Analyzing Russian Media p. 36

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By: Andrei Richterand Paul Janensch

Study offers praise, criticism for coverage of war in Chechnya sp.

THE FIRST COMPREHENSIVE study by Russians of their own national news media’s coverage of the war in Chechnya gives high marks to a newspaper and a television service for balance, and criticizes others for taking sides and showing too much raw violence.
In the study ? “Journalism and War: Russian Mass Media Coverage of the War in Chechnya” ? Russian media scholars analyze reporting by six newspapers and three television services based in Moscow but that have a national reach.
The study was produced by the Russian-American Press & Information Center (RAPIC) in Moscow and funded by the Open Society Institute of the Soros Foundation. RAPIC is an arm of the Center for War, Peace and the News Media at New York University.
The study praises those journalists who risked their lives to report from the depths of the war zone.
The newspaper Sevodnya (Today) and NTV Television were rated the most balanced, according to the study. Both were started by private investors after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Sevodnya told its readers about cruelty by the Chechens, as well as incompetence by the government. NTV presented all points of view and let the audience decide what to think.
Meanwhile, Izvestia and Pravda ? newspapers well-known outside Russia ? were criticized for slanting their coverage against the Russian military.
Izvestia, once the newspaper of the Soviet government, now is independent and liberal. Pravda, formerly the voice of the Communist Party, still backs the Communist faction in the Russian Parliament.
Ostankino TV is accused of being pro-government, especially in the early days of the fighting. RTR (Russian Television) is chided for broadcasting highly emotional reports on the human cost of the war and presenting anti-military propaganda as news. Both services are owned by the government, although Ostankino is converting to a public television status, with 49% private ownership.
The study expresses concern about the unrestrained portrayal of violence ? far more graphic than anything Americans saw during the war in
Vietnam.
The Russian media showed the charred remains of Russian troops and naked Russian soldiers covered with battle wounds and at the point of death. Initial public shock could turn to callousness toward suffering, the study warned.
The media rely too much on stereotypes, the study says.
Chechens were presented as brave defenders of their homeland ? wearing green headbands and taking oaths on the Koran ? and Russian forces were portrayed as brutal and inept.
The Russian military risked receiving unsympathetic treatment by turning journalists away from military positions, while the Chechens made them welcome.
The study surveyed reporters who served in the battle zone. Thirty percent were not accredited by the government. Sixty-five percent attended press briefings held by the Chechens, while only 26% went to briefings organized by Russian federal forces.
Russian government and military leaders were bitterly critical of news coverage, even accusing journalists of taking bribes from the Chechens.
The head of Russian Television announced that he was about to be fired for failing to toe the official line. (He kept his job.) Government leaders did not clamp down on the media, as their Soviet predecessors would have done, and Russian newspapers and television were free to report on the war as they saw fit.
One of the study’s authors later speculated that the authorities decided to keep hands off the media because the Russian public was not rising up in violent protest against the war.
Efforts to control the media were sometimes overt in the war zone. The study cites 137 actions by the military against journalists, including beatings, shooting at reporters and confiscating their equipment. A Cable News Network videotape was seized because it “did not correspond to reality.”
The study predicted tighter restrictions on coverage of future armed conflicts and urged the Russian media to develop a united front on such issues as combat access and censorship. The study also called on the media to separate fact from opinion and to substitute informed analysis for emotional
advocacy.
The report concludes that news coverage of the war in Chechnya will have a profound and lasting impact on Russian society.
Even with the country’s critical economic and social problems, Russians still had confidence in their leaders before the invasion was launched Dec. 11. But coverage of the war has cost President Boris Yeltsin his halo and the army its reputation as an integral part of Russian society, the study says. Even the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation was questioned in the media.
Americans might believe that unfiltered coverage of the war, even if biased, would be good for Russia in the long run.
The American system permits the free flow of information and tolerates a multiplicity of opinions, including those that run counter to commonly shared values. But the authors of the report worried that Russian society was so shaken by the war coverage that it had little left to believe in, and, the study warned, public despair and cynicism could result in anarchy.
The study is available in Russian from the Center for War, Peace and the News Media, Department of Journalism and Mass Communications, New York University, 10 Washington Pl., New York, N.Y. 10003. An English-language summary also is available.
?(Richter, a professor of journalism at Moscow State University and research coordinator of the Russian-American Press & Information Center, edited the RAPIC study. Janensch, formerly an editor of U.S. newspapers and past president of Associated Press Managing Editors, is associate director of Russian-American Media Partnerships, a Russian media assistance program.) [Caption]

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