Russian invasion news coverage could be much better, U-M expert says

March 8, 2022
Written By:
Jared Wadley

News media concept: Abstract, blurred image of newspapers on the background of the flag of Ukraine. Image credit: iStock


The global media is not fulfilling their role in covering public opinion and response within Russia, and we as people of democracy have to lament and be vocal about the reasons why, says a University of Michigan communication expert.

Scott Campbell

Scott Campbell

The world can get daily reports about how the invasion is unfolding and how Ukraine is responding, but that is only part of the picture, says Scott Campbell, the Constance F. and Arnold C. Pohs Professor of Telecommunication. He shares his insights on the impact this has in future coverage.

Describe the U.S. and global news media’s role in covering Russia’s invasion.

The global media is not fulfilling their role. There is a tremendous amount of unrest and dissent in Russia right now, and there is a lot more to that story than what we have been able to hear so far. Putin knows very well that public opinion matters, which is why he has been placing a stranglehold on Russian news media, the internet and social media. His authoritarian tactics are actually leaky, and there is space for amplifying public opinion and voices of dissent within Russia. To the extent that space can be supported, we may get more of the full picture of how people are feeling and reacting at the grassroots level. That may be a void that matters.

Of course, there is the other side of the coin, which is a lack of information getting into Russia so that the citizens can be informed. Looking at some polling done by The Guardian, it seems a good portion of the Russian population, particularly the young and the educated, are not in support of what is going on with Ukraine. That could be a dangerous misalignment for Putin and his regime.

How does this coverage compare to what is on social media?

From what I am reading, Putin is putting a great deal of effort into blocking social media and independent news from the Russian people. This is the void that could sway things. Today, the flows of communication and media are even more powerful than guns and bombs. Putin is doing what he can to throttle voices on social media platforms, which can have the power to translate public opinion into political capital. His tactics seem to be holding up for now, but there are ways of working around his censorship. Digital media can fit into places that cannot be fully sealed, through virtual private networks and other methods. It will be interesting to see if—or when—the younger, more technologically savvy and politically unhappy portions of Russia’s population will find or create space in which their voices can be heard.

We’re seeing the world support Ukrainian citizens in protests and disconnect with many things connected to Russia. What’s been happening in Russia related to protests?

Putin is doing his best to keep things quiet by using force to repress protest and dissent. He is using yesterday’s forceful tactics to bully protesters. With Hong Kong’s umbrella revolution and the Arab Spring, people were able to make their voices heard on a global level through mobile and social media. It is becoming increasingly more difficult to contain spaces open for digital dissent. To the extent people in other parts of the world can help amplify those voices, it could make a difference.

Russia’s government is cracking down on independent media coverage by threatening prison time. How will this play out long term?

To me, this is the real question. At the heart of this situation is a lack of free expression, and I think that is the condition that will determine how this scenario plays out in the long term. If Russia continues to keep a lid on its peoples’ voices and their access to information, then the present authoritarian regime may drag on. However, I think the cat is out of the bag with regard to communication and media. In the long, long term, I don’t see how governments will be able to keep up with the flows of information and communication. Because they are digital, they can squeeze into surprising places that are difficult to regulate and control. Those spaces might be better understood, managed and negotiated.

I am coming around to seeing democracy less as a set of rules and structures and instead more as a mode; it is a way of being, and free expression is the heart of that. Communication is power, and we can try to control it through forms and structures. But, in the digital era, where communication and information are not so constrained by the analog form, it might be more useful to accept the fact that we have to mindfully negotiate the bad and the good, rather than enforce and regulate along clear cut lines.

What we are seeing in Russia right now is totalitarianism. By that, I mean an attempt to totally control the flow of communication and thought. This has always been difficult to sustain, and I think it is increasingly difficult in the digital era. If there is any hope in this bloody mess, it is that the cat is out of the bag with regard to communication and democracy and, in the end, people will have the capacity to listen and to express freely. That can be dangerous in its own ways, of course—but that would move us into talking about the pitfalls of persuasion, politics, commodification and popular culture. The yin and the yang.

Newspapers showing headlines of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Image credit: Jeff Karoub, Michigan News

Media reports have also exposed global media as complicit in perpetuating racist narratives. For instance, one correspondent said this war isn’t happening in a third-world nation, but in Europe. How can news outlets change this narrative that white Europeans suffer more than similar circumstances faced by non-white people in other parts of the world?

A lot needs to be done to address the ways the news media, especially today’s complicated global news media, handles and sometimes perpetuates marginalization and ignorance. At this moment, the media change I can encourage is for ordinary people to embrace media mindfulness, which is the conscious awareness of what you do and do not know while engaging with information and views. We talk often about the need for media literacy so that people can recognize how inequality and oppression work their way into our news, as well as mis/disinformation, persuasive frames, etc. We, as users of media, need to be mindful that we are part of the process of democracy and free expression. I am advocating for more media mindfulness, the motivation to recognize where the media gets things wrong, and the ability to account for that when deciding how to use that news to inform our opinions and beliefs. In the end, the opinions and beliefs will find a way to get out, and that is when real change happens.