Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

How STATE-CONTROLLED MEDIA CAN SET THE AGENDA ON THE INTERNET: COVERAGE OF THREE TRAGEDIES ON DIFFERENT TYPES OF RUSSIAN MEDIA

Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

How STATE-CONTROLLED MEDIA CAN SET THE AGENDA ON THE INTERNET: COVERAGE OF THREE TRAGEDIES ON DIFFERENT TYPES OF RUSSIAN MEDIA

Article excerpt

Monday, December 19, 2016, was marked by a series of tragedies, all of which deserved to be published on the front page of Russian newspapers. The first was a series of deadly poisonings from surrogate alcohol in Irkutsk (by a product called "Boyaryshnik," Russian for hawthorn). Then, the assassination of Andrey G. Karlov, Russia's ambassador to Turkey, was in the news on the evening of December 19. A bit later, a terror attack occurred in Berlin when a truck crashed into Christmas market visitors. In other words, one day saw three tragic events that could not go unnoticed by the mass media.

This tragic confluence of circumstances created a unique opportunity to study the functioning of various types of media in the context of the lack of media freedom in Russia. Three different tragedies occurred simultaneously. Events presumably competed with each other for public attention. (1) Despite the restrictions on media freedom, they could not be completely ignored even by fully controlled media. Different types of media were forced to prioritize. This prioritization both reflects the political position of the authorities and highlights the differences between types of media in an authoritarian state. An important peculiarity of the study of Russian mass media is the dependence of both television and a considerable portion of the press on the authorities, (2) in contrast to the relative independence of discussions in online newspapers and blogs. Therefore, we can compare the agendas of the types of mass media that are characterized by greater or smaller levels of independence from the authorities.

There are quite a few studies in the scientific literature devoted to some of the above-mentioned factors: the struggle of simultaneous events for attention, the coverage of tragedies and crises, differences in media types, and the operation of the media under conditions of state censorship. The tragic events of December 19, 2016, presented a unique opportunity to apply these theories simultaneously. As we will show in this article, this allows for a much better understanding of the media system in Russia.

To compare different types of media, we use network agenda theory. Using this theory, we can analyze the context in which these tragedies were addressed in each type of mass media and how that context was connected to the domination of the agenda by any given tragedy.

Media Freedom and Censorship in Russia

Russian president Vladimir Putin has always paid significant attention to the media. In the 1990s, the future president observed how the Russian media influenced the election campaigns of mayors, governors, and then-president Boris Yeltsin. Subsequently, he himself gained immense popularity thanks to television and other controlled media. More recently, government-controlled media have helped him maintain this popularity despite the country's economic crisis and sanctions. (3)

One of Putin's first tasks in his first presidential term was to gain control over the independent media. (4) Following its criticism of the president's actions during the hostage crisis at the musical Nord-Ost, the team of the country's third-largest television channel NTV was dismissed. By the end of the term, most of the influential Russian media was under direct or indirect control.

Putin rules Russia, and in particular the media system, through networks of friends and confidants. (5) Some media are controlled directly, as the property of the state; others are formally independent, but actually belong to Putin-linked media magnates. The federal elite is less interested in gaining control over regional print media, but funding shortages mean that these newspapers often find themselves dependent on local authorities. (6) The only completely independent source of information was the Internet. For the part of the population that had lost faith in the objectivity of journalism, (7) the Internet became the main channel for obtaining information that was not created by state propaganda. …

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