Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Sputnik News and RT: Varying Approaches to Negative Coverage
Sputnik News and RT: Varying Approaches to Negative Coverage

Sputnik News and RT: Varying Approaches to Negative Coverage

March 27, 2020

Post by Mathilde Venet

A thorough examination of Russian state-sponsored outlets RT and Sputnik News yields interesting insights into the persuasive devices employed by each outlet to advance Kremlin narratives. While both outlets publish outlandish content at times, many articles are written to push narratives between the lines so content will appear reliable to readers. One can observe both of these approaches at work on any given topic. Kremlin narratives about former Vice President Joe Biden offer an illustrative example of these dual approaches.

FIE 2020’s most recent assessment of Russian state media showed 40% of Biden’s mentions were negative. Mentions negative toward Biden vary in context: Some stories push bias openly, some are more refined, disguising negative stories as reliable sources of objective information.

Here are some examples of subtle tactics employed by RT and Sputnik to inject slant through omitted information or one-sided coverage:

  • This Sputnik article touches on a topic clearly unfavorable for Biden—his characterization of former President Bill Clinton’s impeachment as a “partisan lynching.” The article includes subtle jabs, like referring to Biden’s “apparent double standard,” and its overarching theme paints Biden as a hypocrite and serves the broader goal of Kremlin media to paint Biden negatively. 
  • This RT article, published in late January this year, also focuses on Victor Shokin—the Ukranian prosecutor Biden pushed to have removed back in 2015—and further pushes the narrative that Biden is corrupt by skewing the narrative and creating a one-sided story.
  • Similarly, this story published by Sputnik News focuses entirely on Joe Biden’s alleged corruption in Ukraine, writing that “he forced former Ukrainian President Poroshenko to fire Prosecutor General Viktor Shokin, who was investigating Burisma Holdings,” but fails to mention that at the time the U.S. and other European governments had already determined Shokin was not to be trusted. This talking point is often used by both Sputnik and RT, as it paints Biden as hypocritical and dishonest. 
  • This Sputnik article, published after delays in the Iowa caucus vote tally, subtly ties Biden to conspiratorial notions highlighted by the Russian state media that the Democratic establishment—Biden included—is rigging the election in 2020.
  • Though Super Tuesday coverage of Biden was relatively neutral on the parts of both Sputnik and RT, Biden is often compared to Bernie Sanders, who is generally portrayed more favorably. Articles focusing on Biden’s gaffes on the campaign trail reflect poorly on him in contrast to Sanders’s coverage.

By contrast, here are stories in which RT and Sputnik employ sensationalist or inflammatory language to paint Biden negatively:

  • This Sputnik article depicts Biden as irrational, writing in the headline that he “explodes” on a voter at a campaign event. It adds that he had previously “went off” on a reporter “in a fury.”
  • The title of this RT article conveys the tone and narrative of the article from the very beginning: “Biden takes aim at Trump with ‘former president’ jibe, shoots self in foot instead.” Discussing a tweet Biden posted about President Trump, the article uses inflammatory language throughout, including references to tweets questioning “his sanity” and Biden’s perceived lack of deftness, writing “if his supporters were expecting a ‘Corn Pop’-style septuagenarian beatdown from the perennial candidate, they were sorely disappointed.” 
  • This RT article relies on tweets posted with derogatory descriptions of Biden and writes that he’s been “awkwardly sniffing, touching and creeping out women and children” for years.

If Biden wins the Democratic nomination in 2020, one can anticipate that RT and Sputnik News will continue to use these various tactics to push their desired narratives about Biden. By employing both methods—obvious and subtle negative slant—Kremlin content might be more easily accepted as accurate by the audiences it wishes to influence.