Research reveals Serbian media outlets’ bias in 2021: Positive on Russia and China, negative on the EU and US

Magazine shop, Serbia. Photo by Zoran Drekalović/Istinomer, used with permission.

This article originally appeared at Istinomer (Truth-O-Meter), a fact-checking initiative of the Center for Research, Transparency and Accountability (CRTA). An edited version is published below as part of a content-sharing agreement with Global Voices.

In the course of 2021, Serbian media outlets presented Russia and China primarily as positive, while the European Union, the United States and NATO typically came out negatively, as witnessed by the results of the media monitoring carried out by the Centre for Research, Transparency and Accountability (CRTA) from December 2020 until November 2021. The survey’s main findings indicated the presence of bias and extreme polarisation in coverage, led by the national frequency TVs that had the greatest impact and audience reach.

The one-year analysis carried out by CRTA included media content on foreign actors (European Union, United States, Russia, China and NATO) from the 12 most powerful media outlets with the largest viewership and readership in Serbia: TVs: RTS 1, TV Pink, TV Prva and TV Happy; daily newspapers: Informer, Blic, Kurir, Večernje novosti and the Internet portals: Blic, Kurir, Novosti and B92. In the last 12 months, the monitoring recorded different tones in mentioning these powers — positive, negative or neutral perception, and the research included full media coverage about politics, army and armament, health care, economics, Kosovo, human rights, culture and the Yugoslavia break-up wars.

America was compellingly the first in media outlets’ news, with 26,853 mentions in media content. There was a tie for second place between Russia (19,735) and the EU (19,555), while behind, we had China (8,834) and NATO (5,075) (Figure 1).

However, it was not only important how many mentions they had but also what those were like, what signals about these powers the public opinion creators, in fact, emitted. If we excluded the neutral coverage, there was lagging NATO with 30 percent of negative media coverage and only 3 percent of positive content. Although the first in the number of mentions, the USA was second to last regarding the perception — only four percent of the content presented America in a positive light, and 18 percent was negative. The middle of the table included the EU with three times more negative than positive content.

The first two places were reserved for “Serbian friends,” which we could often hear and see in the media. China won second place with a good ratio of positive (18 percent) and negative (6 percent) statements, while the first place went to the most popular Russia with 25 percent of positive statements compared to 6 percent of negative (Figure 2).

The source of negative articles and features on China and Russia primarily came from foreign media sources, used to report on foreign policy. For example, when US president Biden or some EU representative would criticise Russia, while both foreign and domestic actors shared production of negative content on the EU, USA and NATO.

What were they talking about?

The topic of politics was the centre of attention for 12 months and the foreign powers were mostly mentioned in the context of interior, foreign and regional politics or EU integration.

Serbian newspapers, including alternative medicine magazines ‘Russian Herbalist,’ ‘Russian Doctor’ and ‘Russian Cure’. Photo by Filip Stojanovski, CC-BY 3.0.

The second place was unstable, shifting between various topics. In December 2020 and the beginning of 2021, when another wave of COVID-19 shook both Serbia and the world, the issue of health care came second. The main narrative in this period referred to the fact that the EU failed to meet the promise and deliver the guaranteed amount of vaccine doses to Serbia and the Western Balkans region, while, on the other hand, huge amounts were secured through China bringing salvation from coronavirus in that period.

In May 2021, when with the fair weather, the pandemic lessened, the health matters lost their relevance, so the world would continue its war in peace, securing arms, making alliances among different forces, and army topics took over the second place, peaking in August during the Afghanistan crises and withdrawal of American troops (the USA presentation here was extremely negative).

Until recently, to be precise, until October, the army was the second most represented topic, and then the economics pushed it out. The analysis showed that energy-related topics were four times more present in the scope of economics than in September of the same year.

Finally, Kosovo-related topics were the least represented, so only during the July peaks, when President of Serbia Aleksandar Vučić and Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti met in Brussels, did these topics occupy more media space, particularly in September during the dispute about vehicle licence plates (Figure 3).

In the context of these topics, the presentation of Russia and China was more positive than negative, while in contrast, the EU and the USA were predominantly negative. The only topic presenting the EU more positive than negative was economics. It was observed that the donations from the EU, the entity providing the largest financial support to Serbia, were in fact recognised (Figure 4).

Who wanted to be the first?

Aleksandar Vučič, the President of Serbia, was the most present political actor in the media, with the most mentions in articles and features with foreign powers references, far more than any other government official. This made a huge difference since Vučić was in charge of everything, obvious from the fact that the President’s words were quoted 4,444 times in the monitored media content with the identified presence of foreign powers.

At the same time, Prime Minister Ana Brnabić came second with 1,022 mentions, followed by Ivica Dačić (739), Nikola Selaković (454), Petar Petković (439), Aleksandar Vulin (362) and others (Figure 5).

If we disregarded the neutral tone, the President of Serbia was mostly quoted in news programmes with positive mentions of Russia and China, and the ones with negative tones about EU and USA activities (Figure 6).


What was the media message?

In the media outlets we monitored, television was the most powerful means of information since citizens of Serbia predominantly received their information through this communication channel. The TV, in fact, stood for the most radical approach with more contrasted differences between positive and negative coverage.

The national frequency TV viewers were offered the black and white image of the “evil West” and “friendly East,” and the loudest advocates of such image of the world were TV Pink and TV Happy. The morning news programmes represented a significant stereotype generator as the audience was being offered an extremely dichotomous view of the world by pro-government analysts, journalists and members of the ruling coalition (Figure 7).

The daily newspapers were not different from their mightier TV brothers, and the loudest voices were coming from Informer, Večernje novosti and Kurir. Front pages, reserved for promoting the government and continuous negative campaigning against the opposition, represented fertile ground for creating negative discourse on Western countries, conveniently designating opponents as “US mercenaries,” “NATO agents,” etc. Of course, not only on front pages but also in other columns and pages, an opportunity was not missed to extol Russia and China and belittle the USA, NATO and the EU (Figure 8).

Finally, the Internet portals offered a more balanced approach, but with remaining tendencies of reporting on behalf of one side and against the other (Figure 9).

Since public opinion polls on citizens’ attitudes towards foreign actors monitored such correlations, Russia and China were usually observed as Serbia’s friends, the attitude towards the EU was ambivalent and unfriendly towards America and NATO, it was obvious that in their coverage, the media outlets not only fostered but instructed citizens’ attitudes.

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