How Ethical was Russia Today’s Report?

The aspect of impartiality is a value in communication services which is greatly emphasised as a key trait of quality and ethical media. To insure this, UK media services are scrutinised by regulator, OFCOM. OFCOM is an independent body whose aim is to protect audiences from controversial, graphic and harmful viewing, whilst maintaining quality media output and competition within the industry.  Although independent, OFCOM follows rules and legislations set out by the government, such as the Communication Act of 2003. If deemed unruly, OFCOM have the power to draw attention to controversial programming, issue fines and in extreme cases strip companies of their broadcasting licence. Their findings are considered important as they are deemed a reliable source of flagging extreme and unnecessary viewing, motivated by responsibility for audience welfare. They also build a platform for social policies which are called to come into place, such as the Watershed and The Labelling Act of 2000 to prevent incidents of harmful media influence and reaction, like the James Bulger case (1993).

In November 2014, OFCOM found international broadcaster, Russia Today, guilty of breaching UK codes of conduct during their coverage of the Ukraine crisis, due to issues of impartiality. Russia Today is a government funded broadcaster presenting from a Russian perspective and has been criticised as Vladimir Putin’s key weapon in the expansion of his power. As a country, Russia is heavily involved in the intricate on-going conflict with Ukraine; therefore Russia Today’s aim to present from a Russian viewpoint could easily stoke the fire to greater violence and extremism. A number of factors could easily effect the reporting of events to sway the coverage to a very bias perspective, which is not the purpose of the news. Journalists themselves from a personal point are likely to have experienced first-hand the crisis unravelling as a Russian civilian and this may subconsciously influence. Due to their immense economic support sourced from the Russian government, broadcasts are more likely to oblige to a Russian agenda rather than remain completely neutral. However, this type of broadcasting could be dangerous as extreme ideology and conflict which already exists could be irritated further causing the news to dissolve chances of peace even more rather than communicate and update impartially on the issue to inform a collective decision for the way forward. OFCOM in particular were concerned, as broadcasters should report with “due impartiality … in particular, when reporting on matters of major political controversy” (Plunkett, 2014), Ukraine is a political crisis which is on-going, therefore OFCOM felt it was necessary to intervene, as ethically, the news should inform, not have a major influence on the reported events.

Media companies in the UK, follow strict principles and guidelines to insure they maintain the purpose of the news; defined as to ‘educate, inform and entertain'(John Reith). The BBC pride themselves on upholding impartiality which they stress is key to portraying all perspectives, this is equally highlighted by National Union of Journalists.  However the Journalistic codes of conduct which OFCOM act upon if neglected, recognise that news broadcasting are ‘free to be partisan, [but] must distinguish clearly between comment, conjuncture and fact’. Controversial subjects have a specific set of guidelines when engaging with issues just like that of the Ukraine crisis, this type of coverage should ‘ensure a wide range of significant views and perspectives are given due weight and prominence, particularly when the controversy is active.  Opinion should be clearly distinguished from fact’. These regulations are put in place and promoted by OFCOM, to limit the amount of undiplomatic uproar, if broadcasting agencies stray from these agreed principles they are in danger of causing major and bias influence, which is neither ethical nor professional, and this was the case with Russia Today.

When analysing the case study of the Russia Today report (Russiatoday, 2014), it becomes immediately obvious that as Journalists Russia Today are in breach of impartiality. The anchor-woman’s tone of voice sounds cynical as she suggests the EU trade pact is linked to Ukraine joining Russia, proposing that this solidarity with Ukraine is unnecessary; the NUJ clearly

states that journalists should have no personal opinion within a broadcast, her tone of voice is suggestive of this. The broadcaster focuses on Vladimir Putin and Russia graciously signing the treaty and welcoming Crimea, bringing what will hopefully be peace. This is a difficult thing to be so clear cut about as Putin’s political choices and interference with Ukraine have been opposed by a great number of people and this could cause more anger amongst opposing parties. The

description of the Ukrainian government in particular is incredibly wrong in terms of journalism; this is a government that came to power through numerous protests and a big backing of people. Russia Today link Ukraine to an ‘illegitimate government’, ‘regime’ even with ‘links to Neo-Nazis’; these are extreme links to make and for those behind the Ukrainian government this would offend. The broadcast does show Ukraine but in a light of violence and fear; presented in a low toned voice suggesting serious danger, and graphic imagery from Kiev. Whilst the broadcast show true accounts of Eastern Ukrainian civilians it fails to include any stories from the supporters of the Ukrainian government, creating the idea that the civilians are completely suppressed; also heavily focusing on pro-Russians who have been harassed and are fearful, victimising them greatly.

There are many contributing factors in this broadcast that are bias and due to the on-going events in Ukraine and the controversy over Putin’s interference it seems necessary that OFCOM should question impartiality here. To show Ukraine’s violent side, the fear and views of pro-Russians are acceptable as the news is there to show various opinions, however the broadcast lacks any variation and this is the main crux of the issue. Pro-Ukrainian views are ignored and labelled vaguely as violent with no reasons for their actions.

To resolve the issues of impartiality within this piece, Russia Today need to broaden the amount of perspectives they show and also highlight the controversy on the Russian side, which has been highly criticised. The broadcaster refers to the ‘coup in Kiev’ and the fact that no coup in Russia, which has happened, is not reported, in itself highlights Russia Today is more bias than simply showing a Russian perspective.

Published: 11/01/2015

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