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Russia: In A Political Season, Are The Challenges Of Russia's Mass Media Unique?

International monitors of the Russian presidential election on 14 March say that the voting was generally well-administered and reflected the consistently high approval rating of the incumbent, Vladimir Putin. At the same time, they say the race lacked the elements of a genuine democratic contest, and criticized media coverage for failing to present an unbiased view of all the candidates. But such accusations plague many political races -- not only those in Russia.

Prague, 19 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- European and U.S. officials have criticized the Russian media -- particularly its state-controlled broadcasters -- for apparent bias in its coverage of the presidential race.

Julian Peel Yates served as the head of the joint observer mission from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE). At a press conference held after the 14 March vote, Yates said voters had little opportunity to acquaint themselves with the positions of the five presidential candidates challenging Putin.

"In every single country there are problems in this area, related to the media and its coverage, and whether that is promoting a democratic process or whether it's hindering somehow a democratic process."
"The election process overall did not adequately reflect principles necessary for a healthy democratic election process. Essential elements of the OSCE commitments, of the Council of Europe's standards for democratic elections -- such as a vibrant political discourse and meaningful pluralism -- were lacking," Yates said.

Christian Strohal, director of the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, put it more bluntly. "Candidates were provided with the opportunity to present their messages to voters," he said. "This was, however, devalued by the state-controlled media displaying clear bias in favor of the incumbent."

Putin refused to take his share of free air time in for campaign programs and televised debates. But he was nonetheless a near-constant presence on Russian television, with his public appearances and speeches receiving extensive coverage. Some Putin events were even broadcast live.

Media authorities defended such coverage as legitimate news. But some presidential challengers said it was overexposure, and filed complaints with election and court authorities.

Is the problem of unbalanced campaign coverage unique to Russia and other developing democracies?

Patrick Merloe directs election and political programs at the National Democratic Institute for International Relations, based in Washington. He says media coverage is a near-universal problem when it comes to political campaigns.

"In every single country there are problems in this area, related to the media and its coverage, and whether that is promoting a democratic process or whether it's hindering somehow a democratic process. And what has happened in many, many countries are certain safeguards that have been built in to try to ensure that these problems don't become severe," Merloe said.

Merloe says there are different ways to ensure that the media does deliver the political messages of parties and candidates to the voting public. In most European countries, for example, there are regulations that provide free time on an equal basis to all competitors. In the United States, the media is officially obligated to use paid political advertisement in a way that is equal and non-discriminating.

The reality, however, can be different.

Cindi Deutschman-Ruiz is director and producer at WPSU-FM, a public radio station in Pennsylvania. She recently wrote an article about U.S. media coverage election candidates that was published on the website of the Poynter journalism training institute.

Deutschman-Ruiz says that American mass media as a rule fail to deal with substantive issues during a campaign, and automatically give greater coverage to those candidates expected to win.

"The media are very quick to sort out who are the frontrunners and who have essentially very little chance of winning. And when that's the case, they focus their attention almost exclusively on frontrunners. So, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The people who didn't have so much of a chance don't get much coverage," Deutschman-Ruiz said.

Deutschman-Ruiz says that a good example of that in the current presidential campaign in the United States is the story of Democratic hopeful Carol Moseley Braun. Her name got major press coverage only when she dropped out of the race.

Deutschman-Ruiz believes that part of the problem is a resource issue -- limited space for news about the election, and a limited number of journalists to cover it. But another part of the problem, says Deutschman-Ruiz, is that journalists often get caught up in the mainstream message, and overlook the views of candidates they feel will not win broad support.

Further, she says, competition between different media outlets is so stiff that journalists often mirror each other rather than pursue individual reports. The question of media ownership, she says, also impacts the reporting process.

"I think in general -- that is my bias -- I think in general, public broadcasting in this country is a little bit better at focusing on issues and so forth than a lot of the privately owned media. We have some very huge media conglomerates in this country and they just kind of keep getting bigger. And I think there is a very great danger there of voices sort of being homogenized and a lot of perspective just more or less being left out of the mix," Deutschman-Ruiz said.

Susan Bennett is director of international exhibits at the Newseum, an interactive news museum in Arlington, Virginia. The Newseum is part of the Freedom Forum, a nonpartisan foundation dedicated to the principles of free press and free speech around the world.

Bennett says that generally, incumbents have a significant advantage when it comes to media coverage.

"Members of Congress, members of local political affiliations, and sitting presidents have a tremendous advantage as an incumbent. For that very reason, they can say that they are going to give a speech, or they are going to make an appearance at a shipyard and say that it is in their duties as an elected official to do so. And if it is a newsworthy event, then the media is obligated to cover that," Bennett said.

Bennett says many countries have provided certain safeguards to counterbalance the natural media favoritism of incumbent candidates.

Such safeguards include internal guidelines and media monitoring, often by the media itself. Some countries have regulations or laws ensuring that candidates have a more or less equal chance to address the public.

Bennett also says that some media outlets may choose to endorse a particular candidate. But ideally, she says, that should not influence the outlet's coverage of campaign news.

"In American newspapers, there are endorsements made [on every political level,] from local office to state office to the presidency. But those are not done by the news side of the business. It's done strictly on the editorial page. The 'USA Today' [newspaper], they do not endorse any candidates, particularly not a president. And the reason they say that they do not do that is because they are a national newspaper and local newspapers tend to know the background, personality, and track records of local candidates. But there is no way that a national newspaper can know that for everyone," Bennett said.