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“Preserving independence, integrity, and freedom from bias in the gathering and dissemination of information and news” is the basis of the Thomson Reuters Trust Principles formulated eight decades ago. In 2022, there’s been a discussion of how the agency adheres to them when covering Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

A month into Russia’s open invasion, Politico revealed Reuters staff raising alarms over the company’s partnership with TASS, a Russian state-controlled news agency that routinely disseminates Russian government’s propaganda narratives and disinformation. Within a few days, Reuters announced it would remove TASS from its content marketplace Reuters Connect. 

Still, Reuters continues to cite TASS in its reporting, which, in some cases, causes the agency to affirm Russian propaganda narratives about Russia’s war in Ukraine. We looked at how Reuters cites the Russia-controlled agency and what’s wrong with their wording choices. 

Photo by Olia Nayda on Unsplash

First chapter of the story – TASS on Reuters Connect

Reuters Connect is a content marketplace featuring all of Reuters multimedia content, as well as content from more than 90 media outlets around the world. The main recipients of the subscription-based service are news professionals.

TASS joined Reuters Connect in June 2020. In a press-release, Reuters announced access to “videos on the Kremlin and Russian President, Vladimir Putin, as well as feature videos and general news”. The announcement also included a comment from Sergei Mikhailov, TASS CEO, celebrating international recognition of the agency as a reliable source of information. 

Some Reuters employees had expressed concerns about this cooperation at the time, as Politico later reported. “It was an embarrassment when the partnership was signed two years ago,” one Reuters reporter told Politico

Even in 2020, there were multiple reports pointing at the lack of TASS credibility. TASS is a state agency in a country notorious for its propaganda since the 2014 invasion of Ukraine and even before that. In February 2022, before Russia invaded Ukraine, The Guardian cited a TASS video as an example in the story about Russian propaganda. In 2015, The Washington Post reported that U.S. officials believed TASS worked with Russia’s foreign intelligence service to gather economic information in New York City.

Today, Ukrainian media outlet Detector Media collects and documents real-time chronicles of the Kremlin disinformation about the Russian invasion in #DisinfoChronicle – from TASS and other Russian publishers. The latest TASS fake is calling Frédéric Leclerc-Imhoff a “mercenary and intermediary in the supply of weapons to the Ukrainian Armed Forces”. Leclerc-Imhoff was a journalist for French TV channel BFMTV. He was killed by Russians on May 30th during the shelling of an evacuation column of civilians from the city of Severodonetsk.

After Russia’s full-scale invasion, it took almost a month – and a story by Politico – to remove TASS from Reuters Connect. (Getty Images ended its cooperation with TASS several weeks earlier, in the beginning of March).

In the comment for Politico at the time, Reuters emphasised that “[a]ll third party content [on Reuters Connect] is clearly labelled and carries a disclaimer that states that Reuters ‘does not guarantee the accuracy of, or endorse any views or opinions expressed in, this asset.’” Yet it removed TASS from the marketplace shortly after Politico’s story had come out.

Reuters continues to use TASS as a source for its reporting 

Despite media outlets like Detector Media reporting in March that Reuters stopped distributing content from TASS, it’s the case only for the Reuters Connect service. Reuters reporters continue citing the Russian state agency.

There are dozens of articles featuring TASS as a source of news published within a month ending June 12th, according to The Fix research of  Reuters publications. While some stories are relatively innocuous, many cover Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Perhaps the most notable case of Reuters citing TASS is the story titled “Russian-controlled Kherson region in Ukraine starts grain exports to Russia” published on May 30th; its initial title was “Pro-Moscow Kherson region starts grain exports to Russia.”

The phrase “pro-Moscow Kherson region” was later fixed (most of Ukraine’s Kherson region has been forcibly occupied by Russia since late February). Still, the story continues to use pro-Russian wording; for example, it describes “grain exports,” which Ukraine and independent experts noted are in fact stolen grain shipments, not exports. 
The story about Kherson caused outcry from other journalists and Ukrainian officials. Oleg Nikolenko, spokesman of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine, called out Reuters not to promote Russia’s propaganda vocabulary on Twitter. He pointed out that the so-called “Military-Civilian Administration” mentioned in the story is actually an occupation administration.

We reached out to Reuters for a comment on their relationship with TASS, particularly its coverage of the Kherson story.  

Reuters is committed to covering Russia and Ukraine in an impartial and reliable way, consistent with the Thomson Reuters Trust Principles. In the normal course of its reporting, Reuters periodically cites external sources, as in the article you cite, which was clearly identified as a report from TASS. Our business-to-business marketplace for news professionals on Reuters Connect contains Reuters News as well as content from over 90 third-party providers. In March 2022, Reuters removed all TASS content from Reuters Connect, and this remains the case,” the company’s spokesperson said.

In addition, The Fix asked Reuters to refer to the vocabulary used by the agency in materials about the war in Ukraine, citing the story about grain shipments from Kherson as an example. The Fix did not receive an answer to this question from Reuters at the time of publication.

The fine line between impartiality and reality distortion

“The [initial] title [of the story about Kherson] clearly normalises the occupation, and can give the impression that somehow the occupation is justified”, says Jan Smoleński, political scientist, lecturer at the University of Warsaw and PhD candidate at the New School for Social Research in New York. “If the region is pro-Moscow, then what’s wrong with it being Russia-controlled? Thereby [this wording is] legitimising fait accompli,” Smoleński adds.

The use of such terms is unfortunate also according to Maciej Myśliwiec, a sociologist, media expert and communication specialist. “If the media talk about the territories occupied by Russia as controlled territories, the word “occupation” will not pass muster. If the media don’t cover the looting of grain and its export to third countries, but only say that the Russians are selling it, the fact that it is grain that is Ukrainian will not enter the public consciousness.”

Among the threats of such a substitution of concepts by Reuters, apart from the rhetoric normalisation of the occupation, Smoleński and Myśliwiec mentioned: 

  • spreading of Moscow narratives by the other media, following Reuters;
  • reality distortion that involves false equivalence, legitimation of aggression, diminished aggressor’s responsibility or its total abolition;
  • offence towards the victims of Russian invasion.

What could be the reason for such wording? Here the experts’ opinions are divided. Myśliwiec is convinced that vocabulary in Kherson’s story is not a manipulation or negligence. He doesn’t dispute that Reuters risked receiving one-sided and pro-Russian content, because TASS definitely covers the reality as the Russian administration would like it to be. 

“It must be borne in mind that Reuters headquarters may not be aware of certain phrases and statements that may be understood very differently regionally. However, Reuters must take this into account if it wants to be perceived credibly in these territories. It cannot fail to provide the full context, as this is an easy basis for manipulation,” explained Myśliwiec.

Smoleński assumes that such editorial policy is conditioned by the will to maintain impartiality. In his opinion, whatever the reason behind the wording in Reuters articles, though, it lines up with the Kremlin’s narrative prepared for the West. In a nutshell, this narrative is: “NATO provoked us, it did not take our security concerns seriously, we are not invading, we just make sure we are not invaded in the future; people do not suffer in the regions under Russian control”.

Smoleński also cited the legal aspect of impartial language. As an example, he took the Bucha massacre, which is frequently called a crime against humanity. Smoleński reminded that crimes against humanity is a specific legal term and unless an investigation demonstrates that it was a crime against humanity, the Bucha massacre cannot be named that way directly. It can be described as an “alleged crime against humanity”. The expert is convinced that the word “massacre” is an accurate one.

“The intentions matter less in this case than the effect and the effect is that through such descriptions the image of the Russian invasion is distorted”, stated Smoleński.

The Kherson story hasn’t been the only problematic case 

As of June 13th, there are 10 articles about Ukraine on reuters.com containing the words “stolen grain”. Only in four cases these words appeared in the title as words from Ukraine representatives. Still, many articles use the words “grain export”.

Reuters articles about Ukraine

Two stories stand out – “Russian-held Ukraine region scheming to sell grain to North America -RIA” and “Moscow-backed Luhansk region in Ukraine to send ‘liberated’ grain to Russia -TASS”

The articles were published more than a week after the Kherson story discussed above, containing the same narrative with Russian sources in the headline. Words “Russian-held” and “Moscow-backed” are used instead of “Russian-occupied” in the titles. In both cases authors use the following explanation further in text: “Ukraine has accused Russia of stealing grain from the territories Moscow occupied since launching what it calls a special military operation in February”. 

The Fix asked Smoleński to explain what’s wrong with the wording “Russian-backed” as an example of another story – “Mariupol official says first cargo ship to depart port in coming days”. This phrase was used only in the lead, presenting the “official” from the side of Mariupol’s occupying forces. 

“‘Russian-backed’ does not describe the situation accurately. It suggests that this is a local administration that is in conflict with Kyiv and that the main conflict is between the locals of Mariupol and Kyiv. And we all know this is not the case: Russia invaded Ukraine and occupies parts of its territory. The wording of the article should reflect it and it does not,” said Smoleński.

The same wording is used in the story about grain citing RIA. According to the article, Vladimir Rogov, who was put by the Russian forces as an administrator of the occupied territories in Zaporizhzhya region, is a ”member of the administration in the southeastern Zaporizhzhya region of Ukraine”. This example could be viewed as analogous to the one Smoleński explained above, but Rogov isn’t even labelled by the author as “Russian-backed”. Rogov can be misunderstood for being an Ukrainian official based on the article.

Rogov’s Telegram channel
Screenshot of Rogov’s Telegram channel with Russian swastika

As of June 13th, Reuters used “Russian military-civilian administration” instead of “Russian-occupation administration” on June 2nd for the last time, but there are many articles containing these words. The closest to the proper definition Reuters wrote in the article on June 8th with the phrase: “The Russian-installed administration in the occupied part of Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhya region…”. Before that Reuters used words “Russian-appointed” , “Russian-backed” in the context of occupied Ukrainian territories administration, often together with “military-civilian administration”.

To avoid spreading Russian propaganda about the war in Ukraine it’s better to use wording defined by Ukrainian institutions and language experts. The Fix asked Reuters for comment about its topic-related vocabulary, which includes “grain exports”, “Military-Civilian Administration” and excludes “Russian-occupied”. We have also asked whether Reuters intends to implement a narrative change on the topic of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in the future. Both questions remained unanswered at the time of publication.

“Most wars “extinguish” and become accepted for public opinion [because of] media narratives, and an agency as large as Reuters cannot afford to be diplomatic and not want to offend Moscow in its coverage. It is important to react to every such incident and eliminate such “diplomatic” descriptions in the media,” Maciej Myśliwiec says.

Photo by Jason Zhang/CC-BY-SA-3.0