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04.10.2022, . 00:54

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I. Dzyaloshinsky. Election Campaign Coverage: Role and Influence of Mass Media

The simplest vision of the democratic election procedure shows that it rests upon three basic elements: voters (either individual or grouped in blocs), politicians (either so-called independent or those aligned with blocks and unions) and mechanisms which enable voters and politicians to interact. The mass media play the most important role within the interactive process.

With regard to elections, it is therefore crucial to define the role of the mass media which, regardless of the problems faced, continues to play a significant role in shaping the opinion of Russian voters. Typically, many of those participating in the electoral marathon view the mass media as a magic tool leading to victory. They strive hard to bring the mass media under the control of politicians. Unfortunately, the mass media themselves have habitually established close and almost symbiotic relationships with politicians and their supporters. At a superficial glance journalists and politicians seem to be natural enemies engaged in an endless battle, whereas in fact they need each other. Politicians need an audience, while journalists need news. It is quite obvious to politicians that journalists will fall on any event, no matter how miserable it is, in the interests of finding a story.

The personal position of the journalist therefore becomes relevant during an election campaign. What matters here is his or her professional and civil positions rather than the political one. In practice, there are three such positions:

    1. journalist - image maker or image maker's helper;
    2. journalist - impartial provider of information, standing «above the battle»;
    3. journalist, a professional whose mission is to serve the public.

According to the classical view of the participation of the mass media in elections, the task of the journalist is to ensure that information is impartial, to provide the public with relevant information and to assist politicians in their effort to be represented.

This approach may work (though it is quite questionable) in the Euclidean environment of stable democracies. However, the concept clearly fails in the non-linear, Non-Euclidean environment in Russia.

Can one easily predict the outcome of a game in which one side is represented by powerful financial and industrial groups (whose interests are not so opposed to expect the struggle between them to maintain political interests and opportunities in balance); and on the other side there are individual voters some of which align themselves with weak public structures? The outcome is only predictable when the mass media either play against the citizens or pretend to stay «above the battle». This may be quite otherwise if journalists take the citizen's side.

I proceed from the assumption that the unique professional position which Russian journalists should take under the present historical situation is to represent and protect the public interest.

What does it mean from the practical standpoint? First, it means a clear understanding that democracy is only effective when citizens take part in its enforcement. An environment of apathy, cynicism and disrespect to all governmental authorities drives any political system to the verge of danger. Many journalists understand this, but have no idea what to do.

The Charlotte Project

Some experience has already been gained in various countries in the development of new journalistic approaches to the participation of the mass media in elections. One of these is related to an experiment performed by the Pointer Institute (USA) in collaboration with Charlotte Observer newspaper and WSCO-TV station in Charlotte, Northern Carolina4.

The idea of the approach dealing with election campaign coverage can be presented as follows:

    major points of election programs should be elaborated by voters, not by candidates;

    candidates should be responsible for regarding these points;

    the mass media should attract an audience to take part in covering an election campaign and assessing candidates and the activity of the press;

A few important steps have been taken in the course of the experiment.

A public opinion poll was conducted to define a «Civil Program», i.e. a set of issues which the public would like candidates to include in their programs;

A Public Council was set up to inform the mass media on the public opinion of certain points of the programs and candidates throughout the entire campaign.

The main role was given to the readers. They took part in a questionnaire and interviews, they were urged to interview candidates invited for public discussions, and they hit the highlights of the news reports. The readers struck the keynote in the coverage of the election campaign.

What was the result of the experiment?

Thousands of citizens who had long been just passive spectators participated actively in the campaign and influenced its coverage in the press.

The number of those who went to the polls had been increased.

Most importantly, the journalists realized in the course of the experiment that:

    - the readers could be not only consumers of the mass media but also their partners,

    - the search for ways to resolve problems is as important for the readers as revealing them.

The «objectivity» which the journalist strive, to achieve is often misunderstood by the public which doesn't understand what is happening.

Political issues should be covered in a way that serves the interests of the public, not politicians or the press.

Key Tasks for Mass Media

In taking a position of social responsibility and public-oriented journalism, the journalist must understand that there are key tasks to be carried out during an election campaign and he or she must find the means to achieve them.

The first task of the journalist during an election campaign is to ensure transparency of the election process. Without going into refinements provided in different regulations governing mass media activity in the election process, we mean to ensure that the public have, on an impartial and fair basis, access to all information which is relevant to give a true picture of every candidate, as well as of his/her program, supporters and opinions on his/her ability to translate promises into actions, etc. The journalist should clearly understand that in order to achieve the task, he/she should do more than just provide the public with all the information available. This is not only because the information itself is often produced by the candidates and is therefore not to be trusted, but also because confronting the public with raw information is one of the most effective forms of manipulation. This is why the coverage of election campaigns requires a great deal of analytical support and committed professionalism.

In addition to ensuring transparency of the election process, the mass media should take into account the principles of protection of personal data, trade secrets, confidentiality of information sources, etc. In other words, information should be communicated to the public with due regard for the rights and legitimate interests of those individuals and organizations which provided this information, and subject to their expressed or implied (verbal) consent.

Counteracting Mass Media Manipulation

Since in practice the mass media are frequently used as a tool for manipulating public opinion, the task of socially responsible journalists is to counteract any attempts to misinform voters about the true background of a candidate or true substance of the reforms proposed by him/her. This means it is necessary to monitor and disclose manipulation and other methods designed to mislead voters.

For this purpose the journalist should know how to discern two main methods used to enhance a candidate's popularity. The first, traditional method is conventionally called the image-making method, the second is called the cultural and practical method. The difference between the two methods derives from the three principles any election campaign is based upon. Firstly, the image-making method is intended to create an attractive image of a candidate, while the cultural and practical method is designed to convey the real and practical position of the candidate. Secondly, at the heart of the image-making method lies a set of catchy slogans which are not expected to be implemented, while the intention of the cultural and practical method is to convey the real election program of a candidate. The third difference between the two methods is related to the means of how to impress voters. The cultural and practical method aims to create conditions to ensure that voters are self-determinant and make their choice consciously by comparing their position with that of a candidate. In this case, the position of the candidate is first made known to voters, so they are encouraged to take their own position as to that of the candidate. A dialogue between the candidate and voters is arranged, where each side has its own opinion, but at the same time both sides may cooperate with a view to resolving common issues. The image-making method, on the other hand, employs a variety of tricks5 to manipulate the consciousness and behavior of voters, which journalists should detect and disclose. The following are only a few of these.

Myth Design

When designing a contemporary hero myth (normally for a politician) out of real political events), the true distinctive characteristics of people are retouched to create a public hero fighting and beating monsters rather than his political opponents - this is a battle between good and evil rather than between specific political and economic interests, etc. Experts reveal a few of the mythic characters most commonly used by political image makers.

Protector. Mighty and powerful, but kind to the poor and miserable, troubleshooter, grief reliever, and a person to be worshipped.

Idol. Needs not to be mighty and powerful, but famous, charming and universally admired.

Master. Though he may not be kind or idolized, his word is law. Lack of submission is punished.

Authority. His power is limited, and he is not expected to do good. He is simply an accredited authority on a universally beneficial and relevant issue. He can't be denied.

Virtuoso or corner-cutter. This character derives from the Odysseus myth. He can make everything possible, and find his way out of the most complicated situation. Though he doesn't always comply with the ethical code, his cunning deserves admiration.

With regard to the negative myths used to create feelings of disgust for a political rival, he/she can be painted with a whole spectrum of devilish colors, even pure Black. The image maker thus endows his/her opponent with every possible vice.

Return-of-a-hero myths are used quite often during information campaigns. Briefly, the plot runs as follows:

    1) A hero seeks to avenge himself for an insult;

    2) The hero meets a witch or an old man who provides him with a magic tool after he has passed a test;

    3) The magic tool brings victory to the hero in the final battle with the evil;

    4) The hero is back;

    5) The hero may leave, but he is always there when he is needed.

The above scheme was employed by the image makers of Krasnodar Governor A. Lebed in articles describing his struggle with the KRAZ (aluminum production factory) director A.Bykov. Alexandr Lebed was depicted as an epic warrior, B. Berezovsky as a sorcerer, Kremlin support as the magic tool, and Anatoly Bykov as evil.

Employment of Psychological Techniques

Psychological techniques combine methods, techniques and means of psychosomatic influence with the aim of convincing a subject to find a solution. The most effective psycho-technologies allow a manipulator to achieve the desired results by implanting into the public conscience those social processes which are most acceptable to him/her.

With the development of psycho-technologies, convincing communication (based upon facts and arguments) has gradually been transforming into suggestive communication. The focus has been on the development of external (subliminal) techniques and methods to deliberately modify human psychic processes, conditions and behavior, i.e. so that the subject can't control his or her responses to the external stimulation.

In recent years, developments in the areas of psycho-linguistics, suggestive linguistics, neuro-linguistic programming, Ericsson hypnosis and psychology of perception have all been applied to the public consciousness. Each is designed to create subliminal interference, and each has been highly effective.

A wide range of techniques has been developed on the basis of human perception psychology.

Fragmentation method. This method is designed to bombard the public with so much information that it is almost impossible to extract any value from it. The most striking example of this method is the «white noise» technique developed to decrease absorption of facts by providing so much information that it becomes impossible to make sense of it. The «noise» can be created by numerous comments and contradicting views based upon unreliable and unverified facts. The «noise» can also be created by giving facts a sophisticated theoretical coverage with impenetrable commentary.

Limited agreement method. This method employs the technique whereby a publicly supported view which goes against the designs of the manipulators is taken as it is and then gradually «tailored» according to the desired outcome.

Red herring method. The name derives from the technique of drawing a red herring across the path to throw a hound off the scent. In the mass media the method is used to keep an audience away from the relevant but undesired information by substituting it with other information provided as sensationally as possible.

Fact creation method. This method means introducing an audience first to facts, then to real and credible facts and finally fictional and credible «facts». As soon as the audience has no doubts about the second category of facts, it will not have to think twice before accepting the facts of the third category. American researcher D. Burstin in his book Image: Catalogue of Pseudo Events introduced the notion of «pseudo event» into the political vocabulary, which takes place because it has been scheduled, prepared or provoked, rather than of its own accord, to change public opinion.

Objective approach method. By adding or extracting some of the out-of-the-way facts, it is not only possible to «deduce» a nonexistent tendency, but also make it existent! This phenomenon, called the Oedipus effect, has long been known.

Historical analogy method. The success of this is due firstly to its intellectuality (the manipulator plays with the varied learning of the audience, e.g. As you definitely remember...), and secondly, to the fact that history can always provide a ready example when needed. In addition, historical analogy can be extremely helpful in designing metaphors to program the targeted object.

«Jack of Lent» method. This method involves selecting terms of abuse to give the subject in question a very negative ethic evaluation. Though this method is ranked among the roughest propaganda methods, it is used quite often in the current political struggle.

Semantic manipulation method. The idea behind this method is to affect perception by selecting emotively opposed words (our agent vs. their spy; we are liberators vs. they are occupants; we are fighting for independence vs. they are bandits; we have army vs. they have gangs of bandits).

Gossip method. There are many people who pay too much attention to whispered news rather than that which is reported openly. Upon hearing such news, even via the mass media (but presented with a shade of conspiracy), they think they know something special, which fosters their self-esteem. While the mass media bear no responsibility for the reliability of a rumor, it remains a highly effective means of disseminating information. Saying that, for instance, no proof has been found regarding the rumors that such and such a statesman is alleged to be a thief, makes one think otherwise. There is no smoke without fire.

Misinformation method. This is a very rough but effective method of manipulation. Its effectiveness rests in the fact that misinformation is generally used at the moment of making an important decision. By the time the truth has been revealed, the desired outcome has been achieved. Any unmasking tends to take place unnoticed, and the lie remains in the public consciousness.

Confidential information leakage method. Leakage of so-called reliable information received from «anonymous sources» is most often arranged to test public opinion. When it elicits a negative response, public opinion is worked over in order to prepare the ground for a certain political action. Where the response is completely negative, it is always possible to «refute» the sensational information by calling it «a pure fiction».

There are many other psycho-technologies that rely on the behavior of the human psyche. They are described in a variety of works and are frequently used by image-makers.

When we speak of manipulation we should bear in mind the fact that manipulator technologies are used not only deliberately but also, especially by journalists, unwittingly. An analysis performed at the Institute of Humanitarian Communications on the problem of elections showed that most articles used hidden methods suggestive of certain attitudes and behavior towards the hero.

Virtually identical sets of attributes and qualities are used when describing a candidate whom a journalist (or mass medium) supports, irrespective of the publication or region:

    - kindness, humanity, attention to people (»human and attractive», «placable man»);

    - closeness to people, simplicity, understanding of people's needs (»is not afraid of contacts with people», «not a saint but simple», «does his best for the people, «hard working», «good guy», «wins confidence of others»);

    - sincerity, openness, ability to admit and make relevant conclusions;

    - strong character, will, dedication, resiliency, ability to mobilize oneself at the critical moment;

    - experience, predictability of actions, trust (»one knows what to expect from him in the future»);

    - ability to work, good physical qualities (»tall, good-looking, well-made», «strong, resolute», «in good shape», «strongman»).

As regards negative attributes, they also boringly repeat themselves: stinginess, lust for power, intemperance, rudeness, foreign association (non-indigenous, from another city or region, different social associations, different appearance etc.).

Clearly, one should not overestimate the power of manipulation. Most people have powerful in-built protective mechanisms. But I would also guard against downplaying the effects of manipulation. The press should lead a constant, uncompromising and, probably, exhaustive struggle with political manipulation. Otherwise we may find that freedom of speech and freedom of individual choice will be looked upon as a myth, while talk of objectivity on the part of the mass media and its role as a mediator in political and social processes will be a tale for simple minds. Can one live in such a society?

For this reason Russian journalism will have to depart from its traditional relationship with politicians, whereby politicians act and the press merely reacts. We will have to turn to the voters and develop methods of covering election campaigns which attract the audience not merely as consumers of information, but as partners. We will have to counteract those who like to manipulate the attitudes, opinions and behavior of people.

I. Dzyaloshinsky
General Director
Institute of humanitarian communications


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5 Manipulation often means applying special ideological, social and psychological influences to make people change their minds and behavior in contradiction to their own interests.

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