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Twitter-versus-TV debate after Moscow airport bombing

Stephen Ennis

is Russian media analyst for BBC Monitoring.

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Reporting of the bomb blast in Moscow's Domodedovo airport has sparked a new round in the debate on the merits of social versus traditional media in Russia.

Russian users of Twitter have been crowing about how the story broke on the microblogging service well before it was reported on TV and radio.

As after the suicide attacks in the Moscow metro in March, they were particularly scornful of the response of the main state-controlled TV channels Rossiya 1, Channel One and NTV.

News of the Domodedovo blast broke on Twitter at around 16:40 local time on 24 January, just minutes after it happened. #Domodedovo quickly became a trending topic and, according to the US website Global Voices, was at one time receiving 100 posts per second.

Reports started appearing on the country's established broadcast media 20 minutes later.

Editorially independent Radio Ekho Moskvy first mentioned the blast at 17:00.

The state-owned news channel Rossiya 24 flashed it four minutes later at 17:04. For the next 45 minutes or so, it provided intermittent updates, including audio comment from officials, before going into rolling news mode at around 17:50.

The main terrestrial TV channels were much slower to react.

Channel One's first report was in a scheduled bulletin at 18:00. It followed this up with a special five-minute bulletin at 18:55, which tided viewers over until the main evening newscast at 21:00.

Rossiya 1 flashed the news at 18:04 in a five-minute bulletin that had been trailed by ticker-tape at the top of the hour. Its next mention of the blast was in a trail ahead of the main evening bulletin at 20:00.

NTV was the laggard of the big three. Its first reports appeared at 18:30 in a special live edition of its crime news series Chrezvychaynoye Proisshestviye (Emergency Incident). This programme was devoted entirely to the events in Domodedovo, as was the main evening news bulletin that followed at 19:00.

Later in the evening, NTV aired a special live edition of its talk show Chestnyy Ponedelnik (Honest Monday), which included eyewitnesses of the attack among its studio audience.

As commentator Sergey Varshavchik noted, Chestnyy Ponedelnik stood out from the other programmes on the main federal channels that evening by attempting to analyse the issues surrounding the bombing.

It was also exceptional in being live. Nearly all political talk shows on Russian TV are pre-recorded.

Twitter users were quick to round on the TV channels.

"Channel One - TV show, Rossiya 1 - serial, Centre TV - talk show, NTV - serial. Shall I go on? CNN - live! BBC - live!" tweeted well-known blogger Valeriy Nazarov.

Sasha Sukhanov spoke for many when he posted: "Today is the day when Russian television as a channel for the rapid dissemination of information officially died."

Some of the criticism was a little unfair.

Nazarov should have perhaps included Rossiya 24 in his comparison of how Russian and international broadcasters responded to the events. It is, after all, Russian TV's nearest equivalent to CNN or the BBC News Channel.

Also, while the main TV channels didn't cover themselves in glory, they did arguably do a little better than after March's metro bombings when none of them carried any special programming for several hours.

Twitter and other social media certainly played an important role in conveying news about the blast. As well as breaking the story, they provided the first video and photos from the scene.

However, the microblogging service also displayed its usual frailties: exaggeration and rumour.

The most informative and oft-quoted Twitter user was Ilya Likhtenfeld, who made his first tweet about the "terrorist attack" at 16:44 and provided a graphic account of the scene over the next hour or two.

Likhtenfeld correctly tweeted that the bomb was on a person and not in baggage, but he also made three tweets asserting that the blast had killed "at least 70 people"; twice the actual death toll.

In the hour or two after the blast, numerous Twitter users accused taxi drivers at the airport of hiking fares, as they had done after the metro bombings. Others responded by reviving the #helpcar tag which had been used in March to offer people free lifts.

All very laudable, you might think, except that the reports about fare hikes appear to have been false or else much exaggerated. Drivers who arrived at the airport offering free lifts found "there were far more people offering help than there were people needing it".

Most of the talk among Russian media watchers, though, has been about the shortcomings of the main TV stations.

Arina Borodina of the business daily Kommersant is one of their sternest critics: "Now it is the norm that when foreign media are telling the whole world about the terrorist attack in Moscow, Channel One does not interrupt its programme Federalnyy Sudya [Federal Judge], Rossiya 1 goes on showing the long-running series Yefrosinya [girl's name] and NTV shows another repeat of [crime series] Ulitsy Razbitykh Fonarey [Streets of Broken Lamps]."

The root cause of the problem was diagnosed by star presenter Leonid Parfenov at an awards ceremony last November. "For a correspondent of a national TV channel, the top officials are not newsmakers, but the bosses of his boss. Institutionally, a correspondent is not a journalist at all, but a functionary who follows the logic of service and subordination," he told a stony-faced gathering of Russian TV's great and good.

For the information functionary, getting the story out is probably not the main priority.

Stephen Ennis is Russian Media Analyst for BBC Monitoring.  

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