A few days ago the Greek public opinion received a huge shock after the Hellenic Police solved the particularly heinous crime that was hidden behind the disappearance of a 4-year-old girl from Bulgaria, who lived with her mother in Athens, Greece. The Hellenic Police Authority informed the public about the arrest of two Bulgarian citizens living in Greece in connection with the murder of their 4-year-old daughter Anny. At a press conference in Athens the police provided details of the investigation. The perpetrator of the crime is the 27-year-old father of the child. The suspect had earlier confessed to disposing of his daughter, four-year-old Anna Borisova, by cutting up and boiling her body, then throwing the various parts into dustbins. Investigators do not expect to find the victim’s remains. The facts surrounding the gruesome murder were horrific and were not disclosed to the media. Initially, the parents tried to present the disappearance of their daughter as a kidnapping. The murder weapon, however, was found in the home of the father, as well as genetic material proving the death of the victim. After that the father made a full confession to the police.
As expected, all the Greek media dedicated a lot of time to news reports during prime-time news bulletins, much space in newspapers, and updated the continuous news flow on social and online media, covering the heinous crime. Suddenly, there was a surfeit of information and the Greek mass media, especially some TV stations with a large viewership, started bombarding the viewers with details about the crime in their effort to attract audience attention and high ratings. Thus, the TV stations in their struggle to win the battle for ratings started transmitting news reports without crosschecking their validity.
I am referring to a tragicomic incident that took place “on air” of two of the most popular morning TV news programmes of Greek television. A woman called in live, pretending that she was a psychiatrist working for the Greek National Organisation for Combating Drugs (OKANA) and claimed that she was the therapist of the murdered girl’s parents. She started accusing the public services and the district attorney of not paying the necessary attention to her warnings about the dangerous situation the girl had found herself in.
According to the claims of the supposed “psychiatrist”, the little girl’s parents were under her medical supervision (as members of the drug treatment programme of OKANA) and she had repeatedly asked the district attorney to take custody away from the parents. Moreover, she revealed (fake) details from the father’s medical record, suggesting the parents abused their child.
The presenters of the two most popular TV channels in Greece started an agonizing effort to have the exclusive right to the first broadcast of the “latest development” in the story. In a few minutes, the aforementioned accusations were disseminated and the news was rapidly reproduced and broadcast by the majority of the Greek mass, electronic and social media.
What the people-in-charge of the news agenda did not spend effort on was simply to crosscheck the accuracy of the “psychiatrist’s” personal data and the validity of the information provided. If they had done so, they would have lost valuable time and the other channel would have broadcast the “fresh news” first.
Eventually, the “psychiatrist” was proved to be a fake. OKANA announced that this lady was not a member of its medical staff and there was no such case as described. As a result, the woman was arrested, and will be prosecuted for disseminating false news.
The two TV channels that were deceived by the fake psychiatrist, as soon as they realised the trap they had fallen into, rushed to make official announcements. According to these announcements, their reporters had started their assiduous investigation immediately, crosschecking the validity of the information they received. Within the broadcasters’ narratives, it was they who revealed the fake identity of the psychiatrist and the invalidity of the information she had provided. One of the TV stations, Mega Channel, claimed that they had been the first to restore the truth and offered a public apology for transmitting false news.
The incident can be read as a tragicomic comment on the current state of broadcast news. By gaining time and space in the televised windows of that story, the fake news proved in the most comic and, at the same time, tragic way the ease with which Greek television news can be led astray and the superficiality with which it informs its audience. It certainly poses a question about the ‘validity’ of some/a lot of the information that is broadcast on these channels.
I am specially focusing on the kind and quality of information that Greek TV offers its audiences. The confirmation and crosschecking of the pieces of information that come into the newsrooms is the first rule of journalistic deontology. But this rule is often infringed, especially when the television stations put greater emphasis on impressing their audiences with the ‘news’ they broadcast. The case of the heinous and violent murder of the 4-year-old girl by her father was overexploited by a section of prime time television news bulletins, current affairs programmes, newspapers, social and internet media because it is a subject that “sells” and increases the viewer- and readership. This part of the Greek media did not hesitate, at the altar of ratings and circulation figures, to present this fake “psychiatrist” on air who revealed creepy details relating to the little girl’s awful living conditions and the abuse she suffered by her parents.
The commercial competition among the TV networks has alienated the audiovisual field in Greece from its founding principles and has destroyed the basic ethos of professional journalism. The velocity of the news flow, the focus on affect in order to increase ratings, in other words the commercialisation of media enterprises, have an irreversible impact on the depth and quality of the news.
Such painful incidents, as was the case of the little Bulgarian girl’s heinous murder by her own father, which are so highly emotionally charged and affect public opinion in such strong ways, should be treated with caution and sensitivity by all sides involved. Moreover, the reliability and the validity of news sources should be evaluated and crosschecked in order for the mass media to serve their mission as pillars of information in the best way.
The TV stations that were “deceived” concluded their official announcements in a similar way, underlining that in the shadow of the latest developments, their News and Information Administrations expressed their deep sorrow for the fact that a woman tried to manipulate and deceive the TV stations in such a way. They excused the situation as an individual act which, considering the tragic case which was like a punch in the stomach to Greek society, was committed by a person who did not pay the least respect to the memory of the 4-year-old murdered child just for a few minutes of publicity.
Bearing all of the above in mind, the obvious question that arises is the following: is that really the core of the issue? A few minutes of publicity and not the quality of the information broadcasted by Greek television? And not the superficiality that is imposed by the competition among TV channels which forces them into a constant fight to be the first to broadcast such affective news items and their exclusive developments?
Katerina Serafeim holds a PhD in Journalism and Mass Media, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki and works as a journalist in the Press Office of the Regional Local Government of Central Macedonia, Greece. She can be reached on firstname.lastname@example.org.