Young journalists immersed in Russia expertise

A group of Finnish and Swedish journalism students visited the Aleksanteri Institute on May 30th to learn about current trends in Russian society, especially in regard to the media and freedom of speech. Besides a fresh series of expert interviews, the meeting yielded a mutual understanding of the roles of media and scholarship, and the vital importance of trust and cooperation between the two.

The last week of May was a busy time for a group of five students from Finnish and Swedish universities, who took part in an intensive course on foreign reporting. Uppdrag: Ryssland – Journalister i Sverige och Finland granskar fakta was the first part of a three year study programme by Hanaholmen – the Swedish-Finnish Cultural Centre and the foundation for Swedish Finnish culture (Kulturfonden för Sverige och Finland), which aims at familiarizing future journalists with the societies and developments of the neighbouring countries, and help them to create networks crucial for their future career.

The majority of the participants had little or no previous expertise on Russia, but they were all very eager to practice foreign reporting and investigative journalism. Thus it was very fitting that among the lecturers and workshop leaders were St Petersburg-based freelance reporter Anders Mård, and one of the makers of the award-winning television programme MOT, Minna Knus-Galán, who is also a board member of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists – ICIJ. The course programme also included the annual seminar Speaking is Silver, which this year had Media Freedom in the Baltic Region as its theme.

Face to face meetings create mutual inspiration

The meeting with the Aleksanteri scholars was arranged in the middle of the intensive week. Incidentally, it was the very same day when the world became aware of the brutal murder of Russian journalist Arkadi Babchenko, an incident that very soon proved to be a hoax, but never the less made the meeting with Professor of Russian Politics Vladimir Gel’man, media scholar Saara Ratilainen, and Ukraine expert Mark Teramae even more topical, and provided the students with an extremely interesting case for their analyses. 

— Research institutes such as the Aleksanteri Institute are extremely valuable for a journalist. Having a conversation with a specialist on the topic is so much easier and more inspiring than getting the information from books, writes Emilia Söderholm from the University of Gothenburg in the course blog.

Face-to-face interviews not only provided deeper knowledge of the themes of the day but also helped the young journalists in taking in all the new information and in structuring their thoughts. Russian society and politics, with all it’s different levels and contradictory elements, is not the easiest subject to grasp in just one week.

— We have had a chance to follow so many interesting lectures and conversations during the week that it truly is a challenge to digest all the information, states Amanda Lund who studies at the Åbo Akademi in Vasa.

Good media relations are priceless

From the point of view of the Aleksanteri Institute, the visit was valuable in many ways. The researchers who participated in the meeting had to think of how to make their point to an audience with little background knowledge.

— It’s very useful to learn to think of your audience and adapt your presentation accordingly, says Saara Ratilainen. Sometimes it might even open new perspectives for your research.

The core task of a research institute is to do research and produce new scientific knowledge. This knowledge can then be used in teaching students how to become critical and useful actors in society. There is, however, also a third task that is becoming increasingly crucial in today’s world: the task of injecting research-based knowledge into the popular discourse and decision-making.

— This is something we simply cannot achieve without good relations with the media, says Niina Into, who works as an information and communications specialist at the Aleksanteri Institute. Even in the times of social media, nothing compares to a well-versed media professional! We do all we can to nurture our working relationship with journalists and are willing to help whenever there’s a need for fact-based insight into Russia or Eastern Europe.  

The amount of experienced journalists reporting on Russia has been on the decline for the past several years as the generation of reporters who specialized on the Soviet Union has gradually retired. Last week’s intensive course was a good start to cultivating a new generation of critical and knowledgeable journalists.

The course was organized by Hanaholmen – the Swedish-Finnish Cultural Centre and Kulturfonden - the Foundation for Swedish Finnish culture. It was arranged in partnership with the discipline of journalism and communication at Swedish School of Social Science, University of Helsinki; Faculty of Communication Sciences, University of Tampere; and the  Department of Journalism, Media and Communication (JMG), University of Gothenburg.

You can read the interviews, articles and blog postings by the participants on the course web site at

Interviews with the researchers

Heini Ruohonen's (Åbo Akademi) interview with Saara Ratilainen:Unga i Ryssland hittar egna sätt att uttrycka sina värderingar

Emilia Söderholm's (Göteborgs Universitet) interview with Vladimir Gel'man: Putin hade vunnit utan fusk

Fredrik Palmén's (University of Helsinki, Soc&kom) interview with Mark TeramaeForskare: Ukraina halvvägs in i västvärlden

Tony Pohjolainen's (University of Helsinki, Soc&kom) interview with Sigrid Kaasik-Krogerus: e-Estland sprang förbi Finland för länge sen