Now you see it, now you don’t: Data in the Russian protests coverage
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Now you see it, now you don’t: Data in the Russian protests coverage

October 8, 2017

The Raw Data

Unspun and unbiased. These are the facts.

Protests across Russia call for Putin to retire

On Saturday, protests took place in around 80 Russian towns and cities. Some demonstrators protested against President Vladimir Putin’s potential candidacy in next year’s presidential election, while others protested in favor of opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s proposed candidacy.

Some protesters carried Russian flags and signs that said, “Putin, go on pension!” and “Putin, retire!” They also chanted phrases like “Putin, go away!” and “Let Navalny run!” Navalny is not currently eligible to run for president due to a 2013 fraud conviction, which he says was politically motivated. He called for the protests, mostly unsanctioned, in 80 cities across Russia for Saturday, Putin’s 65th birthday. Navalny broadcast his message using his YouTube channel.

Navalny was not present at the protests because he is serving a 20-day jail sentence for repeatedly organizing unsanctioned demonstrations; he was detained on Sept. 29. Since 2014, Russia has prohibited unsanctioned demonstrations, penalizing protesters with a fine or detention of up to 15 days, or up to five years in prison if it is the third violation.

Putin, who has been prime minister or president of Russia since 1999, said earlier this week that he has not decided whether he will run again. Putin’s current approval ratings are about 80 percent.

Locations, attendance and detainments

  • In downtown Moscow, about 1,000 people gathered in Pushkin Square. The crowd moved toward Red Square, but was blocked from entering by police.
  • In St. Petersburg, more than 2,000 people marched from Mars Park along the Lityeney Prospect. The police broke up the demonstration and arrested about 40 people who attempted to break through police lines. Police said those detained were released and will be fined for blocking traffic.
  • In a protest in the Siberian city of Yakutsk, police detained a “few dozen” demonstrators; they were the first and “harshest” arrests of the day, according to The Associated Press (AP).

Protests in other cities had between dozens and hundreds of attendees, according to Russian online newspaper Meduza. According to OVD-Info, an independent group that monitors police detentions, 271 detentions were reported across all Saturday protests. For comparison, in demonstrations on Mar. 26 and June 12, also organized by Navalny, more than 1,800 people were detained each day.

Note: The Knife used two articles from the Russian state-owned news agency TASS for this analysis. Their ratings are shown as a single source in The Numbers below; both article links are included in The Distortion.

Distortion Highlights

  • You can shape the impression someone gets by what you say and what you don’t say — this is one of the key mechanisms of slant.
  • We compared five articles about the Russian protests on Putin’s birthday and found each had a slightly different story to tell, depending on the data they gave.
  • A simple comparison like this can provide the basis to evaluate what you see and what you don’t when reading the news, so take a look!

Show Me Everything

The Numbers

See how the articles rate in spin, slant and logic when held against objective standards.

View Technical Sheet >

The Distortion

The Knife’s analysis of how news outlets distort information. (This section may contain opinion)

Top Spin Words

  • Erupted

    Navalny, who got enough votes to nearly force a run-off against a Putin ally in the 2013 Moscow mayoral election, emerged as a key organizer of mass protests that erupted over alleged ballot-rigging in 2011-2012, the biggest since the Kremlin boss took power almost two decades ago. (Bloomberg)

  • Stinging

    The sarcastic analogy demonstrated Navalny’s stinging style, which has helped him win broad support among the young. (AP)

  • Particularly Irritating

    The fact that Navalny has chosen Putin’s 65th birthday to protest is particularly irritating to the Kremlin, said Alexander Baunov, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center, a think tank. (Los Angeles Times)

  • Ill-Gotten

    His documentary about Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s alleged ill-gotten wealth has been viewed nearly 25 million times since its release in March, helping galvanize protests. (AP)

  • Biggest Show of Defiance

    Following Navalny’s call, tens of thousands took to the streets in dozens of cities and towns across Russia in March and June in the biggest show of defiance since the 2011-2012 anti-government protests. (AP)

  • Fierce

    The protests were the third such anti-corruption, anti-government demonstrations organized this year by the fierce Putin critic. (Los Angeles Times)

  • Harshest

    Dozens were detained and taken away in police buses, the first and harshest mass arrest of the day. (Los Angeles Times)

  • Defame/Defaming

    Russia’s lawmaker says West used Putin’s birthday to defame Russia. (TASS)

    The West has used Russian President Vladimir Putin’s birthday as a pretext for more publications in “influential” media outlets which pursue a goal of defaming Russia, Konstantin Kosachev, the head of the Russian Federation Council (upper house) Foreign Affairs Committee, told TASS. (TASS)

  • Crusader

    The 41-year-old anti-corruption crusader has organized waves of protests this year, raising the pressure on the Kremlin. (AP)

    Thousands of supporters of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny demonstrated in 80 cities across the country Saturday in response to calls from the anti-corruption crusader to petition for his release from jail and to allow him to register as a candidate against President Vladimir Putin in next year’s election. (Los Angeles Times)

Our impressions of what we read can easily be shaped by what data we’re given and what’s withheld. And unless you have prior knowledge of a news event, or a very critical eye, you might not know what you’re missing.

Saturday’s coverage of the protests in Russia provide useful examples of this type of slant. We compared two articles from the Russian state-run news agency TASS against three U.S. outlets. One of TASS’ articles, for example, reports on the protest in Moscow, saying “police officers show[ed] restraint” with protesters and detained no one (the other three outlets reported there were a “few” arrests in Moscow). The impression or bias this TASS article creates is that the protest was low-key, and the government showed leniency and handled the situation well.

But there’s a lot that this article doesn’t tell you, when compared to the other sources. For example, there’s absolutely no mention of:

  • Any of the other protests around the country.
  • Navalny or his summoning the demonstrations.
  • Why the protest took place — TASS doesn’t state the purpose, the signs or symbols protesters used, or what they reportedly said or chanted.

Another TASS article presents a different yet complementary bias, reporting on a Russian official’s opinion that “several” western news outlets used Putin’s birthday as an excuse to defame him and Russia. It vaguely mentions two articles (we’re guessing an analysis by The Independent and an op-ed by Bloomberg) which suggest that, at 65, Putin is past his prime to run for another term. So according to TASS, the western media and certain U.S. organizations are in the wrong, launching “personal attacks” against Putin and employing Cold War “methods” to negatively sway public opinion in Russia.

What was missing from the three U.S. outlets? Data about the Putin administration’s performance, why he’s remained in power, and why his approval ratings are over 80 percent. This absence of this information slants the coverage by suggesting the protests were in the right, which in some ways is equally limiting because it presents a partial view of events.

Comparing the three outlets, we noticed some missing data as well. (It’s important to note all the information below was missing from TASS.) For instance:

  • Bloomberg doesn’t say police detained “more than 1,800” protesters twice this year.
  • Neither Bloomberg nor The Associated Press gives the context of Navalny’s most recent imprisonment, nor mentions police raided his headquarters and detained some of his staff, which the Los Angeles Times does report. The L.A. Times also mentions that state TV doesn’t cover Navalny-related stories, and that the Kremlin has used media blackouts of his activities — the other two outlets do not.  

Of the three outlets, the L.A. Times had the most data, showing us that this protest didn’t exist in a vacuum. The greater context allows a better understanding of the protest and its potential impact, and the government’s response to it. And this is only comparing five articles against each other — if we expand the cross section, it’s likely we’ll find more missing data.

Now that you see the information these articles omitted, what do you think is missing in other news you read?

Is it fact or fiction? Which outlet presents the most spin?

  • 44% Spun

  • 46% Spun

  • 56% Spun

  • 59% Spun

Fiction
or
Fact

Associated Press

“With his current approval ratings topping 80 percent, he is set to easily win another six-year term in a race against torpid veterans of past election campaigns, like Communist Party chief Gennady Zyuganov.”

Russia’s Communist Party Gennady Zyuganov ran for president and lost in 1996, 2008 and 2012. If Putin decides to run for reelection and his current approval rates hold, he could win.

Associated Press

“Police allowed demonstrators in Moscow to rally near the Kremlin in an apparent desire to avoid marring Putin’s birthday with a crackdown.”

Earlier this year, police detained up to 1,800 people in two separate demonstrations. On Saturday, police in Moscow didn’t break up the rally there, and the reported protest-related arrests in Russia were around 271.

Tass

“Police officers show restraint with the rest participants (sic) in the [Moscow] rally.”

TASS reported the police did not break up the Moscow rally or detain anyone. Bloomberg reported “a few” demonstrators were arrested in Moscow.

Fact Comparison

  • Facts in only 1 source
  • Facts in 2 sources
  • Facts in 3 sources
  • Facts in all sources

Putin prepares to seek a fourth term. (Bloomberg)


While several media outlets have reported that Putin is “widely expected” to seek a fourth term in the 2018 presidential elections, Putin himself stated on Oct. 4 that “Not only have I not decided yet who I will stand against, I have not decided whether I will run at all.”

TASS doesn’t mention why the Saturday protests took place, only that they were unauthorized and that police hadn’t arrested or detained anyone. Omitting the information that the protests were calling for Russia’s president to retire could give the impression the population is satisfied with the current government, and that opposition is minimal or insignificant.

Headlines

An article’s headline can direct how the news is understood. Compare and contrast how different outlets present the story through their headlines.

Emphasizes the “anti-Putin” protest message.

Some protesters were protesting against Putin remaining in office, but others were there in support of Navalny’s presidential bid. This headline is only telling part of the story.

Emphasizes the protest to support Navalny’s candidacy.

Some protesters were supporting Navalny’s bid, chanting “Let Navalny run!” in Moscow, but some were protesting against Putin, saying “Putin, go away!” This headline is also only telling part of the story.

Leaves some details to the imagination.

This headline is accurate, but not specific. Without more information, we can’t tell from this headline what the rallies were for or why they matter.

Balance

Get the full picture! Don’t buy into cherry-picked information.

The media’s slant:
  • The protests are an effect of dissatisfaction with Putin and the Russian government, hence they reflect negatively on the administration. (Bloomberg, AP, L.A. Times)
  • Either Putin is a “thief” and is responsible for the problems in Russia, and Navalny should be allowed to run in the upcoming election (Bloomberg, AP, L.A. Times), or, as TASS suggests, Putin is doing a good job and the recent protests aren’t noteworthy.
What the media doesn’t explore:
  • Protests exist when there’s opposition, but they aren’t necessarily a direct measure of an administration’s performance. A more accurate measure might be a government’s actions and inactions. The outlets don’t provide readers with precise information on the Putin administration’s successes and failures.
  • Changing the government isn’t the be-all end-all solution — all citizens participate in and contribute to the country’s problems, as well as its solutions. A different president (even Navalny himself, if elected) may not address the issues for which protesters are advocating.

Context

Access information and historical data that provides a more comprehensive understanding of the story.

How do Russia’s presidential elections work?

Russia’s president is the elected head of state. He or she is responsible for appointing the prime minister, approving the prime minister’s choice of ministers and appointing regional governors. The president is also chair of the security council and is responsible for determining Russia’s military doctrine.

In Russia, a presidential term is six years, and a president cannot serve more than two consecutive terms, according to the constitution (prior to December 2008, a presidential term was four years). There’s no limit on the total number of terms a president can serve.

To win, a candidate must achieve 50 percent of the vote plus one vote; there is no minimum requirement for how high the turnout must be for the result to be declared legal and valid. If no candidate achieves this, the two highest-polling candidates compete in a runoff within two weeks. Parties represented in the lower house of parliament can nominate presidential candidates. Candidates without representation in the parliament must gather two million signatures of support, which have to be approved by the Central Electoral Commission.

The Russian parliament consists of two chambers, the Duma (lower house) and the Federation Council (upper house). Members of the Duma are elected by a proportional system for four-year terms. In a proportional system, seats are allocated by percentage of votes, meaning, a party that wins x-percent of the votes, will get x-percent of the seats. A party needs a minimum five percent of the votes to gain seats. Any Russian citizen over 21, who hasn’t had his or her legal capacity limited by a court, is eligible to run for parliament. Apart from its normal legislative duties, the Duma can reject the president’s choice for prime minister.

Sources: Library of Congress, European Parliament, Constitution of the Russian Federation, CNN

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