Monitoring Russian media: Putin in the news

To map the level of state-driven information and potential disinformation in the Russian media, a media monitoring team is following Russian media’s presidential campaign coverage more closely than most. The preliminary findings show that President Putin is given the bulk of media attention and that he is almost exclusively portrayed in a positive manner

Since early February 2018, a St. Petersburg-based group of trained media monitors have been meticulously following and recording Russian media’s coverage leading up to the Russian presidential elections on 18 March 2018. The team monitors everything from the minutes of airtime allocated to the candidates to the amount of space and journalistic angles dedicated to candidates and themes.

The aim is to offer a professional analysis of Russian media’s election-focused reporting by documenting how certain issues, candidates, and parties are covered and whether the election coverage can be deemed fair and balanced.

According to Gulnara Akhundova, the Head of Department for Global Response at IMS, the most fascinating aspect of this initiative is its potential ability to provide local actors with a concrete tool in their fight against propaganda and misinformation.

“It’s always been dangerous to speak out freely and exercise critical journalism in Russia. Since President Putin assumed his third term in office, Russia has been through a severe clampdown on freedom of expression. However, today the stakes are higher than ever as Putin is determined to win his fourth term in office. The control measures have reached new, unprecedented heights to silence remaining independent voices. Against this backdrop, it is essential to empower Russian experts with concrete numbers and findings deriving from the monitoring of media coverage, numbers and findings which document in black and white the reality of media coverage in Russia,” says Akhundova.

Preliminary findings
The final report from the monitors will be available in mid-May. The final report will include a wide array of media outlets, but already now the preliminary findings are showing some clear trends. The preliminary findings cover the period from 17 February to 11 March and are focused around five TV stations and one radio station that are considered representative of both the state-sponsored and none-state-sponsored outlets and the pro-Putin and opposition camps.

The findings show that especially First Channel and Russia 1, two state-controlled TV stations, as well as NTV, a TV station controlled by the state-owned company Gazprom Media Holding, fail to live up to basic journalistic standards and offer the viewers an extremely limited range of political diversity. Each of the three stations reach more than 98 per cent of the Russian population.

In the month leading up to the election news reports related to Putin, both in the role of president and candidate, received roughly half of the news airtime on these three stations – and almost exclusively positive coverage. The lack of balance and critical approaches are strikingly clear. The remainder of airtime was mainly devoted to the authorities’ official positions and neglected to offer any independent and alternative views or critical reporting challenging the performance of the authorities.

The privately-owned Ren TV echo First Channel, Russia 1, and NTV. As an example, Ren TV allocated more than 55 per cent of its news coverage to Putin, and nearly all this coverage is categorized as “positive”. By comparison, the candidate Pavel Grudinin from the Communist Party received 16.6 per cent of the coverage which was mainly negative. Alexey Navalny, who has been barred from running in the election and who is encouraging a boycott, received 0.2 per cent (24 seconds) of the coverage on Ren TV’s prime time news program.

Media biases affect elections
The preliminary findings show that only smaller, privately-owned broadcasters such as TV Dozhd and Radio Echo Moskvy live up to what would be considered basic journalistic standards of unbiased and balanced reporting. That you have to search the periphery of the media landscape to find trustworthy election coverage is problematic, says Gulnara Akhundova from IMS:

“Rigged election does not only mean ballot staffing, carousel or any other type of electoral fraud. Media coverage in favor of one particular candidate in a country where press is not free may affect the election outcome. We saw that in Turkey, for example, where the technical aspects of the referendum process were well administered, but the voters were not provided with impartial information about key aspects of the reform.”

Professional monitoring by Russian experts is crucial to foster civil society participation and oversight, Akhundova believes. This would enable them to become the “agents of change” advocating for necessary changes in the media landscape, particularly in the area of media regulation, self-regulation, reform of public broadcasters and emergence of new media outlets.

A benchmark analysis
The long-term goal of the monitoring is to provide a professional, data-driven analysis that can be used to raise awareness of the issue of biased reporting in Russia among both media workers and the broader public. The findings will therefore also function as a benchmark for comparing the Russian media reporting against international standards that can form the basis for an informed discussion about the shortcomings in especially TV broadcasting.

“Combating Russia’s propaganda networks and Kremlin-crafted disinformation campaigns is not an easy task. A group of experts have been working furiously to debunk the Kremlin-backed propaganda, and we hope that by embracing standards for professional monitoring, this will bolster the network and promote resilience,” says Gulnara Akhundova.

The monitoring of the Russian presidential election coverage began on 1 February 2018 and will continue until three days after the election. The entire process is quality controlled by MEMO 98, a Slovakia-based media monitoring organization with two decades of experience in this field.