Russian news media is in a deep normative crisis. Professional ethics is poor. Social media spread fake news and twist the realities. Following the Ukrainian conflict, many journalists have willingly turned into propagandists. Some have even become targets of Western sanctions for fuelling public hysteria and disinformation. Most others have adapted to yet another level of the tightening Russian neo-authoritarianism. A small number of journalists have shunned association with propaganda. They claim to be the remaining outpost of “the fourth estate” and still consider the media as an important institution of civil society rather than a manipulative tool in someone’s hands. Their integrity and resilience will prove crucial for the rebirth of media.
Whether media is the institution of public accountability or a publicity tool is clearly seen in how the majority of media professionals talk to the state authorities in modern Russia. President Putin’s annual press conferences have long been a chamber for public requests, and flattery. On 20 February 2019, a smaller meeting in the Kremlin seated two dozen Russian editors-in-chief around the dinner table with Putin. The conversation focused on supersonic missiles and the possibility of digital sovereignty and autonomy for Russia’s segment of the Internet, allegedly to prevent foreign governments and companies from spying on the Russians. No critical questions were asked.
In the field of newsmaking, technology can be both the engine of progress and a tool for abuse. In the early 1980s, the United States Information Agency (USIA) promoted satellite television (“our new electronic muscle”) to target audiences across the globe. Its opponents insisted that satellite receivers were still too expensive in many parts of the world; shortwave radio reached wider publics. At the turn of the century, globalisation and the digital revolution inspired “new public diplomacy” – relationship-building and narrowcasting instead of traditional broadcasting. Social media networking customised and personified the older tools of strategic mass communication, but also blurred the media’s institutional and ethical boundaries. While some say the new approach is more egalitarian, we also know how Trump-like social media populism polarises people’s attitudes towards professional news.
International conflicts trigger propaganda, but they also generate demand for change.
International conflicts trigger propaganda, but they also generate demand for change. Journalism history hints at the ways in which the rebirth of the Russian media may begin. In the early twentieth century, the American media went through a similar normative turmoil. The government and business hired thousands of publicity agents. Public relations as profession emerged. The First World War drew a line between media as influencing tools and media as social institutions. Journalists of the Progressive Movement (1890-1920) emphasised ethics, scrutinised power interests and campaigned for a clear professional distinction from the propagandists. The norm of objectivity emerged then as a reaction to propaganda. The point, however, is not to idealise a particular norm that is problematic, too, and is not about technology and power that turn media into tools. The insight is that crises, like infections, either kill or lead to recovery and improved immunity. Deep crises are also the moments when smaller groups, such as journalists with high ethical standards, can make a difference to the disease outcome.
Dmitry Yagodin is a postdoctoral researcher at the Aleksanteri Institute