When Ksenia Sobchak announced her candidacy for Russia’s presidency, news outlets could have provided a lot of useful information, including details on her political platform, or noting she’d be the third woman to ever run for president in Russia. The articles we analyzed questioned and criticized Sobchak’s credentials, but not in a balanced, data-based way. Instead, they used opinion and implication to trivialize or disparage the candidate. Here are seven techniques we identified.
1. Question her credibility at the onset
One way to imply a candidate may not be serious or qualified is to question the idea directly, which The Washington Post did in its headline (the outlet changed it a few hours after publishing the story): “Russia gets a new candidate for president. Is she serious?” Seriously, Post?
2. Emphasize speculation that portrays her negatively
The articles mentioned (and sometimes reiterated) that some Russian individuals and outlets speculate that Sobchak is a Kremlin puppet whose role is to divide the opposition. It’s possible that the Kremlin is involved in her candidacy, but the outlets establish this through implication and opinion, and not data. Additionally, the outlets didn’t just report what these sources said, they gave weight to the claim through repetition and provided few counter-perspectives. For instance, Deutsche Welle includes 10 sentences that support this notion, beginning with its subhead: “But is she the face of the opposition or a Kremlin-approved critic?”
3. Strengthen the speculation through direct comparison
Deutsche Welle additionally drew its own parallel to fortify the speculation of Sobchak being the Kremlin’s pawn. It compared her to the 2012 candidacy of Russian businessman and billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, whose candidacy analysts reportedly claimed “was an attempt by the Kremlin to redirect the political frustration of anti-government protesters.”
4. Cite disparaging opinions
Two cited Navalny’s response to Sobchak’s possible candidacy, in which he asked journalists not to join in the “rather disgusting Kremlin game called ‘Let’s drag liberal laughing-stock into the elections to distract everyone.’”
This one’s tough, because media outlets have a responsibility to cite sources involved in a story, but what should they do when the opinions are dishonorable, like the above? They could paraphrase using neutral (not dishonorable) terms while still getting the dissenting message across. Or they could clarify that it’s dishonorable and ultimately the person’s opinion, not a universal truth. What are other options?
5. Include trivial, but sensationalist information
Here are three examples of such information:
Information about a candidate’s social life can be useful to inform voter decisions. But the way this information is presented is subjective and isn’t balanced. Meaning, the articles favor this over information about her political views or what she’d bring as a political leader, and they also import bias in some cases, which could be damaging to her character.
6. Publish rumors
Rumors are a powerful tool to imply something, and they’re usually imbalanced, because the impressions they leave are stronger than information that could neutralize them. An example is the Post writing, “It has been rumored, though never confirmed, that Sobchak is Putin’s goddaughter.” No matter that it’s never been confirmed, right? The idea that sticks out is that the rumored goddaughter status may explain why she’s running for office.
7. Omit relevant or crucial information
If you read these four articles, you’ll probably be left with a crucial question: What’s Sobchak’s political platform? And while it may not have been officially stated when the news broke, the outlets could provide more information about her political activities, views and ambitions, rather than focusing on the social or entertainment aspects of her life. See our Context for more.
Ultimately, all these mechanisms (or any combination of them) discredit and sometimes dishonor Sobchak. There’s a tendency in politics to play dirty, but journalism shouldn’t have to follow suit.
Jens Erik Gould
Jens is a political, business and entertainment writer and editor who has reported from a dozen countries for media outlets including The New York Times, National Public Radio and Bloomberg News