Media ethics slip, politicians stumble

The weeks before Midsummer have seen some of Latvia’s journalists—as well as some of the politicians covered by them—lapse into a spate of silliness and stupidity. About the only thing to emerge from the mess is the sense that when it comes to ethics, these journalists and politicians have much to learn.

Earlier this month, popular television journalists Jānis Domburs and Iveta Elksne came under fire by the daily newspaper Diena for having participated in training sessions where company officials are taught how to deal with the media.

Domburs, who leads the public affairs show Kas notiek Latvijā?, and Elksne, a presenter for Latvian State Television’s 100.pants, were blasted in a June 11 commentary by Guntis Bojārs, head of the investigative team at Diena. Under a headline that compared them to dolls that can be bought, Bojārs wrote that the pair had stepped over an ethical line, damaging their credibility. How can they train the same people they might have to interview about issues of the day?

It’s a fair question. But I doubt that Domburs or Elksne gave away any secrets, because journalism really doesn’t have any. Training sessions such as the ones in which Domburs and Elksne participated usually are focused on letting officials understand what kinds of questions journalists ask and how to be prepared to respond to them. A common message is not to try to hide the truth, because it will eventually come out anyway. As Domburs himself wrote in a response published in Neatkarīgā Rīta Avīze, his participation in these training sessions may actually help officials who are reluctant to speak publicly.

Perhaps it was improper for Domburs and Elksne to participate in the sessions. But it was just as silly for Diena to scramble to the ethical high ground. I, for one, was shocked to see Pauls Raudseps, editorial page editor for Diena, take the stage during November’s “umbrella revolution” demonstration in the Dome Square. Yes, the paper had supported the protest movement, but it’s quite a different thing for a journalist to take an active role in a protest. That, too, is crossing a line that may damage a journalist’s credibility. Pot, meet kettle.

Another silly and verging on stupid thing was done by Interior Minister Mareks Segliņš. He was angered by journalist Baiba Rulle’s story in Diena suggesting that a theft of funds from the Corruption Prevention and Combating Bureau (Korupcijas novēršanas un apkarošanas birojs) may have been orchestrated by the People’s Party (Tautas partija), to which Segliņš belongs. The government is now investigating the head of the bureau. Segliņš’ response was to send a threatening text message to Rulle, an action that of course turned into front page news the next day.

Now comes the really stupid thing. Oskars Kastēns, the special assignments minister for social integration affairs, has got himself into hot water with his party—and no doubt his wife. On June 19, Diena published the results of a two-month investigation into rumors that the minister’s behavior isn’t always in line with the “family values” espoused by the conservative First Party of Latvia (Latvijas Pirmā partija), to which he belongs. Young journalist Aleksandra Jolkina exchanged romantic text messages with Kastēns, they met in person, his hands wandered… Gotcha! The newspaper and Kastēns—a former journalist—don’t disagree about what happened, but the minister maintains he was just playing along to see how far Jolkina would go. I’m sure that reasoning went over real well with Mrs. Kastēns.

Whether Kastēns was really just testing the journalist or whether he was thinking with his dumb stick is immaterial. It doesn’t look good for the minister. If nothing else, as a married man and as a well-known politician, he should have known better than to respond to the romantic advances, real or not. Hey, maybe that’s something Domburs and Elksne can teach at their next media training seminar.

Diena is taking its share of hits on the Kastēns story—as well it should. The journalistic method employed to get the story was stupid. Rival NRA and others in the media have questioned the paper’s ethics, arguing that what Diena did was not investigative reporting, but tabloid journalism. A couple of commentators even compared it to prostitution. Europeans generally are more mature than Americans when it comes to the private lives of their public officials, but it seems Diena had it in for Kastēns. Some critics say the impetus for the story was Kastēns’ reluctance to appear at the May 31 “March for Equality” in support of Latvia’s sexual minorities, even though his secretariat is devoted to the integration of all members of society.

Kārlis Streips, blogging on, defended the newspaper’s investigation by comparing its newsgathering method to the famous 1977 Chicago Sun-Times sting operation led by reporter Pamela Zekman. The newspaper set up a bar called the Mirage to entrap city inspectors willing to take bribes in return for turning a blind eye to problems in the tavern. Streips’ comparison is weak. Zekman and company uncovered systemic problems in Chicago’s political machine and exposed criminal activity. Kastēns did nothing illegal. And the legend of the Sun-Times investigation, now a classic in journalism textbooks, endures as much for its innovative reporting as for the ethical questions it raises about the use of deception in gathering information.

If Streips and Diena want to point to Western journalistic practice for support, they might consider the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics. The code states, in part, “Avoid undercover or other surreptitious methods of gathering information except when traditional open methods will not yield information vital to the public. Use of such methods should be explained as part of the story.” Jolkina’s story falls far short of this principle. With perseverence, she could have gotten the story using open methods. While her story explains how she went about baiting the trap for Kastēns, it does not explain why this method was necessary. Whether the story was vital to the public also is debatable.

At the same time, it is silly and ironic that the paper’s main rival, NRA, has been among the most vocal in pointing out the ethical shortcomings over at Diena. Along with its parent company, Mediju nams, Neatkarīgā Rīta Avīze is not exactly known for taking the ethical high road. For one, their frequent homophobic attacks against the openly gay Streips and others go against the Code of Ethics of the Latvian Journalists Union, now headed by NRA commentator Juris Paiders. The code states in part that journalists should respect a person’s private life, nationality, way of thinking and religious conviction.

For another: three days before the Kastēns scandal broke, Mediju nams announced that Elita Veidemane has been named assistant editor of NRA. Veidemane established her legend during the late 1980s as editor of the pro-independence Atmoda. But since 2007 until getting her new job this month, she served as editor-in-chief of NRA’s sister publication, Vakara Ziņas—the best-known example of tabloid journalism in Latvia today.

Andris Straumanis is a special correspondent for and a co-founder of Latvians Online. From 2000–2012 he was editor of the website.

3 thoughts on “Media ethics slip, politicians stumble

  1. Andri, I’m not sure I agree with your reaction to Raudseps’ participation in the umbrella revolution. I don’t think that being a journalist requires one to keep silent and not be politically active. I think it also makes a difference that he is responsible for the editorial page – if that phrase means what it suggests, that’s the opinionated part of the paper anyway! I think it would be more questionable for someone to report and not reveal bias, but even there the ethics can be a bit fuzzy. I am pro-choice; may I be assigned to cover a pro-life rally? Do I have to first reveal my beliefs? May I cover the rally if I’m pro-choice but keep it to myself vs. having signed a petition vs. having protested vs. leading a protest? Where should the objectivity line be drawn? No person, no journalist, is without bias… I’d think the question is whether what the person writes is presented as news or opinion, or whether the coverage is reasonably objective despite the journalist’s strong opinions one way or another.

  2. andri, i dont agree with your reaction to Raudseps either. If he’s on the op-ed page then his job is to write opinion pieces, no? he takes positions and opinion is then hopefully removed from news, so whats wrong with him taking a position in print and then making a statement of that opinion later? i agree with the rest of your analysis, and will disagree with anita here, and say that I dont think people working on the news side, as opposed to the opinion side, have any businesses being active participants in a story, the job should be to report not to participate.

  3. Anita and Miķeli, I wasn’t really taking aim at Pauls Raudseps, but at the question of what is ethical for a journalist. In his criticism of Jānis Domburs and Iveta Elksne, Diena investigative reporter Guntis Bojārs wrote of them stepping over the line: “Būtība ir tajā, ka abi ir pārkāpuši robežu, kuru augstas klases žurnālisti pārkāpt nedrīkst. Un robeža ir uzticamība, ka žurnālists nav nekādā mērā savtīgi saistīts ar cilvēkiem, kurus viņš intervē, par kuriem viņš raksta.” (“The point is that both have stepped over a line that high-class journalists should not step over. That line is credibility, that a journalist is in no way selfishly tied to the people who they interview, about whom they write.”) Credibility in journalism is arrived at by professionalism and ethical practices. For me, it does not matter that it was Raudseps speaking during the umbrella revolution, but that it was a journalist doing so. That a staff member of Diena spoke during the demonstration is, in my book, also damaging to journalistic credibility. I do not and cannot separate news reporters from those staff members who write commentary. They are all journalists and should be held to the same standard. The New York Times, for example, sets a high bar. Its ethics policy clearly states that “[j]ournalists do not take part in politics” and that “[s]taff members may not march or rally in support of public causes or movements or sign advertisements or petitions taking a position on public issues.” The same policy also frowns on journalists counseling individuals or organizations on how to deal with the media. I certainly do not want to suggest that the New York Times policy is applicable to the unique conditions of Latvia, but as journalists in Latvia continue to debate their professional ethics, the Times policy may be worth a look.

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