This section relies on secondary data gathered by external research organisations through different media monitoring projects in 2018-2019. It presents a synthesis of findings about how media in Serbia report on the three foreign policy actors, the EU, the USA and Russia. These monitoring studies confirm the presence of a dominant bias on the three observed countries. In other words, citizens relying on mainstream and usually politically-controlled sources are regularly exposed to partial and sensationalist content. One of the notable characteristics of such reporting is that it merely forwards information at the expense of debate, provides a limited factual basis and lacks sources of verification.
When it comes to coverage of the EU, US and Russia, this means in the first place that media headlines tend to be sensationalist in their discourse, while reports are usually non-evidence-based and superficial. The covers of pro-government dailies, dealing with topics related to these three countries, are usually emotionally charged in an attempt to touch upon people’s past memories, feelings, beliefs and values. For example, covers from 2019 of some of the cheapest and most read newspapers stated the following: “The battle for Kosovo begins! Palmer v. Vucic, America v. Serbia”, “Serbia will not stand for humiliation: Palmer withdraws ultimatum?”, “What lies behind Matthew Palmer's threats: Three reasons why America is pressuring us”.
Looking at the tone of reporting (positive/negative/neutral), monitoring reports concluded that there was a notable difference between the three observed actors. The reporting tone is neutral overall for all three of them, but coverage of Russia is markedly positive compared to that of the EU and the US. Monitoring of TV content in Serbia found the following: among the number of TV items covering the EU, 83% of them report neutrally, followed by positive (10%) and negative (6%) reporting; the tone on the USA is predominantly neutral (83% of monitored TV items), followed by negative (9%) and positive (8%); reporting on Russia is also predominantly neutral (76%), but the positive tone is present in 21% of monitored TV items, while only 3% of them are negative towards Russia. As can be seen, following the neutral tones, the most frequent portrayal of the EU on TV is positive and of the US negative, as corroborated by other monitoring of top media outlets in Serbia. Unsurprisingly, reporting about NATO is predominantly negative, which can be related directly to the NATO bombing campaign in the nineties.
Looking at Russia specifically, the length of TV reporting is shorter overall than on the other two actors, but Russia-related stories are generally more affirmative and less analytical. Exceptionally positive coverage of this country is characteristic for two TV stations close to the government. In the printed media, articles critical of Russia are practically non-existent, with a minor number reporting in a neutral way.
Second, apart from reporting tone, the representation of topics related to the EU, Russia and the US in the Serbian media differs. Although Serbia’s aspirations to join the EU date back to the early 2000s, topics pertaining to relations with the EU have been sidelined. Monitoring conducted in late 2018 showed that Serbia’s EU integration was outside the top ten most TV-covered topics on the EU, US and Russia. Moreover, in the same period of monitoring high EU officials appeared far less than the US and Russian presidents, despite the fact that TV coverage of the EU is lengthier than that of Russia. At the same time, EU officials appeared more than the domestic actors dealing with EU integration (such as the minister for EU integration or the head of the negotiating team). The limited comprehensive discussion of the accession process in the mainstream media might have a negative impact on citizens’ understanding of how the Union operates and what benefits and downsides EU membership might bring.
Third, many articles on foreign affairs lack reliable sources of verification. Regional monitoring revealed that more than a third (33%) of Serbian media content on the EU, the US and Russia had no stated sources, which was the highest number in the region compared to Bosnia and Herzegovina (23%), North Macedonia (5%) and Montenegro (5%). Such deficiencies in the citation of sources further enables sensationalist and partial reporting, contributes to the tabloidisation of political discourse and paves the way for the spread of disinformation and fake news.
Finally, nationwide TV stations report superficially on the three foreign policy actors mentioned above. They mostly forward information concerning events and facts, with little analysis that could open a debate. Questioning and critical observations are less present in articles that discuss Russia or Serbia-US relations. This lack of in-depth debate in reporting offers little alternative to viewers, hampers the culture of plurality of opinion and contributes to more polarisation in the country. This prevents the media from acting as the “fourth branch of power” and providing critical scrutiny of politicians as it would normally do in an established democracy.