Russian Journalism in a New Era
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It is common knowledge that American and Russian schools of journalism differ widely in conceptual approaches, traditions, styles and formats of news stories. During the Cold War, these different approaches to news coverage, considered to be antipodes, were seen in terms of a conflict of ideologies. True, to some extent that gap started to shrink quite rapidly after the fall of the Berlin Wall, such that many optimists reached the conclusion that the two societies would reach a kind of gradual information convergence. Indeed, the emergence of numerous new Russian wire services, papers, magazines, radio and TV stations with their strong news orientation seemed to confirm this theory. But as time has passed and the process has unfolded, it has become more obvious that the American and Russian streams of news presentation will not achieve the anticipated uniformity very soon.
There are many reasons and explanations for this present state of affairs. One of the most vivid differences lies in the amount of space given to international news. In Russia it still remains very high, although some trends suggest that the Russian media are concentrating more and more on internal issues. Such a broad informational outlook, while very rare in the United States, is natural and common in the European context. The history and geography of our part of the world has compelled its inhabitants to constantly look beyond their immediate neighborhood and inquire into small details and shades of opinion that at first glance may seem insignificant. The relative isolation and remoteness of the United States allows its population to be rather indifferent to the tiny nuances and intrigues that seem so overcomplicated and so far away from its day-to-day life. Perhaps for this reason American reporters routinely have to stress the precise location of the sites from which their news stories are being delivered.
Another significant difference between American and Russian journalism is the extent to which an editor will permit the expression of a writer's personal opinion. It is considered in bad taste and evidence of a lack of training for a reporter to impose her or his views on the audience in the U.S. and other democratic countries, where individual sovereignty, seen as encompassing intellectual independence, is valued most of all. Yet for the sake of fairness, we need to admit that such an attitude was not always evident in practice. First of all, American newspapers were commonly owned by one person who usually assumed editorial responsibility, and they were widely regarded as the media of educated and well-informed opinion about events in the surrounding world, provided to busy people preoccupied with their own problems. The educational function of the press was perceived to be as important as its informational aspect, and open debates were common. In the Russian press, the presentations of personal comments, evaluations, and remarks of reporters are still a common practice. Although some news services have taken the completely opposite approach, aiming for an objective account of events, this trend has not become dominant. Some advocates of so-called literary journalism have actually strengthened their positions against those who became adept at a laconic "news-only" style. This literary kind of writing is fostered by a long-practiced and cherished tradition of Aesopian language-the use of a hidden and sometimes explosive message embedded in a context that seems perfectly innocent and politically acceptable.
A third difference between Russian and American journalism concerns training and specialization. A reporter in the United States is typically considered to possess universal competence, implying that he or she can cover local news or entertainment, legal affairs or the economy, more or less successfully depending on the particular assignment. Russian journalists, on the other hand, confine themselves to a major area of expertise, which they choose early in their careers. Their training is thus quite extensive and within a rather narrow area of application, as opposed to the American standards by which reporters are usually armed with broader and more theoretical schemas. This advantage enables American colleagues to migrate from one subject of coverage to another and to adapt quite easily to the stylistic norms of their new beat. By contrast, Russians often demonstrate scholarly knowledge of their field, and it is not unusual for them to possess various relevent academic degrees.
I realize that generalizing in this way is dangerous because of the rapidly changing conditions in contemporary Russian journalism. Today, the government is not the sole owner and publisher of the media, as it used to be in the Soviet period, and intense competition impels reporters and editors to be the first to market their stories, sometimes leading to inaccurate or incorrect news presentations. As there is no longer the need to wait for somebody "up there" to approve information to be published, Russian news services have become more liberal and adept in competing with their foreign counterparts in breaking the story first. This seems so natural now that reminiscences of the state of affairs existing only five years ago provoke little more than a smile. At that time, in order to incorporate facts in their stories as direct quotes, Russian reportersout of concern for the credibility of their reports or even for their personal securityneeded to wait for days for the New York Times or other respectable media to publish it first. Sometimes the delay was so frustrating that impatient journalists would "leak" tips to their slower and less informed Western colleagues.
Several years ago Soviet journalism was justly criticized for a lack of diversity of views and the suppression of alternative opinions in the press. Today, those Russian newspaper readers who are interested can benefit from a great variety of opinions and an occasionally unrestrained freedom of the press that far exceeds the limits accepted here in the United States. This has led recently to the reproach from the West that the Russian press remains tendentious and biased. While this argument is largely valid, I would like to point out that this malady, although unacceptable, has a certain logic which can be explained and which, in any case, is not entirely alien to American journalism. Indeed, similar conditions and situations exist in the U.S. media and, though admitted by many American journalists in intimate professional circles, do not get much publicity in this country. Why this is soand the consequences of itis a point that merits speculation. For example, there was not much diversity of coverage in the American media during the Gulf War or after the invasion of Haiti. Some would argue that there was vigorous debate before those actions took place and that once the decision was made national resolve and accord were essential. This, however, still begs the question: was the press manipulated during these events? Some complaints, voiced in muted tones, would confirm such fears.
There seems to be another problem in the influence of American media has with regard to regions remote from the U.S., for which coverage often paints a distorted picture in the minds of an audience. Often the audience is susceptible to stereotypes embedded in stories that often do not pay sufficient attention to the dominant values of the region or country featured in the report. As a result alien beliefs are easily construed as hostile or even abhorrent. At times one notes a kind of facile equation of the unfamiliar with the dangerous, an equation which then may have a deleterious influence on political decision making. Recurrent, mainstream antagonistic attitudes that have formed toward Islam and Muslim fundamentalism in the Middle East seem to be a case in point. In contrast, I believe Russian mass media have on the whole managed to escape this problem by virtue of the academic background of those reporting on these issues, as well as the long history of Muslim peoples living inside the country.
Differences between the traditions of Russian and American journalism do exist; I hope I have suggested however that they are not entirely what they are commonly imagined to be. Whether it is possible or necessary to achieve a kind of uniformity in style of news coverage remains an open question. However, in light of the very different historical and social realities of the respective societies, the more interesting question may be if, for the time being, this is entirely desirable.
Sergei Danilochkin is a Michigan Journalism Fellow and most recently a journalist for the newspaper Rossiia, in Moscow.