Russian Television: Viewers as the Missing Term in the Equation of Persuasion
In a recent meeting at the Kennan Institute, Ellen Mickiewicz contended that the usual views of the Russian television public fall short of the reality. She explained that the perception of Russian television viewers is largely based on findings from public opinion polls. Mickiewicz asserted that while opinion polls can provide important and useful information in many areas, they fail to reveal the complexities of processing information at the individual level. She detailed her use of focus groups to understand better the Russian television viewing audience and offered preliminary analysis of her findings.
According to Mickiewicz, poll responses reflect thinking but they fail to portray the complexity of opinion formation and viewer persuasion. She explained that persuasion consists of "being exposed to a communication, paying attention to that communication, comprehending it and accepting the explanation." She argued that most poll responses are the first thought that comes to mind and therefore they "do not illustrate the complex process of opinion formation." Mickiewicz observed further that if survey questions are posed as abstractions they elicit abstract answers that make interpretation very difficult.
Mickiewicz discussed how her research focused on the responses of focus groups from four Russian cities. She contended that poll findings suggesting that Russian television viewers mainly trust state television could be misleading. According to Mickiewicz's initial findings, Russian viewers say that they trust government news, but what they mean is that the typical recitation of government achievements in terms of expected revenues, planned projects, rates of increase or decrease in problems or achievements is neither provable nor disprovable. Because the state fails to situate the news in a framework of tradeoffs people deliberately tune it out because they know they cannot evaluate it. Mickiewicz further noted that because most viewers tune out or fail to recall state television stories, the "persuasion potential" of those stories is apt to be low.
Another interesting finding from the focus groups showed that the Russian audiences in spite of complaining about too much "chernukha" (muck) on television, believe that positive news stories have "zero credibility." Mickiewicz also explained that Russian viewers are keenly aware that economic or political interests are behind most news stories. She remarked that viewers in Russia understand that they have the responsibility to be active participants in finding out the truth behind the news stories. Mickiewicz contended that this is "not merely cynicism" because it requires an enormous input of time, which most are willing to pay, to evaluate most news stories.
According to Mickiewicz, the Russian population is unusual because they understand the idea that policy initiatives usually result in "tradeoffs." Mickiewicz explained that often when new policies are introduced in the United States, the government and media rarely provide adequate cues as to what the tradeoffs or repercussions might be. She noted that the Russian public "brings the notion of tradeoffs to the watching of news." When focus group participants saw a news story that had no reference to a tradeoff, they would speculate what the tradeoffs might be. Mickiewicz's findings show that the Russian viewing public is "extraordinarily sophisticated" with views that "tend to diverge quite markedly from the responses that have been recorded when they are answering public opinion surveys."
Mickiewicz concluded by suggesting that the impact of television on Russia's presidential campaigns has probably been overstated. She noted that factors such as retrospective voting (a comparison of the current candidates with the outgoing predecessor) and the 1999 apartment bombings likely had an effect on the 2000 presidential election.