As reporting about the Sochi Olympic and the crisis in Ukraine dominate the international press, Russian International Affairs Council addresses the problem of objectivity of international journalism and its role in shaping a country’s image.

The roundtable dedicated  to Russia’s image abroad brought together Russia's foreign policy ezperts and journalists. Photo: Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC).  

In the midst of an information war over the Sochi Olympics, the crisis in Ukraine and the state of Russia’s LGBT community, the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC) hosted a roundtable dedicated to the image of Russia in the world and the role of journalism in shaping it.

The roundtable, entitled “Journalism and Foreign Policy: Is the image of the world in Russian related to Russia’s image abroad?” brought together the winners and finalists of an RIAC-organized contest for international journalists and a number of Russia’s prominent experts, including Fyodor Lukyankov, head of Russia’s Council of Foreign and Defense Policy (CFDP); former Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov; and the general director of RIAC, Andrei Kortunov.

The participants discussed the question posed by the session’s title as well as how international journalism is changing in the digital age.

While talking about more favorable conditions for creating a positive image of Russia, Lukyanov, who is also the editor-in-chief of the analytical magazine Russia in Global Affairs, utilized the metaphor of a two-sided coin or a mirror that reflects both sides.

“Sometimes we are reflected in the world in a certain way, and this reflection surprised us because we can’t recognize ourselves,” Lukyanov said, comparing the perception of Russia abroad with the reflection of the image in distorted mirrors. “At the same time, we can’t say this is incorrect, it is the mirror that reflects our faces and bodies in a distorted way.”

His comments referred not only to Russia, but also the Russian media, which often present an incomplete or exaggerated image of Russia’s partners and rivals. Lukyakov argued that this reporting creates a more distorted picture of the world.

Lukyanov said that although journalists from other countries may create a distorted image of Russia, Russians should keep in mind that the lack of unemotional coverage and objectivity is dangerous because both Russian journalists and their Western counterparts “seek to take certain positions” and give personal assessments rather than report facts.

“We lost the capability to cover [international] events with presence of mind and [emotional] detachment,” Lukyanov said, noting that journalism should be not be misleading, but rather “educational” in its nature.

RIAC head Andrei Kortunov sees the trend of polarization in both journalism and society as very dangerous. According to Kortunov, this polarization can be seen between those who welcome change and seek to integrate into the global community and those who are afraid of this new world and see it as a threat yearn for the past.

“This split keeps our country from moving forward and looking for our place in the new system without sacrificing our values,” Kortunov said, pointing to the importance of the role of professional international journalism, especially when many people get most of their news from the Internet, which is overflowing with blogs and citizen reporting.

Emotional, biased materials are commonplace not only online, but also in television and newspapers, argued Kortunov, while calling for more responsible, reliable coverage and effective debates of international events. According to him, such moves may restore the image of Russia.

Kortunov argued that journalists and specialists in international affairs working today lack “an intellectual empathy,” meaning the ability to assess the events objectively and understand and respect the other position.   

“International journalists are one of the mediators between the society [of a country] and the whole world,” Kortunov said. “A detached, objective assessment of those problems we face as well as opportunities and restrictions in relations with our foreign partners – it is very important.”

Kortunov pins his hopes on the next generation of Russia’s international journalists who are “not burdened by the Soviet ideological dogmas and didn’t grow up in a closed society.”

Comments from the roundtable’s other participants were variations on this theme.

Igor Ivanov, a former Russian Foreign Minister, expanded Kortunov’s ideas to politicians and diplomats, who deal with international affairs on a daily basis.

Georgy Muradov, Deputy Head of Russia's Federal Agency for the CIS and International Humanitarian Cooperation (Rossotrudnichestvo), called journalists the “surgeons of public mind.”

“They are worse than neurosurgeons, because a neurosurgeon can affect the mind of one person, while the damage of the collective mind might result in more negative consequences for the world. It’s a very delicate tool,” Muradov said, referring to the coverage of events in Ukraine.

Sergey Khazov, a journalist from the liberal magazine New Times argued that journalists shouldn’t focus primarily on creating the image of a country because this creates the risks of being seen as propaganda.  

“The job of journalist is to tell the truth and present facts, two sides – for example, Ukrainian and Russian,” Khazov said, again referring to the crisis in Ukraine.

Dmitry Kosyrev, a well-known Russian columnist and political expert for the RIA Novosti news agency, argued that there are many international journalists who lack a depth of knowledge in international relations and this hampers the development of quality reporting. According to Kosyrev, lack of objectivity partially results from the trend in many media to turn their products “into a sphere that include those semi-literates who entertain other semi-literates” just to earn money.

According to Kosyrev, one of the ways to tackle the problem is to organize special contests for international journalists like the ones organized by Russian International Affairs Council. Such contests can encourage young journalists to improve their skills and develop professional pride.    

“Professional pride is a very strong thing, stronger than money,” Kosyrev said.