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02.04.2023, . 09:34


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Ethics of the Oldest Profession (the mass media during the elections) S.Kolesnik.

In discussing journalistic ethics in Russia, rather than ethics in general, and examining the condition of journalistic ethics within the narrow bounds of two election campaigns, one cannot help touching upon a problem which falls outside the scope of this theme, yet wholly determines journalists' behavior. This is the answer to the question: who does the journalist think he is? What are his aims when he uses the possibilities offered him by the mass media? After all, the figure of an «information killer» arose neither out of the blue nor during the election campaign.

Look, who's coming?

Today we live with the conviction that the years of perestroika and glasnost accustomed journalists, although not overnight, to the fact that it is possible to speak out without reference to the opinion of the Communist Party. Furthermore, these people who rose on the crest of the first waves of the process which, thanks to A. P. Chekhov, is aptly known as «the process of squeezing the slave out of oneself,» quickly and easily cast aside the stereotypes of journalistic behavior, engrained by party directives.

The last ten years has radically transformed the Russian journalist. The graduate from the Faculty of Journalism of Moscow State University - clean-shaven and well-mannered or ,at least, looking so, with coat and tie - now sports a moustache and even a beard or is unshaven and in a worn turtleneck sweater. However, all these outward characteristics of the new journalist are merely external distinguishing signs. There are other more important things. What appealed to everyone so much when Alexander Politkovsky appeared on the TV program «Viewpoint», cap pulled over his eyes and speaking in conversational tones, has now unexpectedly for many idealists taken on a completely different form What was just «color» for Politkovsky has become obligatory journalistic behavior.

Glibness, brashness, lack of any restraint in interviewing respected or well-known personalities, the use of underworld jargon and even four-letter words (recall, for example, Alexander Gordon and his obscene remarks about Nikita Mikhalkov in a live broadcast on the radio station «Silver Rain») have become necessary features of a popularity-seeking journalist and, alas, are regarded as such by the journalistic community in its successful attempt to implement the right to free expression. One would like to believe that these are only the outward passing peculiarities of independent minded journalists and that the characteristic trait of new Russian journalism is a retreat from servile respect towards the powers that be, but actually this is not the case.

The regional media, both print and electronic, cannot utter a word without the approval of local authorities. In the center, informational blows are dealt against the public whenever one scandal has to be covered up by another. Today, it is only within the bounds of ideological inter-clan wars that journalists are permitted to conduct investigations and publish sensational exposes. As the Russian Union of Journalists noted in its appeal for the protection of the freedom of mass information, «journalists are increasingly becoming the `cannon fodder' of the election campaign. Under the pressure of circumstances, either through personal weakness or deliberately and voluntarily, some of our colleagues methodically and persistently erase the boundaries between the first and second oldest profession.»

New Russian journalism has turned out to be «old new journalism,» only with bad manners and scornful attitudes towards people who willingly or unwillingly come within the focus of journalistic attention.

The hero of events, his private life and the rights of a journalist

At the dawn of perestroika , Urmass Ott, having posed a shocking question to Lyudmila Gurchenko about her age, felt himself to be a hero who had passed the Rubicon. After that, there were no questions that television correspondents would not ask and features they would not show. However the first real step at revoking the guarantee of privacy under Russian legislation of an individual occupying a public post was made in 1997. The journalist Larissa Kislinskaya, who published an article with photographs of the Justice Minister V. Kovalev with women in a sauna, rejected charges of interfering in his private life, stating: «The Justice Minister is a public figure. His personal life is with his wife....If this is his personal life, then I certainly have invaded it.»

For the first time in the history of the Russian press this statement expressed the demand of journalists to be accorded special rights in gathering information about the private life of socially prominent figures, including candidates for elected office. However, instead of paying attention to this emerging tendency, the Charter of Television and Radio Broadcasters merely declared «a ban on the gathering, storage and use of information about the private life of persons without their consent.» As a result, the past election campaign has demonstrated several vivid examples of how far the practice of the mass media deviate from this document and how calmly journalist-killers ignore not only this principle, but also the idea of the privacy of medical information.

On the program « However», Mikhail Leontyev not only presented an allegedly authentic medical record of Alexander Hinshtein, a journalist from the OVR camp, and not only read off the diagnosis, but relished in the responses which, again allegedly, Hinshtein had given to a doctor as a child. Today, when the Ministry for the Interior is trying to force A. Hinshtein to submit to compulsory psychiatric examination, the Union of Russian Journalists has stood up for him. Characteristically, waving the medical file on the air did not prompt any kind of reaction from the journalistic community. Such methods are, according to Vsyevolod Vil'chek's phrase, «outside the profession!» Quality journalism does not use such methods, but by not condemning them, it disorients the young generation of journalists. In a report on the TV program «Today» when the group Rolling Stones arrived in Moscow a female voice was heard asking: «Will you use Viagra in Moscow?» This is the style of journalism in vogue today with young journalists.

A new style of behavior or the absence of style?

It cannot be said that all the objects of journalistic attention obediently accept this tone. On a number of occasions people have tried to leave the studio during a live broadcast. This is what it seems a former Minister in the government of Azerbaijan, whose political opponents were calling for his extradition from Russia, intended to do during the program «Hero of the Day» . The presenter Pavel Lobkov called him a «sidekick» of a crime boss, who was also wanted in his native land. One of the guests on the program «Those Who...» stated that she would leave if the journalists did not change their behavior. Natalia Medvedeva displayed greater courage and left the studio in protest during a live broadcast of the program «Press Sharks.» .

It is this program more than any other that has consistently cultivated and established the new type of « free-minded» young journalist - a type not particularly bothered by ethical restraints and unconcerned by the views or feelings of the person he has invited to the studio or who has accidentally found himself at the center of a «news» item. Suffice it to mention the attempt to interview the parents of a student who, in the summer of 1999 knifed a man in a synagogue, just when the parents had found out about the incident.

Still less important for this «new» type of journalist are ethical and moral norms by which people who watch television are guided. The illusion that such journalistic behavior is acceptable is created by ratings, which really only represent interest towards what is happening on the air or by the circulation of «yellow» publications, which people buy for a variety of reasons. These purely quantitative indicators have nothing to do with an assessment of moral or ethical principles.

What the «talking head» says

In reality, normal people have practically no opportunity to speak on today's mass media. Given all attributes of his behavior the «new» Russian journalist often turns out to be a «new old» journalist if we analyze what he thinks about public opinion and its influence on journalists. Today, television air-time is occupied by endless journalists as «talking heads», who not only exercise their right to free expression, but continue to act as «messiahs» bringing us new knowledge.

Journalists feel they are owners of the news, which they think they can shape as they wish. An example of such an approach to news, doomed in our eventful time to be viewed as classical at least for some time, was demonstrated by the well known television critic, Irina Petrovskaya.

At a time when Sergei Dorenko was leading an aggressive propaganda campaign against Mayor Yuri Luzhkov and the election bloc OVR on the ORT television channel , disorienting voters, she wrote in the newspaper Izvestia: «To criticize Dorenko is like spitting on the ceiling. From now on, I'll treat his program like we treat people who have died: we say either nothing or something good about them. But if I ever do the latter, then it will mean I was tortured.»

So, Irina Petrovskaya does not like Dorenko - which means that she will not analyze his program. But a newspaper, at least a normal newspaper, is published not only so that people who like to write critical articles about television can publish their articles . The basic function of a newspaper is to enable citizens to realize their constitutional right to receive information. Of course as a journalist with the right to express one's opinion, which is guaranteed in our country, Irina Petrovskaya may choose not to write about Dorenko. But in this case Izvestia should understand that by depriving its readers of an alternative point of view regarding this program, it clears the field for further manipulation of voters in the interests of one of the participants in the election campaign.

As shown in a study by the Center of Regional Applied Research, commissioned by the newspaper Mir za nedelyu, in the period from the first of September until the fifth of October, 1999, Sergei Dorenko's program devoted a total of five and a half hours to politicians. Of this time, one hour and thirty minutes was devoted to features with a predominance of negative information about the Mayor of Moscow, Luzhkov. Dorenko devoted twenty-four minutes and thirty-three seconds to Primakov, where an attempt was made to give neutral information, although twenty per cent of features were negatively tinged. Thirteen minutes was dedicated to Stroev, ninety per cent of which was negative . Of the main «positive» heroes of the program it is worthwhile mentioning only two names on the list. They are Vladimir Putin - thirty minutes (only positive and neutral information) and President Boris Yeltsin - seven minutes (only positive and neutral information). One of the most frequently mentioned movements was «Fatherland - All Russia» to which the program devoted a total of fifty minutes with an obvious predominance of negative information. Specialists had no difficulty in recognizing the orientation of this program.

But was it so obvious to viewers? According to sociologist Vsyevolod Vil'chek, an intelligent audience watches Dorenko «with a certain feeling of masochism; for them it is a circus. As for the mass audience, unless it is clearly explained to people how they are being fooled, these methods may be effective.» Did televiewers have the chance of receiving another point of view? After all, according to the Sociological and Marketing Research Center «Status,» even in comparatively prosperous Moscow a quarter of the population do not read newspapers or receive information from television programs.

In his program Dorenko initiated scandalous media-events, drawing into their orbit both other programs and television channels. He was supported by the second state-run television channel on which Nikolai Svanidze stated in his own analytical program that the Moscow government is like a deceased person - one either says good things or nothing at all about it (familiar method!). In response, in her «informational-analytical serial» «Soap» on the TVTs channel, Svetlana Konogen showed Dorenko with a dog's barking dubbed over his normal speech. On the TV6 channel Arina Sharapova rushed to the defense of «Dorenko's name.».

After Dorenko failed to find any palaces in Spain that belonged to the Mayor of Moscow and instead showed the luxurious properties of Gusinsky and Khait, owners of Most Company, the terrified weekly Argumenty I Fakty (No. 41) wrote: «A new outbreak of hatred: first directed at personalities involved in television mudslinging, later at Jews... Beware of igniting an anti-Semitic war, in which «the evil eyes» of television hosts will reduce to ashes not just property, but trust in television and your entire reputation!»

In the information television war, even a football match between the Russian and Ukrainian teams was turned into a political event which, incidentally, demonstrated how difficult it was for A. Lyubimov to resist the aggressive propaganda of the Ukrainian side. Russian journalism, democratically oriented, found no tools with which to oppose these classic methods of Soviet propaganda and it is these methods that were subsequently adopted by the ORT television channel.

Ordinary voters were in need, as never before, of a dispassionate, balanced point of view. The Code of Professional Ethics of Russian Journalists has no provisions requiring a journalist to expose unworthy methods of work by his colleagues and such provisions are absent in the journalistic codes of other countries. But, just think, is it ethical to abandon Izvestiya's three hundred thousand readers in such a situation and refuse them an alternative opinion or an unbiased analysis of events. In my view, only torture could make a journalist, who is aware of his responsibility to the public, do this.

Give me a say!

Are there many programs about ordinary people or, as we used to say, about the rank and file? Do such people have any kind of opportunity to express their point of view? Excluding the program «Time» (Vremechko), which is not especially concerned with election-related issues, no programs appeared during the election campaign inviting the audience to be active participants rather than extras. Although it would seem that ordinary citizens are present everywhere, they are present only in the background, as a necessary attribute.

Analyzing the TV program Vox Populi (»People's Voice»), the best program during the period of the State Duma elections, Nikolai Zhuravlev recently wrote in Literaturnaya Gazeta (No. 42, 1999): «It can be said to be a plaster cast of our political system. In the arena you see people who talk about their own concerns ( and who do not necessarily understand each other), but the masses are somewhere else, on their own. Occasionally remembering the title of the program and that it is the people that are most important, the host asks them to «raise their voice» - questions are asked, votes are taken.

Similarly, ordinary people formed the background of another ambitious election-related television project, «Process» - Konstantin Ernst's brainchild. On the program two hosts defended opposite points of view, while viewers voted by telephone for or against either of these positions. So that the «masses» could better understand the essence of the problem, the hosts spoke in «popular» vernacular, stirring emotions to such a boiling point on the issue «What should be done about Chechnya?» that it appeared that the aim was either to provoke a squabble as in a communal kitchen or a gangsters' shootout.

It never occurred to the authors of the program to find out whether televiewers liked this form of clarifying positions, whether they share intolerance towards other people's point of view, whether they consider it acceptable, even in the interests of elucidating the truth, to use statements like: «Chechnya is a plague-ridden barracks which should be destroyed» or «These scum have international links.» Did voters benefit from this kind of «process»? Did the program influence the viewers' point of view and if it did, how ?

On the program 24,529 people voted to «fight to victory» and 4,250 to «let Chechnya go.» The program was shown in two parts, separated by a week. A new vote gave the same result: 22,252 against 3,788. A disturbing result, although it clarified what was already well known for a long time.

Of course, it is possible to regard this program as just another modification of the TV election technology intended to support the position of the Kremlin and the Government. But the matter does not end there. Is it ethical to use this method to consolidate stereotypes already rooted in the public mind and to whip up such emotions? Allowing the discussion of Chechnya and of Chechens to reach such a level of hostility enables the program to justify military hostility as well. Using caricature images and the crude language of agitation, the program insults the dignity of the whole nation.

Since different points of view were represented on the program, it is difficult to assert that it violated one of the important commandments of the Code of Professional Ethics of Russian Journalists «to counteract any forms of extremism and the restriction of civil rights». It is worth noting, however, that although the Code has existed since 1994 and the Charter of TV and radio broadcasters since 1999, Russian journalism still cannot comprehend its responsibility to the public and to individual citizens.

Formally the Charter was not infringed. Moreover, the program defends what the authors of this document understand as the public interest: «the need to defend the basic principles of the constitutional system» (the masses supported the preservation of Chechnya as part of the Russian Federation) and « to prevent threats to national security» (again see the results of the vote - fight to victory). But other elements of the public interest mentioned in the Charter, such as «defense of public health and the safety of the population, prevention of the public from being misled by actions, documents or reports....» could have laid the basis for a more detailed analysis of whether consolidating negative stereotypes in the public consciousness in regard to policy in Chechnya meets the current interests of Russian society and contributes to the defense of public health or whether a vote taken among a part of the public that is an active consumer of television misleads the entire country.

What do we receive as the «voice of the people» on these programs? After all, the real audience in NTV and ORT studios hardly participate at all in what is going on there. On the program «Process» the opinions of the hosts are written down in the script beforehand, while separate attempts by more active representatives of «the people» (a characteristic shout from the hall: «Be quiet both of you and listen!») to change the course of the program are relentlessly put down.

The same is true of the program «Vox Populi,» which some adherents of «old new Russian journalism» perceived only as another move by NTV in its competition for ratings with ORT. Announcing this program, the weekly Argumenty I Fakty carried a headline « People Call Deputies Unprintable Names» (No. 41). Although, according to Argumenty I Fakty, «Kiselev dropped his self-important manner, moving to and fro between the people in this people's talk show,» ordinary televiewers on this program are still badly represented , even though this program comes much closer than any other to the standards of quality journalism. «Please give me a say !» - the words shouted by somebody from the hall are characteristic of this program.

The obvious conclusion is that representatives of the two poles of Russian journalism - «old new journalism» (the entire «killers' team» from ORT) and genuine new journalism (the NTV team) - are trying to take part in the electoral process still playing the role of journalistic messiahs of society. That is why such importance is attached to the ethical norms of individual journalists and why it is so difficult to compel journalists to follow the Code and the Charter.

Is there a way out?

Today it is difficult to say that an adequate understanding exists in Russia about how far the ethics of modern Russian journalism corresponds with the ethical norms of the majority of citizens of our country. Such research is not conducted in Russia. What does exist, however, is the idea that something is wrong and that the mass media are out of touch with ordinary people in this country.

«All this is fraught with the catastrophic fall in trust towards the mass media, the irretrievable loss of journalism as a free profession and an important public service» - this is how the present situation is characterized by the Union of Russian Journalists in its address in defense of the freedom of mass information. In order to understand what is actually happening, it is necessary to immediately conduct an in-depth study of the practices of the Russian press during the election campaigning period and the influence of these practices on the audience's trust in the mass media.

A detailed study conducted in 1997 in the USA at the initiative of the American Union of Newspaper Editors showed unequivocally that the growth of negative attitudes towards the mass media on the part of the mass audience is directly linked with media practice and the system of professional norms and values of journalists, which were in active contradiction with the ideas and priorities of the majority of ordinary Americans. A kind of «scissors of values,» primarily ethical values, which formed as a result of this contradiction accounts for a growing mistrust towards information published in the press.

The data of the opinion poll show that currently seventy-three per cent of respondents do not trust the mass media, naming among the reasons excessive concern for ratings (for electronic media) and circulation (for print media), as well as bias and disrespect towards the audience. A significant portion of ordinary citizens are convinced that journalists do not understand many problems confronting the country and that the mass media operate within what might be called an «electronic cocoon», which deprives the audience of the opportunity to influence the media effectively.

This being the case, one consolation is the fact that the continuing crisis of the Russian mass media is not unique and is merely a reflection of world-wide trends. However, until Russian journalists realize how much their ethical principles conflict with the audience's views, no appeals to the president of the country will overcome the crisis.

The American press, shocked by the results received in the study, immediately began to develop new mechanisms of cooperation with the audience and to test journalists for professionalism before being employed.

Russian journalism also needs a shock since its professional morals and ethics do not elicit anything other than irritation and disappointment in ordinary citizens. Although there are still no real statistics, many journalists do not even imagine how far their views might diverge from what the audience believes. It is hard to expect that the situation will change for the better in the coverage of the Presidential elections. So far, ORT is planning to intensify the fight, countering Kiselev's Sunday program with a new TV show by Alexander Nevzorov, a well-known advocate of the Soviet empire. But all the same, hopefully, quality journalism will eventually triumph.

Svetlana Kolesnik,
Director of the School of Journalism and Media Management,
National Press Institute.

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