April 2016: journalists at a Moscow newspaper watch "Direct Line with Vladimir Putin". (с) Aleksandr Vilf / VisualRIAN. All rights reserved.The idea of conducting a survey of Russian journalists came to me after seeing something similar in New York magazine, which earlier this year polled 113 people working in the US media on the problems and challenges they face. I thought it’d be interesting to compare the responses of journalists working on opposite sides of the Atlantic. On the one hand, you have the experience of a country where every schoolchild feels pride in the First Amendment, which forbids Congress to pass any legislation limiting freedom of speech and the press, and, on the other, experience from a country where censorship was officially banned only 26 years ago.
My survey of Russian journalists showed that 72% of respondents had encountered instances of censorship in their work; 87% agreed that it exists in Russia and 92% that the majority of Russian mass media outlets were biased. Eighty two percent see the post-2012 period as the worst for Russia’s media (and another 11% see Vladimir Putin’s first two terms in the same light), while 73% of respondents saw Boris Yeltsin’s presidency as the most positive for their work. Almost a quarter of respondents believe that there is no one to help them assert their rights.
Who are these people?
I invited potential respondents to participate on Facebook — most of the people who got back to me were journalists working for the quality press and media.
The survey was carried out via email, and 100 respondents took part. Eighty of them worked for privately owned media, 15 for state owned companies and seven for other types of media (the Colta.ru internet platform, Radio Liberty and BBC). Three people worked for a news agency; 51 in online publications; 47 in print publications and 10 each in radio and TV. Some respondents work in more than one media outlet, so the number of responses was higher than the number of respondents.
I limited respondents to people with 10 or more years experience in journalism. The largest group (44 people) began their careers under Yeltsin (1991-1999); 39 - during Putin’s first two terms (2000-2008). The rest had longer experience under their belts: 12 had started work under Mikhail Gorbachev (1985-1991); two under Yuri Andropov (1982-4) and two went back to the Brezhnev years (1964-1982).
What were their responses?
I asked 11 questions from the New York poll, and another nine with specific relevance to Russia (you can read the American results here). Some questions just required an answer; others allowed respondents to add comments.
My published results exclude narrowly specific questions about the influence of the internet and social media on journalism. It’s interesting, however, that the American and Russian journalists gave completely opposite responses to the same questions. 76% of the Americans said that the internet had been bad for journalism; the same percentage of Russians saw its influence as positive. There were less extreme differences in responses to the question of the influence of social media on their profession: 53% of the Americans and 74% of the Russians saw it as positive. I also excluded responses to a question about why people distrust the media — according to the independent Levada Center, a majority of Russians trust their country’s media.
My survey also showed that the Russian journalists who took part in the survey were much more likely than their American counterparts (68% as opposed to 37%) to believe that media standards had improved over the last 10 years. Both groups, however, agreed about the main function of journalism: 86% of US respondents and 83% of Russian journalists believe it lay in “telling its readership/audience what it needs to know, without fear of offending its interests”. The rest believed their role was to “respond to readership/audience demand”.
As for the specifics of journalism in Russia, it was telling that more than half of respondents felt that government-owned and -controlled media should only exist under certain conditions, and 26% - that they should not exist under any circumstances. Opinions also differed on Deputy Communications Minister Aleksey Volin’s belief that the function of journalists was to work for “your owner”. Thirty eight percent of those polled thought that this position could be explained by his personal biography; 17%, that it reflected wishful thinking on his part and almost a third that his pronouncements mirrored the objective conditions in which the Russian media have to work.
You can read the full qualitative survey in Russian here.