Mérték Media Ombudsman – The media echo of the NGO law amendment

On 13 June 2017 the National Assembly adopted the Act on the Transparency of Organisations Receiving Foreign Funds. Our analysis seeks to examine whether the online media were helpful in understanding the issue, whether their coverage of the subject served to inform the public and provided a basis for the formation of sound opinions about it. This analysis is the also the first segment of our new monthly Mérték Ombudsman series.

With the support of the Google Digital News, Mérték Media Monitor strives to foster the emergence of an online media environment that promotes critical thinking and a desire for objectivity on the part of both media consumers and newspapers. One aspect of this project is the creation of a media ombudsman-type platform that publishes critical analyses on the online media’s coverage of certain events, on the reports and editorial contents concerning the given event. Each of the individual instalments in the series will take a detailed look at the way in which the online media present a current issue.

 The goal of the analysis

The primary goal of this analysis is to approach media outlets – and through them the topics addressed – from the perspective of the reader; to offer an insight into the question of how individual media portals – individually and all together – help readers become informed on the given topic and in developing a many-sided and realistic impression of the issue. This also implies that a decisive consideration in compiling this analysis was to keep an eye out for criteria that define quality information and quality journalism. Since these criteria are closely intertwined with the set of expectations that have previously emerged in the context of traditional journalism, at some points in our analysis a comparison of classic and online media will become inevitable. The accelerated pace of journalism, the permanent news competition, the changed technological setting, the time pressure on journalists, and the budgetary constraints facing newsrooms are all factors that impact not only the way media outlets operate but also the consumption patterns of their readers/audiences. Nevertheless, the function of the press in the lives of its readers continues to be one of helping the latter find orientation, and hence it would be unfortunate if we were to abdicate the expectations concerning quality information and opinion journalism.

The analyses we plan to publish in the coming months will be authored by different journalists, while Mérték coordinates the series. The authors will each evaluate the coverage in the given period based on their own professional experience. The series will provide us with the opportunity to conduct professional debates on the role and state of journalism today, as well as its quality. We welcome feedback on our analyses.

The first analysis was written by Éva Varga, a journalist and communications expert.

 A news item in June

On 3 June the National Assembly voted by a count of 130 in favour, 44 opposed and 24 abstentions to adopt the bill on the Transparency of Organisations Receiving Foreign Funds. This law provides that within 15 days of its entry into effect, the associations and foundations subject to its scope must register with the courts as organisations that receive foreign funds. The president of the republic, János Áder, signed the bill on 16 June 2017. Our first analysis examined the coverage of this issue between 13 June and 17 June by the online newspapers 24.hu, 444.hu, 888.hu, alfahir.hu, atlatszo.hu, hvg.hu, index.hu, mno.hu and origo.hu.

“Armchair” journalism

One of the most important conclusions of our first analysis is that the media outlets in question are far more focused on disseminating contents generated by searching, selecting, and editing existing news items than on journalism that analyses and interprets the background of events, and researches its own independent sources. The staff of online news outlets primarily work with official statements and the texts published by other media rather than researching important facts and evidence themselves. Indeed, often it is not even clear whether a journalist followed a press conference live or just passed on second hand information to its readers about what had transpired or what was said there.

A major exception to the above is hvg.hu. On the one hand, its articles often include references indicating that the journalist was present at the event discussed, while at the same time it is also the only news outlet that directly asked the representatives of several affected NGOS to comment. Third, it was also the news portal that not only published information but also opinion pieces – that is opinions that were clearly marked as such – by Árpád W. Tóta, László Seres, and Gáspár Miklós Tamás, each of whom approached the NGO law from a different angle, highlighting aspects that they deemed problematic.

Nevertheless, several news portals published pieces that involved individual journalistic work, or at least impressions suggesting that the journalist had done their own research.

24.hu took the most varied approach to cover the issue. Its articles kept the item on the news agenda by the most diverse means, including the grotesque approach (“We present the Fidesz concentrate – You ought to try it as well!” – 13 June 2017), the only mention in any of the media of the pro-NGO Civilisation campaign, all the way to a report on a public event organised by the renowned conductor Ádám Fischer. It was also the outlet that offered the broadest coverage of related items published in the international press.

888.hu published an op-ed by Zoltán Lomnici Jr., who took a position that was diametrically opposed to the authors of the opinion pieces published on hvg.hu, but also relied on an individual journalistic approach.

Index.hu published a long interview with Stefánia Kapronczay, the managing director of the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (TASZ) (TASZ will launch a civil disobedience campaign in response to the NGO law – 13 June 2017), which provided a clear and detailed view of the position of TASZ and other affected civic organisations.

The articles we reviewed were more likely to contain claims rather than substantiated and verified statements of fact, and items that sought to dig deeper into the issue and to investigate the background were rare. Although the writings published on 24.hu, hvg.hu, and index.hu sought to convey information beyond the mere retelling of events and statements, on some sites only the first articles – if any at all – on the subject included background information or references to relevant prior developments. Nevertheless, the articles on recent announcements/statements or events are complemented by hyperlinks and tags pointing to earlier writings on the issue, which allows the reader to easily access related content, information, articles, and other materials. Additionally, hvg.hu and index.hu also highlight their previous coverage on the issue below the most recent article, under the heading “Files” on index.hu and in the form of a straight listing on hvg.hu.

Just as it was difficult to find actual facts presented in the relevant context in the articles examined, there was also very little genuine debate and reasoning – and the latter fact owes partially to the former. As already pointed out above, opinion-type pieces were rather rare, there were three op-eds on the topic in this period on hvg.hu (Árpád W. Tóta, László Seres, Gáspár Miklós Tamás), and one each on 24.hu (Péter Zsolt), 888.hu (Zoltán Lomnici Jr.), and mno.hu (Albert Gazda).

 Opinions as facts

Another important insight of this analysis is that with a few exceptions, it was impossible to tell facts apart from opinion not only on a given news portal, but even within individual articles. While in the classic print press the various journalistic genres evolved over centuries with their own individual rules and professional principles, internet journalism broke almost completely with these conventions and – owing among other things to the form of presentation and the tools offered by the internet – now exhibits a mix of these genres. This is simultaneously an opportunity and a source of uncertainty for the information of readers.

The word choice in the relevant articles often modifies even the meanings of “hard” facts, it interprets them subjectively or imbues them with passion. The most extreme in this respect is 888.hu, where every article gives a clear indication of the online newspaper’s editorial stance through the use of designated words and expressions, e.g. “let the frenzy begin”; “Europe’s favourite/bought/leashed fake NGOs”; “a platform for the Idiots of 2018”; “their puny little protests”; “the Helsinki Committee, which furiously clings to its role as an independent civil rights organisation”, “the sodden Hungarian opposition” – this is incidentally also the portal that consistently writes George Soros’s name in the order as it is written in English rather than in the Hungarian way, where the last name comes first; this serves to continuously emphasise Soros’s alleged un-Hungarianness. The word choices on the other websites are relatively restrained, even though a very similar vocabulary prevails on the pro-government outlets on the one hand (Soros Network, fake NGOs, non-transparent civic organisations, etc.), and on the critical outlets on the other (stigmatised civic organisations, scandalous NGO law, stigmatising law, harassment of NGOs, domestic enemy creation, etc.).

Typically, only the first reports of these media outlets on the passage of the parliamentary bill offered any clues as to whether the given item conveys facts substantiated by evidence/ verifiable factual claims, and information uncovered by their own investigation/research or just the journalist’s own reflection, ideas, and opinions. But already these first items include controversial and/or contradictory elements: claims that the bill was based on an American, or the opposite, Russian-Chinese-Israeli model; pro or contra claims regarding the existence of a Soros Network that threatens Hungary and funds the affected NGOs; whether the law ensures transparency or, on the contrary, only serves the purpose of stigmatising and silencing critical opinions, etc. If a reader only read one news outlet with one political perspective, then she would find it difficult not to view their version of the events as the (f)actual version, even as reading all of the conflicting viewpoints renders obvious the differences in perspectives and the differences between facts and opinions.

The news portals we examined devoted almost no space whatsoever to juxtaposing differing opinions concerning the adoption of the NGO law. The various individual viewpoints are not compared and contrasted, there is no effort to connect the ideas of authors and writings that appear on the various websites. Instead of presenting arguments and evidence, along with reasoned opinions, passions and personal attacks on those who represent an opposing viewpoint tend to prevail, while the given media outlet will present its own stance as the only acceptable position. It appears that the writings published in the media investigated in this period are only of limited help in promoting a form of social dialogue on the subject that allows for comparing and contrasting alternative viewpoints.

The full analysis (in Hungarian) is available on Mérték’s website.