Russian State Coverage of the 2016 US Presidential Election: An Interview with Tina Burrett

It was one of the main narratives of the 2016 US presidential election: the Russians want Donald Trump to be president. International surveys found that more Russians would have voted for Trump than Hillary Clinton, pro-Clinton entities attempted to use it as a scare tactic to garner support, and Trump himself made complimentary remarks about Russian President Vladimir Putin on numerous occasions. Since the election, allegations of Russian interference in the election have been widespread, prompting an ongoing investigation. Yet little has been said about how ordinary Russians actually experienced the election. Tina Burrett, whose article “Russian State Coverage of the 2016 US Presidential Election” appeared in the July 2018 issue of Demokratizatsiya, graciously agreed to discuss her research on Russian media narratives surrounding the election and the two main presidential candidates.

DEM: Your article explores themes that have been prevalent in the US media and beyond, chiefly allegations that “Russia” favored Donald Trump and interfered in the US presidential election. In brief, how do your conclusions support or cut against those narratives, and what do you hope that the lay reader takes away from your analysis?

TB: Donald Trump certainly received more favorable coverage than Hillary Clinton on Russian state television, but no more so than on some US networks, such as Fox News. The main news framing I found was anti-American rather than pro- or anti- a particular candidate. The Russian media gave positive coverage to Donald Trump because he was echoing many of the same criticisms of the Obama administration as the Kremlin. Favoring Trump over Clinton was a means to an end, rather than the end itself. The objective was to cast doubt on the quality of American democracy and to paint Washington as hypocritical for criticizing overseas elections when the US system is riddled with problems of its own. Interestingly, coverage of Trump took a very negative turn as soon as he won the election. Perhaps as a tool for attacking the US administration he had served his purpose?

I found that Russian news reporting wasn’t totally biased in its reporting on the two candidates. The attacks on Clinton became more severe after she accused the Russian state of sanctioning hacks against her campaign. But like Trump, Clinton was a tool for elaborating on a wider narrative. As a former secretary of state, attacks on Clinton were a proxy for criticizing US policy in Syria and other part of the Middle East. Her accusations of Russian election meddling were presented as further evidence of a pervasive Russophobia within the Washington establishment.

DEM: What inspired you to undertake this project? Was it related to work you had previously done or more prompted by current events?

TB: It was both. I’ve undertaken a number of projects on the Russian media in the past, including a book on the changes in the television sector during Putin’s first two presidential terms. The intense political and media attention given to the relationship between Trump and the Kremlin definitely prompted me to undertake this project. There is so much speculation about how the Russian state is influencing elections around the world through fake news and other tactics. I wanted to know what Russian audiences were told about the 2016 US election to see if it gave us any insights into what the Kremlin hopes to achieve by meddling in other states’ elections.

DEM: Can you walk us through how you conducted your research? It seems like it must have been time-consuming…

TB: It was! I first went through PervyiKanal’s transcript archives to find all the news reports on the US presidential election broadcast between early October and mid-November 2016. I then had to watch all the videos. My two-year-old son can now recognize Donald Trump on screen even when he is dubbed into Russian! As I read the transcripts and watched the videos, certain frames emerged very quickly. I also looked a lot of secondary sources on coverage of the election by the Russian media.

DEM: Was there anything about your findings that particularly surprised you?

TB: I was surprised that a lot of coverage of the US election on Russian television news was actually quite mundane. A lot of reports focused on the election process—explaining the electoral-college system, for example—without much commentary or analysis. Not everything was framed to maximize its propaganda impact. There was a big difference, however, between the tone and style of reporting on the weekday nightly news compared to on the Sunday news roundups. The latter are more opinion-oriented and are more infotainment than news. They are similar to presenter-fronted programs such as Hannity or The O’Reilly Factor on Fox News. It was on these roundup programs that the most acerbic and biased reporting of the two US presidential candidates appeared. I think this suggests that Russian audiences expect regular news broadcasts to conform to certain informational standards, despite growing state influence over the media on Putin’s watch. The roundup shows are part entertainment, so the same informational standards do not apply. Audiences watch these roundups knowing that the analysis is based on the presenter’s opinions. There is no pretense of objectivity. But an awareness of subjectivity doesn’t mean that these shows don’t shape audiences’ opinions. I found that over the course of 2016, Russian voters’ attitudes to Clinton generally soured, while Trump came to be seen in a more positive light. It is beyond the scope of my study to analyze the cause of this change. But I’d be surprised if the media, and the roundup shows in particular, did not play a role.

DEM: Many of our readers and contributors are young scholars. Do you have any advice for them, particularly as regards studying hot-button issues like this one?

TB: I generally caution my graduate students against studying a topic just because it is getting a lot of attention. Often, if events are still unfolding, there is not sufficient data to draw substantial conclusions. In my case, I had a background in researching Russian media and felt I could access the data I needed to have confidence in my findings. I would advise scholars planning to undertake research on topical issues not to stray too far from their areas of expertise. If scholars are seeking new pastures, I’d recommend keeping a narrow focus and not attempting anything too ambitious. In recent years, I have branched out from researching mainly on Russia to looking at changes in the Myanmar media as the country has undergone political change. I started by spending several months in Yangon talking to media professionals. I think starting something new requires a big time investment and it is important to be sure that you will continue to pursue this new direction for a good amount of time to make it worthwhile.

DEM: Now that this article has been published, what’s next for you?

TB: I’m working on other projects related to Russian media. I’m writing an article comparing Russian television coverage of the poisoning of former Russian spies Alexander Litvinenko in 2006 and the recent case of Sergei and Julia Skripal. I’m interested in what changes in the framing of these two cases may tell us about Russia’s evolving foreign policy towards the UK and the West in general. I’m also writing a chapter on Putin’s propaganda machine for the Sage Handbook on Propaganda. Likewise related to the media, I’m co-editing a book on media freedom in Asia. Our contributors are both academics and journalists. We hope this will provide practical as well as theoretical insights into the changes taking place in state-media relations in countries across Asia. We also hope to be able to identify some regional trends.

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