by Darja Zajícová 12 June 2000 The following is a revised version of a dissertation presented in spring 1999 at the School of Humanities, Anglo-American College, Prague, Czech Republic. It will be published in full in the forthcoming Faculty and Student Journal of the Anglo-American College.
All over the world advances in the field of mass media have reached unprecedented proportions, thanks to information technology and the ever increasing level of consumerism. The area of marketing has undergone a similar degree of development. The analysis of the mass media's techniques has become an individual field of study which encompasses aspects of sociology, psychology and other cultural sciences. Today's journalists do not want to just inform. They want to know what their readers like to read, what they like to hear, what they are interested in, what information they appreciate the most, what they are most willing to pay for and so on.
Thanks to such more involved research, today's news reports do not emerge only as a result of what has happened but also take into account what the consumer wants. Above all, reporting is subject to several outside pressures, mainly in the area of advertising. Thus it is difficult to imagine how the mass media, particularly television, could remain immune to political influence.
Probably one of the key problems of professional reporting in the Czech Republic is a lack of educated staff involved in the process of creating news reports. During his time as director of the newsroom at Czech Television, Ivan Kytka claimed that apart from those who could be considered technical staff (cameramen, directors and production assistants), the management and the members of the news team, no one had been professionally trained in creating film and video reports.
Perhaps unconsciously many employees seemed to consider such technical details as secondary. For them, the visuals seemed to be something that needlessly complicated their work. The absence of an overall visual concept is clear from the quality of the daily broadcasts Czech TV news, for example.
The majority of Czech journalists have completed a university education at the Faculty of Social Sciences at Charles University in Prague. It is interesting then to look at the methods used when educating a future journalist.
Michaela Klevisová, a current student of he above mentioned faculty claims that the professors do not really teach what investigative journalism should look like. They want us to know perfectly the style, format and grammatical composition of the Czech language. But they do not stress the importance of an analytical approach and do not teach us how we should seek alternative sources that would help us compare problems. And she adds: I cannot do more than interpret what somebody said in a perfect format, and I have been a student there for three years already.
Such a state of university education is striking when considering the rapid changes occurring on the international as well as domestic political scene.
Correspondingly, there is a very clear lack of professionalism on the side of journalists, which is illustrated on one level by the fact that many of them surprisingly use the familiar Czech form ty (you) with the leaders of political parties. Journalists provide a service to the party and they expect something in return in the future.
Czech politicians have grown accustomed to taking advantage of the weak and inexperienced news and current affairs team at Czech TV as an instrument for the dissemination of their views and pronouncements. Often when preparing a debate program, the journalist contacts the spokesman of a particular politician and is instructed as to what questions he is allowed to ask and what areas are forbidden to approach.
For example, when former host of Radio Alfa Monika Kozáková interviewed then Prime Minister Václav Klaus on a regular debate program, she dared to ask him some unpleasant questions. Klaus clearly displayed with wild gestures that he would under no circumstances answer them.
When this debate program was over, Prime Minister Klaus shouted at Ms Kozáková, claiming that they had strictly agreed on topics that were to be discussed and those that were to be avoided. Similar situations occur in the preparation of debate programs at Czech TV, and in general the process of creating reports remains unchallenged and unanalyzed to this day.
In his published memoirs, Ota Černý, who was the anchorman of Czech TV's discussion program Debata for seven years, includes numerous examples of pressure applied by politicians with regard to the format of programs on which they were supposed to appear. Černý has even included a direct quote from Václav Klaus's former press secretary: Ota don't be silly, or Klaus will not come.
Czech journalists still tend to succumb to these sorts of pressures, because they are afraid of repercussions or potential problems from the side of their employers or simply to avoid problems in their future career. As mentioned before, many journalists consider their current profession as a stepping stone on the way to a future political career.
The status of journalists is still perceived as very low among the Czech public and journalists themselves. This feeling seems to be partly the result of the self-perception of journalists and their attitude toward their profession. Talented journalists often end up as spokesmen for either a political party or a financial institution (which is the case of Barbora Tachecí, for example, today's spokeswoman for IPB Bank).
The above mentioned factors of political influence support the complete unwillingness of political leaders to accept any sort of criticism. Whenever strong criticism has appeared in the Czech media, political leaders have immediately reacted by saying that journalists destabilize the Czech political scene and it is them who support the 'bad mood' of the Czech nation, who illustrate the post-November development as a continuous chain of governmental mistakes.[Petr Fiala, František Mikš, Úvahy o České politické krizi, p 24]
Overall, it seems that Czech journalists have still not separated themselves from politics, which was characteristic of their profession under the Communist regime. It is difficult to speak of any sort of political independence of Czech journalists.
Nevertheless, it would be too general to say that since the November revolution of 1989 no journalist has tried to get below the surface of problems with the aim of finding their root causes. For example, Josef Klíma, a reporter for the TV Nova program Na vlastní oči, began practicing a real investigative examination of problems. He spent days and nights in his car in front of the houses of alleged Mafia bosses; he tried to break into the underground world; and also tried to disclose the methods of corruption of the Czech bureaucracy. After some time, however, he started receiving anonymous phone calls threatening him and his family if he did not give up his investigative activities.
Similarly, my father Petr Hájek soon after he founded the Reflex weekly in 1990, with the aim of becoming a real analytical magazine providing insight into various aspects of daily life, and became a more public person received anonymous phone calls in the middle of the night informing him that there was a bomb placed in his flat.
It is no wonder then that journalists soon succumb to these sorts of pressures and rather withdraw from the scene. In this case, fear becomes the main obstacle to objective and independent investigative journalism. Journalists soon return to the uniform and neutral style of reporting, which is something all TV channels and newspapers except the tabloid press have in common.
In fact, the news on the covers of the various dailies hardly ever differs considerably from one to the other. This stems from the attitude of the owners as well as that of the journalists. They are both afraid of taking risks when changing the format of the newspapers. Another factor contributing to this situation is a complete dependence of journalists on very limited sources. The Czech Press Agency ČTK and Reuters are pretty much the only sources of news for all Czech newspapers and TV channels. It is hardly surprising then that the news coverage is so similar in the mass media.
From the horse's mouth
To gain a better understanding of the position of Czech journalists, their perception of reality and themselves, it may be useful to examine excerpts from the personal interviews that were conducted for this article with representatives from the entire spectrum of political parties as well as with representatives of Czech press and television.
In these interviews questions were asked with the aim of finding out the attitude of the Czech mass media toward their role in the state. The questions posed covered the influence of the mass media on public opinion, the ideological independence of the mass media, the objectivity of the information provided, the degree of professionalism in journalists' behavior and the personal opinion as to whether journalists fulfill an investigative role.
Questions posed in interviews with political representatives and journalists
1) Does the mass media influence public opinion?
2) Are you convinced that the mass media are independent from politics?
3) Do you consider the mass media to be an objective source of information?
4) Do Czech journalists behave professionally?
5) Do Czech journalists fulfill their investigative role?
On the whole, the answers demonstrated that political representatives have very similar opinions, but their opinions differ quite dramatically from those of the journalists who, quite surprisingly, agree among themselves about the perception of their own stance and attitudes.
Stanislav Gross, current Interior Minister and at the time of the interview deputy chairman of the ruling Social Democratic Party (ČSSD), answered that the mass media have undoubtedly a large influence on public opinion but it depends on the quality of the journalism as to whether that influence is positive or negative. It is unclear here, whether he understands positive influence as the benefit of his particular party or factual accuracy of news.
Vlastimil Tlustý, a Civic Democratic Party MP gave a very brief and simple answer: They influence public opinion and they do it very strongly. It is commonly known that the chairman of ODS Václav Klaus does not like journalists whom he has blamed for many problems concerning the attitude of the Czech public toward politics. One of Klaus's most famous quotations is: Journalists are the worst enemies of the people. Since Czech political parties are still based around the personality of their respective leaders, his opinion is mostly transmitted to the rest of his supporters.
Vojtěch Filip, leader of the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia's (KSČM) parliamentary caucus, agreed with the previous opinions of his colleagues but stressed the ideological promotion of the then present state of violence between Serbia and Kosovo by the mass media. He gave the example of Serbian TV installing massive TV screens in public places which showed reports of the evils caused by NATO. Furthermore, he expressed worry about the manner in which Czech media did not provide complete information and abused their position of power.
Vladimír Mlynář, Deputy Chairman of the Freedom Union (US), provided very interesting answers, given his previous position as editor-in-chief of the weekly Respekt and position of minister without portfolio in the interim Tošovský government from January to June 1998. Although his previous positions have given him a perspective from both sides, his answer nevertheless tended toward that of the journalists rather than the politicians. He said: Mass media have, of course, a strong impact on public opinion but not as strong and to such an extent as at election time. But in the long-term they have real influence.
But although this may be true in a developed democratic society, it seems to be based on the, somewhat naive, assumption held by the majority of Czech political representatives that the Czech Republic has already achieved such a degree of development that all aspects of everyday life, including the mass media, function as they should in a parliamentary democracy .
No reaction to scandal
Daniela Drtinová, a parliamentary reporter for Czech Television, said in her interview that the mass media in the Czech Republic do not have as strong an influence as in other Western democracies, because people do not react to scandalous reports (particularly those involving bribery and corruption by members of parliament or political parties) through the form of public protests.
She is certainly right that most Czechs do not see the mass media to be the watchmen of democracy, but it is debatable whether, as Drtinová claims, they are seen as something that destabilizes the establishment. Drtinová seems to be convinced that the mass media have stronger influence in any Western state, but one must question this sort of influence. Within the Czech state, with its low level of political education, it is much easier to indoctrinate people, who overall still accept news as unquestionable reality.
The last interviewee was Radek Bartoníček, a Czech journalist from Mladá fronta Dnes daily. His answer was very similar to that of Daniela Drtinová. He agreed with the fact that mass media strongly influence the public but claimed that this influence is not as strong, because a sign of a good journalist, according to Bartoníček, is whether he or she receives feedback from readers in the form of letters, and as he says, a Czech journalist hardly ever receives more than ten letters per year.
This low degree of interest also displays, in Bartoníček's view, a low degree of influence on people. His summery seems to be too simplistic with regard to a true analysis of the influence of mass media. The Czech citizen certainly does not respond actively to what he reads but perhaps a more important question is whether the reader seeks more information to verify the provided fact or simply is too uninterested to bother himself with anything more then his private affairs.
On the subject of the independence of mass media most of the interviewees agreed, interestingly enough, that they really are independent from political influence. Only Vojtěch Filip and Vlastimil Tlustý stressed that the independence of the mass media is an ideal that should be aspired to and that something that there should be an attempt to approach. The fact that the journalists themselves see the media they work in as clearly independent shows even more strongly the low degree of objectivity toward the actual situation in the country and toward the journalistic profession.
This produces the situation most owners of Czech media want to achieve: one in which a journalist thinks he is objective and independent while carrying out what the employer wants him to. This process works on a subconscious level and leads to a contradiction which emerged in some of the interviews. All of interviewees were of the same opinion that there is a real lack of professional journalists, but at the same time, the journalists interviewed defended their complete professionalism.
Thus there seems to be a confusion among Czech journalists about their crucial role in a democratic society. When Daniela Drtinová was asked if she thought that Czech journalists fulfill their investigative role, she answered: They are trying to, but it is often 'made-to-order' investigative journalism. Politicians do not say the truth and do not provide accurate information... In this country a journalist learns only what the politician wants him to know.
This remark clearly displays a lack of knowledge about the journalistic profession. Drtinová seems to be completely ignoring the key task of a journalist: to find and compare as many sources of information as possible, to keep distance from the subject and to be able to analyze from the position of a distant and independent observer.
Oldřich Zajíc, a former parliamentary reporter for the Denní Telegraf, adds: Nobody is instructing journalists to investigate. A problem is cut out of its overall context, and this fragment replaces the whole.
While attempting to find secondary sources for my dissertation I was struck by how little material existed on the topic, indicating that, even ten years after the revolution, Czech political scientists and sociologists have not even begun to truly analyze the situation. The only cases in which the demands of the public and the behavior of the mass media are analyzed seem to be in the inaccessible data collected by marketing and PR agencies.
The voices of the public expressing its opinions on the reliability of information provided in the mass media represent an important aspect that should be looked at. Sofres Factum polling agency conducted research in March and April 1998 on the freedom and accuracy of information in the Czech media.
In this survey, 53 percent of people appreciated the prestige of the Czech journalists, which is higher than trust in the Parliament and the government. The most objective medium was considered to be publicly funded Czech Television (65 percent), with private TV Nova in second place (28 percent).
The fact that Czech Television is seen as the most reliable source of news should encourage the staff an management of this station to aim for a higher calibre of content and education of its journalists. Unfortunately, most insiders claim that nothing of the sort is happening and that after the failed attempts at reform in Spring 1998 of former general director Jakub Puchalský and former director of the newsroom Ivan Kytka, the station is continuing in its established flawed approach to reporting and seeking information.
This archived article originally appeared in Central Europe Review. Click here to be directed to the original issue. 13917-media-demythtified-part-ii