On June 14, 2019, during a live appearance on Ukrainian tv network ZIK, popular journalist Dmitry Gordon declared, “I will stay for the rest of the program today… but I want to officially say: this is my final appearance on the television channel ZIK. I will never appear on channels that Medvedchuk has acquired. I call on all patriots of Ukraine, politicians, who want happiness for our country and who do not want Ukraine to be a satellite of the Russian Federation, to stop appearing on Medvedchuk’s channels.” News had just broken that ZIK and its online news service ZIK.UA had been acquired by Taras Kozak, a pro-Russian Ukrainian politician so closely tied to fellow opposition leader Viktor Medvedchuk that they are seen as interchangeable in Ukrainian politics. Medvedchuk is, in turn, a friend and supporter of Russian President Vladimir Putin (the relationship so stalwart that Putin is the godfather of Medvedchuk’s daughter). With this acquisition, ties to the Kremlin were obvious, and the association all but assured Kremlin influence in ZIK’s editorial leaning.
Founded in 2004, ZIK.UA was the first internet information agency in western Ukraine, an area where pro-Western sentiment has always been strong. ZIK launched in 2010 as a regional television channel, expanding to a national audience in 2014. From these pro-Western roots, to the pro-Russian acquisition, ZIK underwent the starkest of ownership changes possible in the Ukrainian media environment. Based on ZIK/ZIK.UA’s ownership, many Ukraine watchers and journalists, such as Dmitry Gordon, now consider ZIK to be a tool for advancing Russian foreign policy goals, and refer to it as a pro-Russian media outlet.
By influencing Ukrainian media, Russia reinforces its Ukrainian ties and erodes alliance to NATO and the U.S. Based on Novetta Mission Analytics’s media monitoring data, we analyzed ZIK.UA coverage before and after the acquisition to test four hypotheses.
Data for this analysis consists of article-level and quote-level metadata in news coverage from ZIK.UA from January 25, 2019 to September 6, 2019— on which date the Ukrainian Parliament launched an investigation into ZIK for violating broadcasting laws, possibly influencing publishing choices and thereby representing a natural bookend for data collection. This data was compared to overall Russian and Ukrainian media coverage before and after the purchase to form a benchmark for events that drove changes in coverage.
Favorability of Coverage
The following analysis shows net sentiment to Russia, NATO, and the U.S. in ZIK.UA, in general Ukrainian media, and in Russian media, before and after the acquisition. A net sentiment of 100% shows that all coverage was positive, while a net sentiment of -100% shows that all coverage was negative. 0% represents net neutral coverage.
Hypothesis 1: A media outlet owned by a pro-Russian individual provides less favorable coverage of NATO and the U.S. than non-Russian owned media outlets.
Sample article headline before purchase, positive to NATO: “NATO has approved a Black Sea Aid Package for Ukraine and Georgia” (April 12, 2019)
Sample article headline after purchase, negative to the U.S.: “The Disintegration of the EU: The U.S.’s role and the threat to Ukraine” (July 9, 2019)
ZIK.UA coverage before the purchase shows that it was even an outlier in Ukrainian media for its favorable coverage of NATO. The outlet had a stark 41.4% decrease in favorable coverage after the pro-Russian purchase. This data strongly supports the hypothesis that media owned by Russian-friendly individuals give less favorable coverage to NATO.
ZIK.UA demonstrated an even more drastic change in sentiment toward the U.S. than toward NATO with a 90.9% decrease in favorability caused by an absence of any positive coverage of the U.S. after the purchase. This provides strong evidence in support of the hypothesis that outlets owned by pro-Russian individuals in Ukraine give less favorable coverage of the U.S. This is also the first instance in this analysis where the behavior of ZIK.UA matches Russian media better than Ukrainian media, thus lending further support to the first hypothesis.
Hypothesis 2: A media outlet owned by a pro-Russian individual provides more favorable coverage of Russia than non-Russian owned media outlets.
Sample article headline before purchase, negative to Russia: “The issuing of Russian passports in the Donbas is a quiet annexation” (May 1, 2019)
Sample article headline after purchase, neutral to Russia: “A ‘Friend of the Kremlin’ may head the Italian government. Will it help Russia?” (August 14, 2019)
Both overall Ukrainian media and ZIK.UA demonstrated decreases in negative coverage of Russia after the pro-Russian purchase of ZIK.UA. Ukrainian media demonstrated a 2.8% decrease in negative coverage, while ZIK.UA demonstrated a 6.8% decrease. That makes a 4% decrease in negative sentiment to Russia in ZIK.UA that is not explained by the overall shift in Ukrainian media. This lends support to the hypothesis that outlets with Russian-friendly ownership give more favorable coverage to Russia, although the change is not drastic.
Volume of Entity Coverage
The following analysis shows the percentage of quotes from ZIK.UA, Ukrainian media, and Russian media that are about Russia, NATO, and the U.S. before and after the pro-Russian purchase.
Hypothesis 3: A media outlet owned by a pro-Russian individual provides more coverage overall on Russia than non-Russian owned media outlets.
In the approximate three months of coverage after the purchase, ZIK.UA did show a 5.9% increase in coverage of Russia. However, both Ukrainian and Russian media also had increases in coverage of Russia, which suggests that world events influenced the increase in coverage of Russia by ZIK.UA, and not necessarily its Russian-friendly ownership. Moreover, the fact that ZIK.UA and overall Ukrainian media coverage are largely identical before and after the purchase suggests that there is not strong support for the third hypothesis.
Hypothesis 4: A media outlet owned by a Russian-friendly individual provides less coverage overall on NATO and the U.S. than non-Russian owned media outlets.
ZIK.UA did exhibit a 1.8% decrease in coverage of NATO after the purchase, but again the decrease across all groups suggests that world events are more at play than editorial leanings. The practically identical volume of coverage of NATO by ZIK.UA and overall Ukrainian media also suggests that the pro-Russian ownership of ZIK after the purchase did not differentiate it significantly from overall Ukrainian media trends.
Despite the assumption that a pro-Russian outlet would cover the U.S. less than a pro-Western outlet, ZIK.UA demonstrated a slight 2.1% increase in coverage of the U.S. This is simply explained by the fact that a pro-Russian outlet might cover the U.S. more but in a worse light, as was demonstrated in the previous section on favorable coverage analysis.
The purchase of the previously pro-Western media outlet ZIK.UA by a pro-Russian politician provides an ideal comparison to determine if pro-Russian ownership of an outlet in Ukraine leads to coverage that advances Russian foreign policy goals. The analysis of favorable coverage of NATO, the U.S., and Russia by ZIK.UA strongly supported the hypotheses that outlets owned by Russian-friendly individuals give less favorable coverage to NATO and the U.S. while giving more favorable coverage to Russia. In fact, the slight increase in favorable coverage of Russia compared to the drastic decreases in favorable coverage of NATO and the U.S. suggests that an anti-Western stance is more of a defining characteristic of a Russian-friendly outlet than its pro-Russian stance. Perhaps it is more accurate to refer to outlets advancing Russian foreign policy goals as anti-Western instead of pro-Russian.
The analysis did not lend much support to the hypotheses that outlets owned by Russian-friendly individuals cover Russia more while covering NATO and the U.S. less. However, the fact that ZIK.UA and overall Ukrainian media coverage of Russia, NATO, and the U.S. are largely identical before and after the purchase suggests that the macro-patterns of entity coverage in the Ukrainian media environment have greater influence than the specific editorial leanings of Ukrainian news outlets. This shows that, regardless of the favorability of coverage of an entity, pro-Russian outlets still exist in the Ukrainian media environment. Therefore, their entity coverage decisions are influenced by Ukrainian public discourse.
Overall, Russian-friendly ownership of an outlet in Ukraine did lead editorial changes resulting in content supportive of Russia’s broad foreign policy goals for Ukraine. It appears that in Ukraine, you can judge an outlet by its owner.