Tag Archives: journalism

How to Write a Bad Article about Russia

Several press articles I’ve seen in the past few days have annoyed me rather, but I think that they are useful as examples of how reporting on Russia is distorted. For they demonstrate the methods used by journalists to paint a picture of the world that is far from accurate.

The articles in question come from those bastions of balanced reporting, The New York Times and The Guardian. The first is from Sunday’s edition of the NYT, with the title ‘The Arms Dealer in the Crosshairs of Russia’s Elite Assassination Squad’. This discusses Bulgarian arms dealer Emilian Gebrev, whose weapons were destroyed in an explosion in the Czech Republic in 2014, allegedly by Russian secret agents.

The second article is also from the NYT. This one has the title ‘After Testing the World’s Limits, Putin Steps Back From the Brink,’ and analyzes what author Anton Troianovski calls Russia’s ‘escalatory approach to foreign policy’, as seen by the Russian military build up near the Ukrainian border.

The third and final piece is from The Guardian, and is about last week’s protests in support of jailed oppositionist Alexei Navalny. This is somewhat schizophrenic, on the one hand saying that the pro-Navalny movement is in trouble, but on the other hand portraying the protests as a relative success and ending on a confident note that however grim things look for the opposition now, this can change at any moment.

Anyway, as one reads these articles one notices certain techniques that are used to paint a distorted picture of reality. So if you want to be a journalist, here’s what the articles teach that you should do:

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More Bad Journalism on Russia

Having said in my last post that you shouldn’t disbelieve everything that the press tells you about Russia, I find myself returning once again to examples of bad reporting, as these seem to be rather more prevalent than the good variety. Bad journalism, though, is not all the same. It takes different forms, and some examples from this week and last prove the point.

First off is report by the BBC’s Russian correspondent Steve Rosenberg that came out yesterday, which you can watch on the BBC website. Rosenberg travelled to the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk supposedly to find answers to the question ‘In what direction is Russia heading?’, Krasnoyarsk being chosen because it’s geographically more or less slap bang in the middle of Russia.

As I note in an analysis of the report published today by RT (which you can read here), it’s not very good. Having travelled 4,000 kilometres to Krasnoyarsk, Rosenberg tells us absolutely nothing about the city itself, but limits himself to interviewing three people who tell him a bunch of things he could just as easily have heard if he’d stayed in Moscow. The whole piece is then framed, start and finish, by a statement that “Russia is heading towards a big catastrophe.” Ah yes, Russia is doomed! How many times have we heard that one?

Frankly, I can’t imagine why Rosenberg bothered going to Krasnoyarsk to do this. Having travelled that far, he could have made an effort to explore the city and tell us how things are there. But none of it. It was just another excuse to tell us that Russia is going down the plughole.

This then is one type of bad reporting: it consists of focusing on selling a given narrative rather than trying to understand and explain the object under study.

This type isn’t untrue, it’s just not very interested in anything that doesn’t fit the chosen story. The second type, by contrast, bends the truth to fit the narrative.

Continue reading More Bad Journalism on Russia

Friday book # 35: I Write As I Please

Years ago, when I was working on my doctoral thesis in the archives at Columbia University, I met another researcher (whose name I have unfortunately forgotten just now), who was studying American journalists who reported from the Stalin-era Soviet Union. The most prominent of these were the New York Times’s Moscow bureau chief, Walter Duranty, and the New York Evening Post’s Hubert Renfro Knickerbocker. According to my fellow researcher, the archives showed clearly that both men were very well aware of the crimes committed by the communist government and that they deliberately covered them up in order to stay in favour with the Soviets. Both Duranty and Knickerbocker won Pulitzer prizes for their reporting from the Soviet Union, but in 1990 the New York Times declared Duranty’s work to be ‘some of the worst reporting to appear in this newspaper’. I don’t know if my archival colleague ever produced anything from his research, but he did give me this bashed-up copy of Duranty’s memoirs. Their title – I Write As I Please – seems very fitting.

duranty