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BRICS Spotlight Series: Western Meets Russian Journalism

In 2001, investment banking firm Goldman Sachs issued a report predicting global economic power gradually shifting from the G7 nations toward the developing world. Jim O’Neill identified Brazil, Russia, India and China – coined “BRIC” – as countries with enough economic growth to become major players on the world’s industrial power stage. South Africa was later added as a viable power to observe. A decade later, these countries continue to be watched and discussed by the media for their potential. And as the media pay attention to the BRICS group, so do public relations and advertising professionals seeking to enter or strengthen their organizations’ presence in these markets.  As such, the Cision Navigator presents a new four-part monthly series offering insight into the culture and atmosphere that can impact your communications efforts in these nations. Journalists and industry experts share their first-hand experience working in these countries, in addition to advice on hot topics, major industries and the most effective means of pitching and promotion. Whether you’re engaging in business in the BRICS nations or considering an overseas position as a journalist, this series aims to provide you with useful knowledge as you pursue opportunities abroad.


 

Red Russia, The Soviet Union, The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, Mother Russia. No matter what moniker bestowed upon it and throughout its modern history, the world’s largest country has been shrouded in clouds of mystery and, to the United States during the Cold War, suspicion. The country’s social and political strife has played out prominently in international news, but local perspectives on events and news have not always served as the mouthpiece. In history, politics and size, Russia is easily a major player in foreign policy for the U.S. and many other countries. As with any powerful nation, understanding how media and journalism operate and affect the national image calls for going beneath the surface.

 

For Fred Weir, a Moscow correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor since 1998, the image of being a foreigner in Russia is one he’s grown comfortable with. Hailing from what he described as an old Communist Party family in Canada, Weir was educated in Russian and Soviet history at the University of Toronto in the 1970’s. Profoundly interested in what was then known as the USSR – and with many relatives there – he was also deeply critical and hopeful of reform to its state socialist system. When Gorbachev came to power, he became a correspondent for the Canadian Tribune, a weekly newspaper put out by Canada’s  Communist Party, and went on to work for the Canadian Press and the Hindustan Times of New Delhi. Having lived in the country for 27 years, he relishes the insight he’s gained while appreciating his Western background.

“Living inside, with Russian family, including two children who are Russian citizens, gives me a certain perspective. But it’s always balanced by my own internal views, which were shaped by growing up and living a good portion of my adult life in Canada,” said Weir. “For instance, I’ve covered two Russian wars in Chechnya, and been horrified by much of what I’ve seen. In my own lifetime we’ve had a powerful separatist challenge in Quebec – as a Canadian supporter of federalism, I can understand Russian frustrations and anger – but the Canadian methods of handling it have been totally different and, as I tell my Russian friends whenever the subject comes up, far more effective. Being a foreign correspondent in Russia imparts a special status, Russians still regard you as a sort of romantic figure, even if probably a spy. It’s always interesting.”

Journalistic freedom, and particularly criticism of government, is perhaps taken for granted in the Western world, as scandals, investigations and the like make front page headlines or top the morning and evening news. With numerous national and local news sources available, staying informed of government activity at whatever level is recognized as a protected right by Americans and Canadians. This is not so easily assumed in Russia.

“There is no equivalent of the New York Times or Washington Post in Russia, much less the Guardian,” said Weir. “The very idea that a major Russian newspaper might print stories about national security leaks, the way those papers are publishing the Edward Snowden revelations, is quite unthinkable.”

The challenges to journalism in Russia, for both foreign and domestic writers, run deep. Speaking at a conference held earlier this year by the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute, Forbes Russia Editor-in-Chief Elizaveta Osetinskaya explained the business aspect behind investigative journalism in the country – namely no financial resources or support. Sponsorship, which is often needed to finance special investigative projects, can be a double-edged sword if secured, as sponsors may impose censorship. She also acknowledged the lack of education and training offered to Russian journalists, and saw access to international training programs as a step in the right direction.

Ironically, where journalism training is missing in Russia, the country seems to welcome foreign journalists to work within its media, albeit government controlled outlets. It’s a touchy subject among native Russian journalists, and Weir sees both sides of the coin.

“Russia now offers graduates of Western journalism schools a lot of jobs, in new state media such as the English-language RT television network,  the official RIA-Novosti news agency, Moscow News, and others. While I think it’s all a waste of Russian taxpayer’s money, I’m not hostile – unlike, perhaps, some of my colleagues – to the basic idea of young people coming here from the West to work for these outlets. I suspect there are far more foreign journalists in Moscow today who are working, in one way or another, for the Kremlin, than there are traditional correspondents like myself.”

As in other countries where the relationship between media and government is complicated, the dynamic has led to a burgeoning social media presence in Russia. Weir explained that unlike mainstream media’s in-depth coverage of government in the Western world, there are subjects in Russia that are not well covered by the big press, such as official corruption, inner Kremlin life and details about Vladimir Putin. Thus social media has become a major source of news for grassroots movements.

“During the protest movement after Dec 2011, the main way to find out about upcoming demonstrations was on Facebook, VKontakte and LiveJournal,” reflected Weir. “Some of the most interesting and edgy political commentary is blogged. Unlike in the West, where you can find a lot of important news, done by professional journalists in mainstream media, Russia’s political system remains far more opaque than any place in the West, and you must [return to] the blogosphere to find people openly discussing a lot of this stuff.”

And in the same manner as its BRICS bloc counterparts, local social networks in Russia rival the popularity of Facebook and Twitter. While recent studies by the Russian Internet company Yandex found that 60 percent of Russians update their Twitter profiles daily, VKontakte, known as the Russian Facebook, boasts as many video posts as YouTube and had more than 190 million users at the end of 2012.

Such fervor on the social media frontier is what will perhaps help drive transformation in Russian journalism. Whatever the driving forces may be, Weir advised that those considering the opportunities available to work for Russian media be prepared for challenge.

“Russia is changing, probably heading into another cycle of turbulence, and it’s not an easy place to live and work. You need to leave a lot of your preconceptions and prejudices behind, and be prepared to see it in its own terms. It’s a very dynamic place and will be a major player in the world of the future, so it’s worth the effort. But it’s always hard to take, and often maddening.”

Wisdom and advice imparted, Weir doesn’t discourage Western journalists from exploring opportunities. “Russia will always be interesting for people with the interest and dedication to cover it. The world is changing, and Russia is trying to insert itself into the global conversation, so who knows how these efforts will evolve?  If young journalists want to come over here, try their hand at being part of that, and learn a lot along the way, they have my blessing.”


This is the fifth and final part of the series on media perspectives in the BRICS nations. To read the previous installments, click below:

Part One: Near Sights on the Far East
Part Two: Treading the Digital Tides in Brazil
Part Three: Subcontinent, Super Potential
Part Four: On the Pulse of South Africa

About Allison Richard

Allison Richard writes features and leads international content for Cision Blog. She oversees east Asian media for the research department, which suits her perfectly as she loves languages and culture. She also likes yoga, useless trivia, painting and comedy, in no particular order. Follow her on Twitter at @AllieTimes.

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