . . originally published on 26 May 2022; it was taken down temporarily this week and then republished with balancing comment today. Image: RNZ screenshot APR

RNZ MEDIAWATCH: By Hayden Donnell, RNZ Mediawatch producer

RNZ is investigating how online stories about the war in Ukraine, supplied by an international news agency, were edited to align with the Russian view of events.

A staff member has been stood down while other stories are audited. It has also prompted an external review of RNZ’s online news publishing.

The alarm was raised after a story was published by RNZ on Friday about the escalation of the Russia-Ukraine conflict which contained significant amendments to the original copy by the international wire service Reuters.

The alarm was raised after a story was published by RNZ on Friday about the escalation of the Russia-Ukraine conflict which contained significant amendments to the original copy by the international wire service Reuters.

The original story by its Moscow bureau chief Guy Faulconbridge said:

“The conflict in eastern Ukraine began in 2014 after a pro-Russian president was toppled in Ukraine’s Maidan Revolution and Russia annexed Crimea, with Russian-backed separatist forces fighting Ukraine’s armed forces.”

But when republished on RNZ.co.nz, that passage adopted a more “Kremlin-friendly” framing.

“The conflict in Ukraine began in 2014 after a pro-Russian elected government was toppled during Ukraine’s violent Maidan colour revolution. Russia annexed Crimea after a referendum, as the new pro-Western government suppressed ethnic Russians in eastern and southern Ukraine, sending in its armed forces to the Donbas.”

RNZ's edits to a story about an escalation in the war in Ukraine.
RNZ’s edits to a 9 June 2023 story about an escalation in the war in Ukraine. Image: BusinessDesk/RNZ

‘False account of events’
RNZ’s 4pm news bulletin on Friday said the version published by RNZ “included a false account of events” and RNZ was investigating how the story was “changed to reflect a pro-Russian view”.

RNZ corrected the story online, adding a footnote which said it was “taking the issue extremely seriously.”

The "war talk" Reuters article on 9 June 2023 bylined Guy Faulconbridge that sparked the inquiry
The “war talk” Reuters article on 9 June 2023 bylined Guy Faulconbridge that helped spark the RNZ inquiry. Image: RNZ screenshot APR

Late on Friday, RNZ said an investigation was under way into “the alleged conduct of one employee” who had been “placed on leave while we look into these matters”.

“We are auditing other articles to check whether there are further problems,” the statement said.

RNZ chief executive Paul Thompson said the inappropriate editing of the stories to reflect a pro-Moscow perspective was deeply concerning and would be addressed accordingly.

Other stories in the spotlight
Another RNZ.co.nz story on the destruction of the Nova Kakhovka dam described the 2014 Maidan Revolution as a “coup” — pro-Russian language which did not appear in the original Reuters text.

These stories repeat false claims that Russia’s annexation of Crimea happened after a referendum on the move. The invasion was underway before the vote was held.

“Colour revolution” is sometimes used to describe protest movements backed by foreign powers with the intention of regime change.

Describing the 2014 revolution in those terms or as a “coup” aligns with the official Russian perspectives, but contradicts the Ukrainian view.

The assertion that ethnic Russian citizens were suppressed by the Ukrainian government has also been used by Russia to justify the invasion of Ukraine, but there is scant evidence for his claim. The BBC’s Kyiv correspondent called it “demonstrably false” in 2014.

One of the RNZ disclaimer editorial notes on audited reports
One of the RNZ disclaimer editorial notes on audited reports . . . this one was on the report originally published on 26 May 2022 and republished today with “balanced” quotes. Image: RNZ screenshot APR

An RNZ News footnote now says the story was “edited inappropriately and has been corrected” and “we are investigating.”

Other Reuters stories on rnz.co.nz with similar editorial alterations came to light on Friday. RNZ added footnotes explaining they had been “edited inappropriately and had been corrected.”

One about the first large-scale air strikes in nearly two months had said “Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine claiming that a US-backed coup in 2014 with the help of neo-Nazis had created a threat to its borders — and had ignited a civil war that saw Russian-speaking minorities persecuted.”

That example was from late-April — and it is surprising no-one noticed the inflammatory additions to it until Friday’s revelations prompted a look-back.

RNZ confirmed late on Friday night “the alleged conduct of one employee” was under investigation. Mediawatch understands this is a member of RNZ’s digital team.

The statement said the staffer had been “placed on leave while we look into these matters – and audit other articles to check for further problems”.

In a further statement in Saturday evening, RNZ said 15 inappropriately edited stories had been identified and corrected so far.

Chief executive Paul Thompson said an external review of RNZ’s online news publishing processes would now be carried out by experts “to ensure these are robust”. The results of the review would be made public, he said.

Outside sources
Reuters is aware of the issue but has not responded to a request for comment.

An online user in the US who noted “Russian propaganda . . . on the Reuters wire today under the byline of its Moscow bureau chief” said a Reuters representative told them language appearing on RNZ’s site “was not written by Reuters or Guy Faulconbridge.”

Reuters’ website terms and conditions warns: “You may not remove, alter, forward, scrape, frame, in-line link, copy, sell, distribute, retransmit, create derivative works . . . without our prior written consent.”

Mediawatch also asked RNZ if it was permitted to alter copy supplied by Reuters.

“There will be no comment until that investigation is completed and any appropriate action taken,” RNZ replied.

International news agencies such as Reuters supply news on a commercial basis to clients.

The terms of agreements with media organisations vary, but commonly allow media customers to edit text for length and to permit the addition of relevant details specific to the territory in question.

Significant changes not permitted
Passages of text can usually be included in or added to stories published by client media companies, but significant editorial changes are generally not permitted where the published story is attributed to the agency.

RNZ’s editorial policy contains a section on material from “external sources” but doesn’t specify news agency suppliers.

“Staff may not ‘lift’ material from other news organisations with which we have no supply contract without independently authenticating the information before use,” it says.

“We should be aware of the dangers involved, particularly if the material is controversial.”

RNZ’s editorial policies also say audiences “should not be able to detect a presenter or journalist’s personal views”

“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.”

This article is republished under a community partnership agreement with RNZ.

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