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Malign Information Influence and the Swedish audiences of RT and Sputnik

Patricia Cruz



The article “The paperboys of Russian messaging: RT/Sputnik audiences as vehicles for malign information influence” by Charlotte Wagnsson from Swedish Defence University looked at the reception and dissemination of ‘malign information influence’ (MII) in Sweden, a liberal democracy. It did so by studying the attitudes of self-professed readers of RT/Sputnik through a panel study with a total of 3033 participants.

Wagnsson started of by a hypothesis, based on previous studies, that RT and Sputnik appeal to their readers by presenting information designed to strengthen the identity grievances of the readers. It was then presumed that the readers would score higher on scales that measure their identity grievances. 

While these outlets also present material that could plausibly further attitudes that weaken the national security, the hypothesis based on the characteristics of the type of people who read alternative news and russian media  was that there would be no effect on the attitudes pertaining to matters of national security compared to non-readers. 

It was found out that 7% of the participants read RT or Sputnik at least on some occasion, with 2% reading either or both regularly, weekly or monthly. Nearly three fourths of the readers are men and the age category of 18-29 years old readers was clearly overrepresented. A high total of 13% of that age cohort consume Sputnik.

The results on political preference were similarly striking: followers of non-parliamentary parties were overrepresented, as were the followers of the far-right Sweden Democrats. Followers of traditional parties, the Moderate Party and Social Democrats, were underrepresented. 

Yet another distinctive feature was found among the consumers of RT/Sputnik: they had a very high total consumption rate of all kinds of news media. 95% of them consumed a traditional foreign media (such as CNN or BBC), compared to 65% of the total respondents, and 82% consumed a national alternative media (28% for the total).

The users of RT/Sputnik were also more likely to spread news to who they know, even news they consider untrustworthy, so the potential reach for RT/Sputnik news/disinformation  is likely higher than the reported users, although the users reported that they are unlikely to spread RT/Sputnik on their social media.

Respondents who consume RT/Sputnik were likely to be mistrustful of media in general, with more claiming that they do not trust any news than the average, and many expressing skepticism of mainstream media. Still, it is noteworthy that the Swedish consumers of RT/Sputnik still consider mainstream media more reliable than RT/Sputnik.

The reported reason for reading RT/Sputnik was most often “for pleasure” (40%), For nearly a third, the content of the news was the reason for tuning in. There were different reasons for this, such as presenting news not considered politically correct on other sites, the readers views not being presented in other media, or that RT/Sputnik was more trustworthy on societal problems, Russia, or national security.

 A large amount of readers did not know or  want to tell their reason (25%), or referred to other reasons (22%). The hypothesis that RT/Sputnik users would not align with views that could potentially harm national security turned out to be wrong, 

The users aligned more with views that were negative of Swedish Armed Forces and Sweden’s inability to cooperate with other countries and were more likely to think that Russia’s threat was exaggerated.

On the first hypothesis, that RT/Sputnik users would be strengthened in their identity grievances, it was found that the users were indeed more likely to perceive such identity grievances out of the 15 claimed statements, save for the one that said “people on the countryside are left out”. It was speculated that most responders/users were in fact urban.

As for effect on political stances or matters of national security policy, the users were surprisingly, and contrary to the messaging from RT/Sputnik, more likely to support NATO. It was speculated that the users’ views were generally supportive of anything that projects strength and national unity.

On society at large, the users were more likely to be critical of many parts of the civil society save for the armed forces, which was viewed somewhat positively, although, as mentioned, they aligned themselves with worry of the present state of the armed forces.

It was noteworthy that the users were, contrary to the hypotheses, aligning themselves with views that can potentially harm national security. They did not consider Russia as much as a threat and were less inclined to be critical of the Russian Federation. 

The author notes that the consumers hold the potential to act as megaphones on issues of importance, as they consumed media to a great extent and were somewhat reckless in their media sharing habits. 

The relatively high consumption rate of RT/Sputnik, combined with the aligning of the users on both identity grievance matters (that can fracture the society) and matters of national security is problematic, particularly as the users were young, media-savvy men. 

The study “The paperboys of Russian messaging: RT/Sputnik audiences as vehicles for malign information influence” by Charlotte Wagnsson is in Information, Communication & Society. (open access). 

Picture: Russia Today logo.

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Article: Trust and Journalistic Transparency Online

Patricia Cruz



The study “Trust and Journalistic Transparency Online” by Michael Koliska from Georgetown University experimented on news consumers’ trust as brought on by transparency, and further, in the second experiment, explored the reasons for the findings in the first.

Transparency in journalism is defined as opening up the journalistic processes (production, decision making) to outsiders, i.e. making journalism more transparent. Karlsson (2010, 2020) further divides transparency into disclosure, participatory, and ambient transparency. 

Defining trust, on the other hand, in journalism has been tricky, as it has been associated with credibility. Kohring and Matthes (2007) define the four elements of trust: 1. trust in topic selectivity; 2. trust in fact selectivity; 3. trust in accuracy of descriptions, and 4. trust in journalistic assessment. 

This study recruited its participants from Amazon’s Mechanical Turk (MTurk) platform. There were a total of 1092 participants. They were presented with a news story about nanoparticles – a topic that was unfamiliar to most and therefore had a low risk of partisan opinions. The article was presented in six different webpages that had differing transparency items in them.

There were 11 different trust items in the first experiment. Based on the results, the hypotheses were rejected. They were H1: A a) production transparency news item and a b) producer transparency news item will be trusted more than a non-transparent item. H2: A full transparency (both production and producer transparency) news item will be trusted more than a) a non-transparent article, b) a production transparency article, and c) a producer transparency article. And H3a: A full transparency news item will be trusted more than a full transparent article that includes biased information about the producer. H3b: A producer transparency news item with neutral personal information will be trusted more than a producer transparency article with biased information.

Nevertheless, the participants agreed that the journalist was trustworthy and that they sometimes trusted the news media. On results, it was speculated that the participants did not recognize the transparency features as cognitive heuristics and did not interact much with the transparency items. 

The second experiment was similar. There were a total of 379 participants, who were not the same as in the first one. They were assigned to read the same article as in the first about nanoparticles, placed again on five different webpages with varying transparency features.  

Further on, the participants were asked to recall the transparency features (such as hyperlinks, author bio, editorial explanations etc.) and to recall specific information from the article and the transparency features. 

The participants recalled items such as the photo (84% of the ones assigned to the webpage with a photo) only 34% could correctly identify the journalist. Similarly, 53% of those who had seen an editorial explanation recalled it, but only 26% could recall a detail from it. Participants also had trouble recalling the individual transparency features they were exposed to.

It was noted that the participants had better recall on items that were part of the actual story than the ‘digitally outsourced’ transparency items. It is possible that this information is not adequately processed or they failed to acknowledge the utility of this information. 

In conclusion, it still remains unclear how the link between transparency and audience’s trust is created. The question remains on whether news consumers recognize transparency features as markers of journalistic quality.

The article “Trust and Journalistic Transparency Online” by Michael Koliska is in Journalism Studies. (open access). 

Picture: scrabble tiles spelling trust by Ronda Dorsey.

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News ideology and media storms in France and Israel

Patricia Cruz



The article “What Happens in the Eye of the Storm? News Ideology During Media Storms” by Doron Shultziner from Hadassah Academic College looked at the nexus of news ideology and media storms using two media storms to analyze the topic: the Yellow Vests Movement (2018) in France and the Occupy Movement (2011) in Israel.

Media storms are defined as events or topics that take up a substantial part of the coverage for a period of time. They typically peak after few weeks in the beginning and then begin to fade. They have been studied widely with various terms being applied to them like “media event” or “media hypes”.

In the past 15 years, there has been an increase in the amount of studies on media ideology. Measured against the hypothetical gold standard of pure objectivity, media bias can be seen when coverage varies from source to another in different weighings and so on, with professional considerations having been overtaken by ideological ones.

The ideology is often seen in framing – as in this case, left-wing media tends to frame the protests positively and right-wing negatively. This was one of the topics in this study.
There were two data sets for the study: the Israeli one and the French one. The Israeli dataset consisted of coverage from Yedioth Ahronoth, Israel Hayom, Maariv, Haaretz, Makor Rishon (a national-religious newspaper), and Yated Neeman (an ultra-religious newspaper). Israel Hayom, Makor Rishon, and Yated Neeman are right-wing, the rest are left wing.

The French dataset consisted of coverage from Le Figaro, Le Monde, Libération, and L’Obs – listed here from right to left ideologically. The articles from both datasets were coded either positive, negative, or neutral based on several criteria.

The results show that media storms are a multi-media phenomenon, affecting a number of newspapers at once. The findings also demonstrate a media bias: if professional considerations were the only thing that mattered, the coverage in left- and right-wing media would have resembled each other.

Instead, there was a trend of negative coverage in right-wing media and positive in left – and what is more, the lines of coverage moved to opposite directions, showing increased polarization. There were differences between the storms: in the Israel case the newspapers chose their sides early and there was no significant move, but in France the lines diverged as the media storm went on.

News ideology also operated through production bias mechanisms, such as sizing of articles or their placement in the newspaper (front page or somewhere else). Due to the differences of the two cases, the hypotheses regarding the decline stage of the storm were hard to assess.

The author notes that the study has implications for future research. It proposes that media storms may be high-risk events that even challenge the ideology and interests of the news organizations. As important, politically charged events become media storms, they may become political storms instead.

The article “What Happens in the Eye of the Storm? News Ideology During Media Storms” by Doron Shultziner is in International Journal of Communication. (free access).

Picture: Storm Approaching by Johannes Plenio @jplenio.
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Covering women’s sport: My sports journalism career highlights

Patricia Cruz



There has never been a better time to work in women’s sport and for early-career sports reporters, the opportunities are endless.

Here, multimedia sports reporter Milly McEvoy shares how she has covered everything from the Olympics and Paralympics to international women’s cricket and football tournaments, only a year after finishing her sports journalism course.

In June 2021, fresh off finishing my Multimedia Sports Journalism qualification with in Manchester, I made the move down to London to join Sportsbeat as a reporter.

It feels like a lifetime ago, but what has come in between also feels like a blur – it has involved international rugby and football, the British Athletics Championships and domestic cricket and netball (and lots more) in person. 

I have also covered the Summer Olympics and Paralympics, Wimbledon, the Commonwealth Games, remotely and I have had the opportunity to interview sportspeople involved from the grassroots to the top of the game. 

On top of all that, I spent two months covering the Women’s Cricket World Cup in New Zealand. 

As I came to the end of my history degree in 2020, I already knew I wanted to be a sports journalist, but I started thinking about what form that would take. 

I quickly settled on women’s sport. 

I had always kept an eye on women’s sport, and proudly say the first sporting event I ever attended was a Women’s Euros football match in 2005, but my interest in sport came from what was easily available – and even two years ago most women’s sport wasn’t. 

2020 was a slippery slope to full-on obsession including listening to the 2020 Women’s T20 World Cup final on 8 March in the early morning on the radio. 

Even across the airwaves, the sound of 86,174 people packing into the MCG showed to me that there was plenty of appetite for women’s sport, people just need to be able to see it – and read about it. 

Fast forward two years and Australia were winning another World Cup, but this time, I was there to see it with my own eyes before heading to the press conference to speak with captain Meg Lanning. 

What had led to that point at around 9pm on 3 April 2022 was two months covering one of the most exciting tournaments cricket has ever seen, and I’m luckily not yet jaded enough to have cursed having to rewrite my match reports as momentum swung wildly in several games. 

I learnt so much from covering that World Cup producing over 120 previews, reports, reaction pieces and features, but my favourite one was the last thing I did in Aotearoa, speaking with a slightly hungover Grace Harris the day after she had won the World Cup. 

Having returned to the UK, I enjoyed a full circle moment in July as I covered the Women’s Euros, and just like the 2020 T20 World Cup, I watched from afar as 87,192 fans cheered the home team to victory. 

Except, this time I was writing the match report for the Lionesses and I couldn’t get into the Wembley press box because there were so many people eager to cover women’s sports. 

It feels like England’s win will be a turning point for women’s sport, one that is long overdue, and I am excited to be part of what is to come and grateful and proud to have been a small part of what has already been. 

You can find out more about our multimedia sports journalism course here.

For a taster of our award-winning journalism training, sign up for one of our free workshops here.

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