HONG KONG. – It is a truth universally acknowledged that the Russian media are one lean mean propaganda machine. When most of a country’s major media outlets are government owned, that’s the occupational hazard. We, Russians, accept this far too calmly.
It used to be that you could turn to Western media, such as that of the United States, to experience a more balanced perspective on an issue. As a country founded with freedom of the press as one of its guiding principles, its age-old news organizations — the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal— have a reputation for shining like an exemplary beacon of journalistic hope. This is where I thought unbiased journalism lay.
But with the sharp deterioration of relations between Russia and the U.S. in the past few months (the worst since the end of the Cold War, many say) my faith in the conceivability of an unbiased news organization has almost disappeared, whether the news comes from Russia, the United States, or Europe. Headlines have rarely been the same in Russia and the US, such as over the issue of Syria, for example. But the Ukrainian crisis has exacerbated the rift in news to a whole new level.
Every news story related to Ukraine is reported from a very obvious (and often simplistic) point of view. When looked at collectively, these stories add up to at best, a strong news bias, and at worst, propaganda.
Russian media began covering the initial protests in Ukraine as radical nationalists creating chaos in Kiev. The Russian networks immediately discussed the Euromaidan protests in terms of their illegality under the government that held power at the time. Another major topic was the suspicion that America was backing the protests. Radical Russophobic demonstrators were blamed for the country’s ongoing instability. American involvement in creating this new “democracy’” was compared to its previous involvement in Egypt and Libya, and therefore dire predictions were made for Ukraine’s future. Ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine and their future under this new government was a common subject and Russian media covered the Crimean protests by immediately holding interviews with vocal citizens who denounced the new interim government in Kiev.
The Ukrainian story in the U.S. media, on the other hand, was portrayed in the beginning as one of peaceful and freedom-loving Ukrainians carrying candles and calling for closer cooperation with the EU. Interviews were held with demonstrators who had enough of living in a country under Vladimir Putin’s thumb, controlled by its gas contracts. Smiling US politicians flew in to shake hands with the people and to congratulate them on their desire to become a proper democracy. Crimean protests calling for secession from Ukraine were immediately described as illegal under the interim government in Kiev, and the radical Russian-backed demonstrators were pinned as the cause of the country’s ongoing instability.
When Crimea was officially absorbed into the Russian Federation on March 18, the world was in an uproar. While the way Putin handled the situation with blatant disregard for international law may be deplorable, that is not an excuse for news organizations to skew news stories to the degree they did.
Consider these two articles published a few days apart: on March 3 TIME published the results of a poll that suggested Russians were on the verge of overthrowing their own government because they were unhappy with the “military occupation” in Ukraine. On March 6 the channel Russia Today published poll results that showed Putin’s approval ratings to be the highest they had been in two years. These are strikingly different results, considering they were both derived from the same source, the WCIOM (All-Russian Public Opinion Research Center).
Viewing the WCIOM website makes it clear that information was carefully picked to fit certain angles in both publications. RT omitted the fact that 73% of Russians voted against their government getting involved in the conflict between the Ukrainian government and the opposition forces, while in TIME that was the main story. TIME stated that, “in Monday’s survey, 30% of respondents from Moscow and St. Petersburg said that Russia could see massive political protests of the kind that overthrew the Ukrainian government last month.” The article then went on to make ominous warnings for Putin’s government, which it suggested should make preparations for such a crisis. In fact the actual poll quoted by TIME found that of the approximately 1,600 respondents, 75% said they did not think similar acts of mass protests were possible in Russia. Of the 15% that said they could happen, 30% were from Moscow and Saint Petersburg. The “30%” that TIME referred to was part of the approximately 240 respondents who responded positively to the question, not the total number polled in the two cities. Furthermore, TIME omitted the poll findings that 94% of Russians said they did not want what was happening in Ukraine to repeat itself in Russia.
This kind of selective reporting has been common on both sides of the Ukrainian conflict.
A simple comparison of the headlines in the aftermath of the MH17 airplane downing can illustrate a similar rift. Headlines from the Washington Post included, “White House says Russia using MH17 Crash as Cover,” and “Did Russian Personnel Help Take Down MH17?” Meanwhile, headlines from the government-backed media in Russia alluded to a conspiracy between the U.S. and Ukraine such as this headline from the news agency RIA Novosti, “Moral Terror: How Critics of Western MH17 Coverage Are Bullied Into Silence” and “If Russia is behind MH17 crash, Where is the Evidence? – Defense Ministry” from RT’s English news website. Despite the fact that to this day we don’t know what happened exactly to the downed flight MH17, the news media on both sides painted a clear-cut scenario of the situation without knowing all the facts very early on.
In a country where the media is state-owned, fair reporting is not expected when it comes to international ‘us versus them’ stories. Russia has been accused of its terrible media environment for many decades now and the outlook for the near future does not seem particularly optimistic. However, by reporting international political stories involving Russia from such a biased perspective, as was done in Ukraine, the U.S. is not exactly setting a good example for independent and fair press.
If anything, these stories plant a misguided suspicion amongst the Russian public of government propaganda on both sides. If the U.S. media kept an open mind and tried to include Russian perspectives on touchy international issues, not only would the news reporting become fairer, but it would set a wonderful example to Russian media and the Russian public. Something has to change in the reporting of conflicts between Russia and the West when they occur, because in recent months, unless you are a Russian and English speaker, you are not getting the full story.
Audrey Kabilova is originally from Moscow and grew up in Norther China. She is currently studying journalism at the University of Hong Kong. The opinions expressed in this editorial are her own and are not indicative of LJP’s views.