No wrongdoing has been established so far in the “Paradise Papers” investigation. But this isn’t what you walk away with if you read the articles we analyzed. Here are seven ways we found the media implied guilt.
1. Position statements of non-guilt lower down
None of the articles addressed off the bat that no wrongdoing has been established. Those statements were placed further down in the articles — in the fifth paragraph in the best case (Financial Times), and the third to last paragraph in the worst case (The New York Times). Lowering these statements’ value through positioning weighs the implications of guilt disproportionately.
2. Focus on the possibility of wrongdoing above other possibilities
The space these articles devoted to the notion of wrongdoing, compared to legal uses of offshore accounts, was also disproportionate. The most slanted article was AP’s, which only included two sentences (out of a total of 38) on the positive uses of offshore accounts. This, in part, earned the outlet a slant rating of 71 percent.
3. Suggest bad intent through word choice and juxtaposition
The outlets use terms such as “hide/hiding” and “secrecy/secretly” more often than terms like “privacy.” While the definitions are close, “secrecy” and “hiding” can suggest bad or fraudulent intent, or the desire to conceal something bad or wrongful. This is accentuated when the terms are juxtaposed with a majority of content that suggests possible wrongdoing, as the point above shows.
4. Single out people or groups
The BBC and the Financial Times devote a portion of their coverage to Queen Elizabeth (the latter mentions her name in its headline), and AP does the same with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Considering the running theme is some type of financial wrongdoing, it implicates the individuals who are singled out. And, if you look across various news outlets around the world that are covering this story, you’ll see the people they highlight are different — perhaps more relevant to their politics and culture.
5. Once you’ve named names, plant doubt
One of the greatest drawbacks of implication through juxtaposition is that it’s hard to erase from memory. The Financial Times, for instance, wrote that the “BBC said there was nothing illegal in the investments and no suggestion that the Queen was not paying tax. But it said questions might be asked about whether the monarch should be investing offshore.” It almost sounds as if it exonerates her, but really we’re left with the questions that “might be asked.”
6. Juxtapose other hot topics that also imply wrongdoing
AP’s coverage focused mostly on U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and the potential connections his investments may have to Russia. But the main reason that could matter now is the ongoing Russia investigations, which the outlet specifically cites. So it’s easy to connect the dots: Ross + Putin + Trump = collusion. Except nothing has been proven in a court of law.
7. Don’t question the object at hand
Are offshore accounts bad or problematic for society? Is it bad for people to avoid paying taxes if it doesn’t break any laws? Do people have a right to keep their financial records private, or is society entitled to pry? Were these leaks lawful, or do they violate the rights of these companies and their clients?
The media could encourage a rational conversation about taxes, offshore accounts and privacy rights, providing data that can help us evaluate the pros and cons in each case (click here for more on this). However, the above mechanisms foment a lack of critical evaluation of these topics, and they summon the court of public opinion to rule on the guilt or innocence of the people involved. It’s always possible that the investigation could expose some type of criminal activity, but remember, no wrongdoing has been proven at this point.
The presumption of innocence is a fundamental right in modern democracies, and is guaranteed by the U.N.’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In a value-based system, it’s more efficient and ethical to presume a person’s innocence until proof of guilt is presented beyond a reasonable doubt. There’s a reason the U.S. justice system adheres to this principle, and why it would be optimal for the media to do so too.
Jens Erik Gould
Jens is a political, business and entertainment writer and editor who has reported from a dozen countries for media outlets including The New York Times, National Public Radio and Bloomberg News