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Reuters' Deeply Biased Coverage of Armenian Elections

An Analysis of 18 reports by Lawrence Sheets from Yerevan 

by Hratch Tchilingirian


Reuters' journalistic objectivity and reputation have become
questionable in the wake of its deeply biased coverage of the recent
presidential elections in Armenia.

Content analysis of reports filed by its reporter, Lawrence Sheets,
reveals a pattern of systematic bias and excessive subjectivity.

Mr. Sheets's 18 reports from Yerevan, between March 12 and March 31,
clearly indicate a consistent pattern of bias and suspicious personal
agenda in four areas: 1) unequal description of the two front-runners;
2) exclusion of non-OSCE observer statements and evaluations; 3)
patronizing attitude toward Armenia; 4) excessive use of unnamed
sources.

These four themes formulate Sheets' reporting "template." Starting on
March 13, he simply reorders the paragraphs of his previous reports,
deletes and adds some adjectives, and sprinkles some quotations to
give them a "fresh look." But his deeply biased "template" is the same
in all 18 reports.


1.  Describition of presidential candidates Robert Kocharyan and Karen
Demirchian

In all his reports during the above mentioned period, Sheets
consistently uses negative and politically subjective terms
("nationalist," "hardliner," "nationalist hardliner," uncompromising")
to describe Robert Kocharyan, while he uses neutral adjectives
("Tall," "charismatic," "slicked-back hair," "ex-Communist") to
describe Karen Demirchyan.


2. International Observers

In his reports filed between March 16 and 30, Sheets consistently
refers to the statements of the OSCE monitoring group but never
mentions what other international observers said about the elections,
for example, the Council of Europe and the CIS Interparliamentary
group. He persistently quotes and reports only the controversial
statements made by the OSCE. By March 27, Sheets does not even bother
to put the words of OSCE Ambassador Brown's words, "deeply flawed," in
quotation marks. On March 19, Sheets writes, "Sam Brown, the chief
OSCE observer, emphasised that the irregularities were not serious
enough to have changed the general outcome." However, in all
subsequent reports, Sheets never makes references to these "not
serious enough" irregularities and continues to harp on his favorite
"deeply flawed" expression.

Moreover, Sheets attributes OSCE's observations to ALL the other
international observers. For example: "Foreign observes said the vote
was deeply flawed" (March 30 and 27), "Monitors said [the polls were]
badly flawed" (March 30).

Even after OSCE's statements were criticized by the Armenian
government, foreign diplomats, monitors and reporters, Sheets sticks
to his alarmist reporting. Virtually all news agencies quickly picked
up the controversy surrounding the OSCE statement, but not Sheets. For
example, RFE/RL's Liz Fuller wrote: "The Armenian leadership's
reaction to the OSCE evaluation is ... not unfounded: the contrast
between the explicit criticism of the 16 March vote in Armenia and the
deafening silence with which the international community responded to
widespread egregious violations during the 1995 parliamentary
elections in Azerbaijan suggests to many observers that the West's
primary criterion for assessing the relative fairness of elections in
the Transcaucasus is oil" (RFE/RL Caucasus Report, 31 March 1998).

In his reports, Sheets comes across as a self-appointed "political
police," who is confident, long before the elections started, that
Armenia is doomed, "even if the vote is relatively clean" (March 22).
On March 30, Sheets, once again, fails to mention Council of Europe
monitoring delegation head Lord Russell-Johnston's statement on
Armenian television or the statement of the British Helsinki Human
Rights Group and other international observers, and instead he writes:
"Foreign observers said it was too early to pass judgement on the
vote;"


3. Sheets patronizing attitude toward the Republic of Armenia

Throughout his reports, Sheets describes Armenia as a "poor," "famine
loomed," "economically ruined" country without providing qualifications
or reasonable comparisons. Sheets's portrayal of Armenia as a backward
country and as the bad boy of the neighborhood is more indicative of
his ignorance of Armenia and the region as a whole than what the
reality has been in the last six years. Can one mention a country or
area in the Transcaucasus -- including the population of Azerbaijan --
which is not poor and economically not ruined?


4. Sheets excessive use of unnamed sources

Sheets excessive use of unnamed sources, who only make negative
comments, makes one question whether these are indeed made by "Western
diplomats," "political observers," "foreign observers," or are
Sheets's own editorial comments put in quotation marks. Virtually all
his "sources" appear to support his deep bias in the above mentioned
three areas. For example, he writes: "Some political observers have
said that a close result could lead to a political crisis" (March 28);
"Diplomats say the poor but strategic country is risking international
isolation," yet adds in the same report, "foreign aid continues to
pour into Armenia" (March 22).

Sheets's selective and strategic use of information and exclusion of
what he does not like to hear makes the reader wonder whether Reuters
is not influenced by, as Sheets writes, [the] "30 billion in contracts
foreign companies have signed to invest in Azerbaijan's offshore
Caspian oil fields" (March 12). If this is not the case, perhaps,
Reuters editors should more carefully scrutinize their correspondents'
reports and make sure that information about Armenia and the region in
general is unbiased, balanced and objective.


Here is a chronological list of Lawrence Sheets's descriptions:

-- Sheets's description of Robert Kocharian:

"Nationalist hardliner" March 31; "Leads resistance to compromise with
Azerbaijan" March 30; "Hardliner in the continuing dispute" March 30,
29, 28, 27; "Kocharyan made a frenzied campaign blitz" March 29;
"Challenger sees risk of dictatorship" March 29; "His backers and some
Western diplomats applaud his attack on corruption" March 27; However,
by March 29, Sheets no longer uses "Western diplomats" when making
such statements. "Kocharyan seeking a lock on the presidency" March
27; "Kocharyan's government has not done enough" March 28 and 27;
"Made his name as the uncompromising leader" March17.


--Sheets description of Karen Demirchyan

"Tall and charismatic with slicked-back hair" March 31; "Offers a
return to the stability of his Soviet-era rule" March 30; "One late
opinion poll ... gave Demirchyan a lead of 17 percentage point" March
30; "His lightning comeback..." March 30 and 29; "A charismatic
speaker" March 28; "Others giving Demirchyan a lead as big as 17
percentage point" March 28; "[one poll gives Demirchyan a lead of] as
much as 15 percentage point" March 27; "A charismatic public speakers"
March 27; "Tall and charismatic, with slick-backed hair" March 17;
"The front-runner in Armenia's presidential election" March 14; "Tall
and charismatic, has made a lightning political comeback" March 14;
"His polished campaign portrays him as a man of the people" March 14;
"Opinion polls suggest Kocharyan trails Demirchyan" March 13; However,
on March 12, Sheets writes: "Opinion polls in Armenia are considered
suspect." "Tall... with slicked-back hair" March 12;

-- Sheets's references to the elections

"Reported wide spread cheating" March 31; "Tainted by fraud" March 31
"Support [to Armenia] may hinge on a clean election" March 31;"Foreign
monitors said the first round of voting was deeply flawed" March 30;
"Elections were tainted by fraud... which gave... soiled reputation
abroad" March 16; "International observers reported some
irregularities" March 17; "Tarnished by allegations of fraud" March
17' "The charges...seemed certain to thrust the mountainous former
Soviet republic into another political crisis." March 17
"International pressure is mounting on Armenia" March 19; "Observers
said flawed elections" and two paragraphs down "Foreign observers
reported irregularities March 13


-- Sheets's description of Armenia:

 "Poor former Soviet republic" March 29; "Armenia which teetered on
the brink of famine earlier this decade" March 29; "Jeopardy if the
election is not clean" March 29; "Poor but strategic land" March 27;
"Poor but strategic former Soviet republic" March 23; "Armenia, stung
by charges... was badly flawed" March 22; "[The election will] "either
salvage or destroy what is left" March 22; "Most willing to give
[Armenia] a chance to clean up its act" March 22; "A close result will
toss the country into tumult even if the vote is relatively clean"
March 22 "Poor country" March 19; "Turbulent independence has been
scarred by economic ruin" March 17; "The country of four million has
since been beset by economic woes and war" March 14; "When the economy
collapsed and the threat of famine loomed" March 13.


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Hratch Tchilingirian is a researcher in sociology, London School of
Economics and Political Science.

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