KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
Those pro-Russian militants we've heard a lot about occupying buildings in Eastern Ukraine, well, in Russia, they're portrayed very differently than they are here in the West. Russia's pro-government media characterize these men as embattled citizens, trying to protect themselves from a hostile Ukrainian government. Throughout this crisis, the Russian media has been casting the new Ukrainian government as illegitimate, dominated by neo-Nazis and deeply hostile to the Russian-speaking minority.
NPR's Corey Flintoff reports on the impact that message is having.
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COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: On Sunday, several thousand protestors gathered in central Moscow for a rally that was billed as a March of Truth. The demonstrators came to protest what they see as a massive government crackdown on independent news sources, and a steady stream of propaganda from state-controlled media.
This woman identified herself only as Irina, an artist. She declined to give her last name out of fear that she might be harassed by the Russian government. She says the people of Russia need to hear all sides in the story of Ukraine.
IRINA: Well, I am hoping that we are not brainwashed by any side from the barricade. So that's why we need the information.
FLINTOFF: What she gets from the government, she says...
IRINA: Is more and more propaganda, rather than information, and that's it.
FLINTOFF: The picture of the situation in Ukraine that most Russians get is unrelentingly negative.
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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Russian spoken)
FLINTOFF: This broadcast from the NTV News Channel featured quotes from Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, denouncing the government in Kiev as neo-Nazis.
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SERGEY LAVROV: (Russian spoken)
FLINTOFF: Masha Lipman is a media analyst and editor at the Carnegie Moscow Center. She says the tone of Russia's state-run media has changed over the past several years, and especially since the start of the crisis in Ukraine.
MASHA LIPMAN: National television channels have switched to raw propaganda. It's not that they used to be objective media outlets before. Propaganda was a very common practice, but not to this extent.
FLINTOFF: And, Lipman says, polls show that the tactics have been remarkably effective in convincing the Russian people that the Kremlin's position is right, and that Russian speakers in Ukraine need Russia's protection from an illegal and brutal regime. She says people even watched the news more when negative coverage of Ukraine was at its most intense.
LIPMAN: There is statistical data that showed that news shows outstripped even popular soap operas on the Russian television, around the time of the annexation of Crimea.
FLINTOFF: But there's another effect that a steady diet of government-controlled news has had on the public, Lipman says. A major Russian pollster recently asked people whether it would be acceptable for the news media to withhold information in the government's interest.
LIPMAN: And it turned out that with the vast majority, withholding was OK. And with slightly over half, even distorting was OK. So people were totally into this propaganda and, in a sense, asked to be lied to.
FLINTOFF: Lipman notes that the number of independent media in Russia has been shrinking. Cable TV providers recently took an independent television channel, TV Rain, off the air. And the editor of a popular online news site was fired and replaced with someone said to be more friendly to the Kremlin.
Corey Flintoff, NPR News, Moscow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.