A large number of deaths in a mass tragedy may not be important enough for the event to become the top news story of the day: its perceived saliency depends on whether it is part of the broader media agenda, according to a study of Russian media coverage of three different tragedies which occurred on the same day in December 2016, namely the assassination of the Russian ambassador in Turkey, a mass poisoning by alcohol-containing hawthorn lotion in Irkutsk and a terrorist attack in Berlin.
The study authors used data from Medialogia, a company aggregating news from 40,000 Russian-language media, including 1,974 newspapers, 11 federal TV channels, 34,905 online publications and 2,574 blogs. In addition to this, the authors referred to data from the Integrum database of print media related to the coverage of the same three tragedies. The authors presented their findings separately for each of the two databases in an article published in The Monitoring of Public Opinion: Economic and Social Changes.
The researchers refer to the agenda-setting theory, which states that the news media can influence the salience of certain topics on the public agenda by choosing which of them to cover. Essentially, this means that news reports do not necessarily reflect reality but offer a deliberately constructed and edited version of reality. The mass media can highlight certain events, topics and issues by focusing on them and thus creating a public perception of their relatively high importance.
Two basic assumptions of the agenda-setting theory underlie most of related research:
1. The press and other mass media do not discuss social issues as such, but filter and shape them instead.
2. The media's focus on certain issues and topics leads the public to perceive them as more important than other issues and topics.
The concept of agenda setting emerged in the late 1960s. Researchers today also refer to a network agenda-setting model, meaning that news media can bundle different agendas by discussing a certain issue in the context of other related issues, thus connecting them in the public mind.
The three tragedies – the mass poisoning by alcohol-containing hawthorn lotion in Irkutsk, the assassination of Russian Ambassador Andrei Karlov in Turkey and the terrorist attack at a Christmas Fair in Berlin – all occurred on December 19, 2016. As of December 23, 2016, the surrogate-alcohol poisoning affected 120 people, killing 74, in what was the largest reported mass poisoning accident in the post-Soviet Russia and former Soviet republics. The terrorist attack in Germany claimed 12 lives.
It would be logical to expect a domestic event with a record high number of victims to receive heavier media coverage. Indeed, there is science to support such an expectation: events causing a greater toll tend to attract more attention, according to a number of studies examining media coverage of terrorist attacks. According to Anastasia Kazun, a few other factors, as well as the number of victims, can increase media attention on a particular tragedy: for example, certain types of attacks such as aircraft hijacking. In addition to this, people tend to focus more on domestic than foreign events, while media coverage of terrorists attacks abroad has more to do with relations between the countries than with the number of casualties.
«Factors determining the number of references to a particular country in international news include the country's characteristics, such as its economic and political power, relations with other countries and perceived economic and political instability.
A country's place on the world news agenda has much to do with size and political influence, economy, military potential and population, as well as international contacts and proximity to other countries; geographical or cultural remoteness can lower media interest in a country. In contrast, bilateral trade adds significance to political developments in a foreign country making it more likely to become a news topic compared to countries without trade relations.
While political and economic factors are important, media attention also depends on the nature of the event covered. According to research, mass media in the US are more likely to cover international events which contradict American values.»
The authors compared the coverage of the three tragedies by different types of media. In particular, during the five days between December 19 and 23, 2016, Russia's TV Channel One devoted a total of 54 minutes to the assassination of the Russian ambassador in Turkey, about 15 minutes to the terrorist attack in Berlin, and some 12 minutes to the alcohol poisoning incident in Irkutsk. On December 25, the Voskresnoye Vremya Sunday TV programme covered the assassination in Turkey for about 20 minutes and devoted nine minutes each to the Berlin attack and the alcohol poisoning.
Having reviewed 34,905 web-based media, the authors found a similar pattern. During the same five days, 40,694 online articles discussed the ambassador's assassination, 16,933 covered the alcohol poisoning and 14,803 addressed the terrorist attack in Berlin. In contrast, a review of the print media stored in the Integrum Database reveals that provincial newspapers devoted the largest number of stories to the poisoning incident in Irkutsk – perhaps anticipating higher interest among their target audiences in the event.
Crimes against diplomats are rare. The last time a Russian ambassador was assassinated occurred some 90 years ago. Associated with terrorism, this type of event concerns the entire world as well as Russia.
In contrast, fatal alcohol poisoning is a fairly common occurrence. More than 36,000 cases of alcohol poisoning were reported in Russia over three quarters of 2016, and one out of every four cases ended in death.
While this might explain the relatively low media interest in the 'hawthorn incident' compared to other tragedies, research reveals that a variety of other factors can influence whether or not an occurrence gets extensive coverage. According to the authors, international significance is not necessarily the main factor. For example, when the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) suspended Russia's voting rights, neither the Russian media nor the public paid much attention, according, in particular, to public polls.
The authors reviewed the various aspects of media coverage of the three tragedies to determine why the mass poisoning lost the competition for media attention. They found that the Russian ambassador's assassination was discussed in conjunction with a few other high-profile incidents, including the terrorist attack in Berlin, as well as Russia's involvement in Syria; the incident was also mentioned in the context of a discussion of ISIS terrorism. In addition to this, there was an unexpected link to the Maly Theatre historical stage opening ceremony, as President Putin cancelled his attendance following the ambassador's assassination.
In contrast, the alcohol poisoning was covered as an isolated event, which was not embedded in the current agenda nor linked to media discussion of poverty, social policy or alcoholism. Instead, all reports featuring the 'hawthorn tragedy' focused on who should be held accountable for the incident, echoing similar discussions of efforts to identify the perpetrators of the terrorist attack in Berlin and the ambassador's assassination. "These inherently different tragedies were covered in a similar pattern, in which the state was presented as a strong actor capable of finding and punishing the perpetrators, rather than a weak one for having allowed the tragedy to happen in the first place," the authors note.
The study suggests that by discussing the ambassador's assassination in combination with other significant developments, the mass media sought to add depth and perspective to their coverage. In contrast, the alcohol-poisoning incident did not fit the Russian media's traditional agenda, which rarely features issues such as poverty, social inequality and alcoholism, and hence are not construed as priority issues in the public mind.
This has been the first study to apply the network agenda model to the coverage of several simultaneously occurring events by different types of mass media. Earlier studies of the network agenda model compared the coverage of a single issue by mass media in different countries. According to the authors, this type of research can contribute to our understanding of how state censorship operates.