Letters from Abroad: Moscow Media

Media bias is an often talked about subject in America, but with international issues like the crises in Ukraine, media bias can take on a completely different form. In America and the West, almost all news outlets are reporting the same story: “Ukraine is a country that has fallen victim to a shameless but somewhat covert invasion by Russian troops, orchestrated by their authoritarian leader, Vladimir Putin, who wants to reestablish control over all of the former Soviet Union.” In Russia, the coverage of the story can best be described as: “A ragtag group of fascists and Ukrainian army troops have been indiscriminately bombing their way through eastern Ukraine, all because an illegitimate revolution replaced a democratically-elected government with racist oligarchs.” Often times, I will be reading BBC news and watching Channel 1 (the Russian government’s channel) and be reading completely different or sometimes contradictory stories.

What best accounts for these discrepancies in news reports lies within the way both of these countries approach this issue. For most westerners, there is almost unanimous agreement that Putin is a “bad guy.” This is something that transcends party lines and most common politics. Almost every western news outlet has been pushing the same basic angle and Americans have had no real reason to question it. After all, how many Americans knew even basic history about Ukraine before this crisis? For Russians, this issue will always have more resonance. Ukraine has great cultural and religious significance to Russians and any Russian over the age of 23 lived in a time when Ukraine was part of the greater Soviet Union. Russian news reports on Ukraine tend to be far more emotional than western reports, showing crying women and interviewing families who have had their apartments shelled by the Ukrainian army. And Russians also consume a pretty straightforward media diet because the Russian government has far greater control over the media then in the west.

So what does the media bias mean for both countries? In a word: ignorance. Both Russian and western media outlets have not been lying (for the most part, you can find plenty of examples of blatantly fabricated stories on both sides), but rather focusing on certain aspects of the conflict while ignoring others. For example, here in Russia there is not much more than a hint that Ukrainian rebels may have been responsible for the shooting down of MH17 or that Russia was party to a treaty to respect Ukraine’s national borders. But in America and the West, many people do not know that Ukraine has enlisted the support of paramilitary ultra-nationalists (who in many cases are racists and fascists) like Right Sector and Svoboda and that its army has killed far more civilians than it should have.

One dangerous aspect of all of this is the way that each populace is consuming the media. Many Russians here in Moscow (a lot of the intelligentsia) know that the state controls most media outlets and that they are being given half-truths. On the other hand, I have met Russians who believe everything they see and what is being given to them in the media. But in the West, most people are more inclined to trust the media because they think that western media outlets have no reason to mislead people. Unfortunately, the western media is just as culpable to misreporting stories, especially with the rise of “social media reporting.” I hope that all the future reporters in America and in Russia will remedy the many mistakes and misinformation of this current media war in Ukraine and give a more complete story.