Femfacts
22 May 2019

When a news investigation goes wrong -- very wrong

“The polyclinic that terrified Croatia” is how RTL introduced their report about an unqualified nurse working in a local polyclinic in the town of Obrovac. But what was also terrifying was the way Croatian media reported on the case.

Lidija Pisker
Lidija Pisker NewsMavens, Balkans
When a news investigation goes wrong -- very wrong - NewsMavens
Doctor Goran Jusup, YouTube

It began on April 25, when the popular Croatian TV program “Provjereno,” produced by Nova TV, broadcast a story about a polyclinic in Obrovac, a small town in the southern part of the country. The story was also published on Nova TV’s website the same evening.

The investigative reporting team of “Provjereno” paid a visit to the polyclinic following complaints by patients about the unconventional work of its physician Goran Jusup and his assistant. The complaints were related to the doctor’s hygiene and rude behavior, as well as suspicions about the nurse’s professional qualifications. Provjereno reported that more than 900 patients had asked to transfer to another doctor.

The reporter interviewed the doctor and his nurse -- who seem to be suffering some mental health issues. He questioned the nurse about her professional qualifications, to which she responded with unclear answers about where and when she had graduated from medical high school. The reporter also exposed an alleged love affair between the doctor and the nurse, and followed up by interviewing the doctor’s former partner about death threats she said she has been receiving from him.

While the reporter was interviewing the pair, the Nova TV cameraman was zooming in on the clothes and faces of doctor and nurse to show to highlight their inappropriate appearance, including their questionable hygiene -- playing up the shock value of their appearance. At the same time, the faces and voices of some of the interviewed patients (including the doctor’s former partner) were blurred and altered to protect their identity.

A screenshot of the report that aired on Nova TV

The Croatian public was shocked by what they saw at the polyclinic. But the unethical reporting didn’t seem to arouse much outrage. Unsympathetic to people with mental health issues and unaware of the fact that Nova TV had indulged in a heavy-handed violation of professional journalistic ethics, many people shared the report, criticizing the behaviour of the pair and making fun of them on social media.

A Youtube channel “Popularno Hrvatska” published a video montage of the initial report titled “Love is at the psych ward”, describing them as “two retards”. A Facebook page made fun of the fact that the woman wound up in a psychiatric hospital. This was all presented with an image of their heads plastered on the bodies of the cast from the American television show House, turning the doctor and the nurse into a “meme”.

The public shaming of two vulnerable persons in need of medical care didn’t stop there. Over the following days, Nova TV and other media followed up on the initial story by introducing new elements (that the “doctor had war-related PTSD”, for example) and new characters (such as the doctor’s fellow war companions or former work colleague).

Subsequently, after the initial bashing from both the media and social network users, the discourse on the doctor started to change. The fact that he had suffered during the war, had troubled romantic relationships, that he suffered from multiple sclerosis and had suffered a difficult life in general gradually replaced the headlines describing him as “the scandalous doctor”. A chamber of medical doctors also spoke up, judging the media for how they treated him. In a few days, this is how the doctor’s story began to change:

THE OTHER SIDE OF THE STORY: ‘Dr. Jusup carried the wounded on his back across Velebit, under full artillery and rocket fire’” (Net.hr)

‘We were shot at, and the doctor carried the wounded across Velebit’” (24 sata)

A painful story of a doctor who forgot who he was” (Express)

THE SAD LIFE OF DOCTOR JUSUP: What drove once beloved doctor to the edge and why he was eventually left by his wife, mistress and 900 patients” (Jutarnji list)

What drove Dr. Jusup to the edge? 'He was a great man, he adored his family. Then his marriage fell apart, a tragedy separated him from his beloved, and his illness worsened...'” (Slobodna Dalmacija)

The case of Doctor Goran Jusup: Doctors of family medicine are defending him and attacking the system 'Recklessness of the state and the health system. Crucifying of a man who is not well. Protect the veteran who fell ill!'” (Nacionalni portal)

His transition from incompetent and mentally deficient to “veteran” and “great man” was painfully swift. The other person in the story, however, was not given the same courtesy. The media continued to attack the nurse unrelentingly -- and nobody came to rescue her. On the contrary.

WHAT’S THE CLAIM?

After the broadcast of the initial report on Nova TV, Croatian healthcare institutions said they would investigate the case. On April 26, the Croatian TV station RTL went to Obrovac to follow up. The video report was titled:

Dr. Jusup’s ‘nurse’ stormed into the office while RTL was filming the report, she was taken out by the police

When an RTL journalist interviewed the doctor, they focused the questions on the nurse. Denying what he had said only a day before (that she was a qualified nurse), the doctor told RTL he had hired her to be a cleaning lady and that he had just fired her. He also denied that they were romantically involved, which he had confirmed to Nova TV in the report broadcast the day before. Regardless of any of that, RTL journalist asked the doctor:

Are you aware that she has a big [mental] problem?

Without any consideration about the sensitivity of the woman who has been having mental health struggles, who was publicly shamed, supposedly fired and under the threat of criminal charges for false presentation, the RTL’s cameraman recorded her walking inside and outside of the polyclinic building, during what looked like she was having a nervous breakdown. He also captured her walking into the office trying to stop the interview, shouting at the cameraman and trying to hit him, after which a policeman took her away. The reporter then visited the woman’s former high school, where the headteacher confirmed that she had not graduated from that school.

The media instantly began doing background checks of her education qualifications, and screenshotting her social media posts to depict her as stupid, uneducated, “bossy” and “immoral”.

In the article about the “Sad life of Doctor Jusup”, his former nurse gave a heartfelt testimony of the decline in his life, caused by illness and loss of a child. But this is what the readers were presented with when it came to his nurse:

And what about Veronika? - we asked her.

- She started coming while I was still there. First as a patient after a traffic accident and then for mental issues. Those visits became more frequent (...) and she would hang with the doctor in the break room. (...) After the other nurse left, she took her place. But she was never a nurse, had no knowledge or qualifications, although this is how she presented herself. She would open the office. She acted like she’s the boss.” (...)”  

(...)

We also heard from a man who is familiar with the life of Veronika Pecollaj, who not only has never finished medical school, but wasn’t even able to complete the trade school where she studied to be a saleswoman.

Some details from her biography are simply not fit to print. Let’s just say she lived with a man around Ervenik and had a child three years ago, but the kid was taken away from them because they were found unfit. That man’s brother is also a heavy psychiatric case and both ended in Ugljan (a psychiatric facility).

Many articles focused solely on the nurse and her social media posts. One after another, the reports repeated her name and published her photographs with headlines and texts such as these:

Who’s the woman working in the office of the controversial doctor from Obrovac? The Chamber confirmed that she’s not a medical nurse, Dr. Jusup told them that she works as a cleaning lady” (Slobodna Dalmacija)

Who’s the woman posing as a medical nurse in Obrovac? A patient: This one came, posing as a medical nurse. She insults people, the prescriptions aren’t written well…

(...)

‘(Since) the doctor brought her, nothing is working, I was returned from Zadar several times because of badly written prescriptions. She insults people over the phone, you can’t communicate with her at all. That’s why we went to another doctor, like hundreds of other patients.’” (Index)     

She poses as a medical nurse in Obrovac: 'She’s my cleaning lady, I rescued her from a psych ward'” (Glas Istre)

(VIDEO) UNBELIEVABLE: Veronika Pecolaj works as a medical nurse and she 'can’t remember where she finished medical school'” (Fenix magazin)

‘WHOLE OBROVAC IS SNORTING WHITE, WOOO!' How the fiancé of a controversial doctor looked for a nurse on Facebook: 'As long as she’s hard working and obedient'” (Jutarnji list)

This is how the fiancé looked for a doctor’s nurse: ‘As long as she’s obedient...’” (24 sata)

A PARTIAL RESOLVEMENT OF THE AFFAIR: Fake nurse from Obrovac taken to the psychiatry

(...)

Finally, Jusup himself admitted that he’s in a relationship with Pecolaj and that she only cleans his office. He said that Pecolaj is a bit of a wacko and that he took her out of a psychiatric clinic on Ugljen” (Novi list)

Doctor Goran and his fiancé (a fake medical nurse) chased all the patients away. 'She finished high school, which is quite enough for the job of a nurse or a bricklayer'” (Telegraf)

The screenshots of her social media posts became an internet “hit”, prompting people to flock to her Facebook profile and comment on her public posts, ridiculing the spelling and grammar errors in her writing, her taste in music -- anything they could find. Some of the comments on one of her posts read: “I’ve been following the news about her all day, tirelessly awaiting the new dose of humor”; “The girl is a comedian and you have to admit she’s exceptional”.

A screenshot of comments on Pecolaj’s Facebook profile.

The woman was taken to a psychiatric clinic on the day RTL published the report (April 26), and the day after her acute mental health crisis was recorded and nationally broadcast.

WHAT ARE THE FACTS?

What was supposed to be a much-needed investigation about the dubious quality of medical care provided in Obrovac polyclinic, became a mockery of the physician and his assistant, who were both in need of medical care themselves.

But interestingly enough, the numerous media reports put focus on covering the issue of the unqualified woman working as a nurse. The case of the doctor who might have been unsuitable to treat patients -- who is, in fact, the one who is in charge of the diagnosis and medical treatment of the patients -- somehow became less of a problem. The most important issue -- and the reason for the investigative report to begin with --  the fact that the Ministry of Health obviously doesn’t properly monitor or evaluate their personnel -- was either addressed superficially or ignored.

The Croatian Journalists’ Society (Hrvatsko novinarsko društvo - HND) reacted to the unprofessional reporting of the case: “Instead of consistently insisting on the responsibilities of the competent institutions, the focus of many media reports has been put on the hasty and superficial condemnation and the worst ridicule of the two unprotected people,” the press release read.

Croatian writer Vedrana Rudan wrote her own comment on her official Facebook page on April 28, referring to the initial report of Nova TV as “frightening”. She noted that “two unhealthy, neglected people” were interviewed in a supposed “investigative journalism” story and asked:

“How should we greet this heroic act? I've been a journalist for a long time and I know how it works. When you get a taste of the victim, when you smell something morbid, miserable, [and] helpless, [and decide to] break it, bite it, crush it, destroy it, make people happy, make people click, make people look, [and] make people read.

Former colleagues, f*** you! Would you ever dare to break into the home of our Prime Minister, Minister or MPs in the same way and with the same urge? Of course you would f*** not,” Rudan wrote.

But reactions to such brutal violations of professional reporting standards failed to mention the obvious distinction that some in the media made while reporting about the doctor -- who is a man and the nurse -- who is a woman.

The fact is that according to proper journalistic ethics neither his or her identity should have been exposed to the public. But they were -- and there was a difference in how they were portrayed in some of the later reports. The media failed to build the sympathy case for mental health struggles of the nurse, as was the case with the doctor, whose behaviour has been excused by later stories of his difficult wartime experiences, while the nurse was left wounded and undefended on the battlefield.

RTL’s report is a striking example. The reporter interviews a person (doctor), who is in need of protection and medical care, asking the questions about nurse’s qualifications and the nature of their relationship. The terrifying report gets almost unbearably bizzare when RTL’s journalist asks the doctor -- who, let us remind you, has “big problems” of his own -- “if he had known that she [nurse] has a big [mental] problem.” The doctor gives completely opposite answers compared to what he told Nova TV (that she has medical qualifications and that they are romantically involved). But the reporter doesn’t seem to find it important. Nor was it important to ask the doctor about allegations of harassment of his former partner (as stated in Nova TV report). They just proceeded to whack a wounded victim -- an unprotected woman.

The story was horrifying from the beginning. However, the male “protagonist” -- a middle-aged doctor and a former veteran -- was at some point shown empathy by the media and the public. The 25 year old woman with history of mental illness, who held the least control over any events described in these reports, ended up portrayed as the main culprit -- the rude, bossy, manipulative “usurper” of the medical practice in the office of the doctor twice her age and in full control of who gets hired or fired there.

CONCLUSION

The “Obrovac case” showed Croatian media at its worst. Their sensationalist urge to shock the audience and raise readership at the expense of victims is nothing new, but it doesn’t usually look so terrifying. Here, victims of the failing healthcare system have become abused and publicly shamed by media. The real culprits for the failure of the system (in this case -- the Ministry of Health) have mostly been left alone. Worst of it all is that there was an evident difference in the treatment of the two victims -- of a man and a young woman. Even when journalists and medical professionals finally spoke up, this intersectional discrimination of a woman with mental health problems went unaddressed. Such biased reporting will hopefully remain unprecedented.

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