This week, Channel One in Russia released satellite photos which allegedly show a Ukrainian fighter jet shooting down MH17. While the photos were quickly shown to be fakes by various Russian commentators and bloggers, the pictures are still spread across the world as valid news. This illustrates an idea that I believe to be very wrong; the idea that all news sources are equally biased, and that we should take information from all of them equally. While it is a good idea not to get all your information from one source, Western media is still a far more trustworthy source than that of countries like Russia – and this is something that we should appreciate more.
Firstly though, it is still important to realise that no media outlet gives us the objective truth, simply because that’s impossible. One reason is that with pressure to get the news out fast, the media often gives us a developing version of events that later turns out not to be true. The media will also pick and choose their stories based on what they find important, which is of course based on their point of view. During the invasion of Iraq Al-Jazeera highlighted civilian casualties, and American media focused on military victories. Finally, there are Western media outlets with a clear and stated ideology, such as Fox News or MSNBC in the US, and many newspapers like the Daily Mail in the UK. However, when we focus on news sources like the BBC and Reuters, as well as newspapers like the New York Times, it is clear that much of the ‘mainstream’ media is far more trustworthy than most alternatives, and certainly alternatives in countries like Russia.
Taking a closer look at Russian media, it is plain to see that they do not have anywhere near the same freedom that we do in the West. The easiest way to see this is with the question: how would the American media and the Russian media respond if their president was discovering to be lying to the public? This is an easily answered question, because it has happened. After the Watergate burglary in 1972, the American media worked tirelessly to prove that President Nixon was behind it, and despite government pressure eventually forced him to resign. In Russia though, President Putin admitted months after the invasion of Crimea that Russian troops had been involved, after stating at the time that that was completely untrue. Russia Today’s piece on the statement contained nothing of substance except quotes from Putin. This loyalty to the government line is characteristic of the Russian media.
While in the West self-styled ‘alternative media’ is heavily critical of American imperialism and globalisation, in Russia self-styled ‘alternative media’ is also heavily critical of American imperialism and globalisation. Criticism of their own government falls through the gaps. One of the few Russian newspapers critical of Putin’s government, Novaya Gazeta, has had six of its journalists murdered since Putin came to power – in the West, murders of journalists only take place in Jason Bourne films. The Russian media outlets loyal to the government follow the Kremlin line on important stories, and Ukraine is one of them. The picture Russians get of Eastern Ukraine is of brave separatists and fascist Ukrainians, with no further nuance.
To say that Western media is the same as this is impossible to back up. While it sometimes fails in its duties, the US media has often been a thorn in the side of the government. In 1973 The New York Times published the secret Pentagon Papers, despite a government attempt to force them to stop. Numerous American media outlets have investigated the Bush White House’s lies on WMD’s in Iraq. Even now, Western media publishes secret US documents leaked by Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden, serving to illuminate things our governments would rather keep hidden. If Western media really is a puppet of the government, then the government is a terrible puppeteer.
It is always important to question where we get our information from, and why we should trust it. But to portray our Western media as just as biased as that of Russia is ridiculous. We should appreciate the freedom we have in the West to criticise our government, and recognise the role the media plays in that – as well as keeping a close eye on them to make sure they keep doing their job.