public diplomacy

Russia Today and CNN: The Power of Reporting and Foreign Policy Goals


The use of technology and social media has become a valuable, quick, and convenient way for people to view both information and news at any given moment. Placing news on the Internet instead of just print has made reading easier because people can frequently check news stories and their developments. Russia Today (RT) is a prime example of a news organization that solely uses the Internet.

RT’s overall goal is to denigrate the West. Headlines and articles may be exaggerated and stretch the truth in order to achieve this goal, and a classic example of propaganda is in the Internet. Russia’s communication strategy narrative is based upon the idea that the US is trying to rule the world, and that only Russia is brave enough to stop it. The goal of their propaganda is not to persuade anyone, but to keep the viewer hooked and distracted- to disrupt Western narratives rather than simply provide a counter-narrative.

RT has used their website and visuals to their advantage to “frame” their messaging to other countries, including the United States, as opposed to their home audience of Russia. RT’s goal of denigrating the West is clearly displayed through the articles that are chosen to be presented on the front page.

To study how Russia and RT’s communication strategy is displayed through the RT website, I analyzed the website over a period of several weeks to compare and contrast the format and types of stories that were presented to the Western news site CNN. The RT and CNN pages from March 30 which I examine below provide a good example of my findings.



The ways in which RT effectively presents their propaganda messaging is through the use of strategically selecting eye-catching headlines with complementing visuals. Each headline selected places the United States in a negative light, creating a false impression of those societies to its Russian audience. The headlines on the front page are about the Senate hearings on Russian hacking. The headline on CNN’s website is informative and appealing because it reveals that Russian hacking is not only connected to the election. The headline on RT’s website, though, takes a different approach by mentioning the Cold War tensions between Russia and the US, drawing a connection between an accusatory and high-tension time and creating a negative connotation towards the US. The wording of the headlines are designed to invoke an emotional response because research shows that stories that invoke such a response have a higher retention and reading rate. The headlines and complementing visuals emphasize the various problems facing each country with little to no stories that reflect a positive image.

In this example, both RT and CNN have a front page dedicated to the Senate hearings about Russian hacking. Although the topic is the same, the visuals depict a different message. Both photos of the Senate hearing have an upward facing camera angle, demonstrating the power of the Senators on the panel. The difference between the two visuals, though, is the connotation. CNN’s visual reveals authority from the upward facing camera angle and that the hearing is discussion-based. The visual on RT’s website, however, has a negative connotation. The image is taken from the perspective of someone in the “hot seat.” There is finger pointing and distressed-looking panelists, demonstrating to the viewer that the Senators on the panel are threatening and interrogating the person on the other side.

The  “power” of these images are its ability to trigger certain responses from its audience, creating the effect of RT emphasizing the negatives of a certain country or region which will indirectly present Russia in a positive way.

After analyzing the front page of both websites, I then analyzed the specific article that was presented on the front pages of  RT and CNN.



The difference in visuals and content continues into the articles themselves. Both articles have one main image and, like the front page, each image reveals a different type of message. The image on CNN’s website is of an interview with a Senator on the Intelligence Committee. The image for RT’s article is of a large bronze statue looking like it is gliding through the night sky with the moon shining bright in the background. The difference between the selection of images is about messaging. CNN’s image is consistent with their message of reporting the news and providing as much information as is available. RT’s message of portraying Russia as a strong and brave country able to stop the US from taking over the world is clearly identified through the selection of this image. This image does not relate to Senate hearings about Russian hacking in any way, yet it is the largest image throughout the article and the only image used besides screenshots of tweets.

RT and CNN reflect both Russia’s and the United States’ foreign policy and communication goals. The news websites offer a perspective of that society and other societies that are reported, which gives the global audience a unique opportunity to form impressions. The features and presentations of RT and CNN have become increasingly important in this regard as it is a vital tool for Russia and the United States to present their narratives to their global audience with continuous updates to reinforce their narrative.

Caveat: The views expressed in this blog are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Institute for Public Diplomacy and Global Communication or the George Washington University.



8 thoughts on “Russia Today and CNN: The Power of Reporting and Foreign Policy Goals

  1. I am interested in your analysis of visuals in the articles. Oftentimes, I feel like we are only looking at the text, but it’s the visuals that most readers see. The visuals are what the consumer sees even if they don’t open the article. Here is an article about how visuals are becoming more and more relevant in media:

    Posted by Robert O'Shaughnessy | April 30, 2017, 2:32 pm
  2. I think you make some really good points about how the image choices can make a big difference in the connotation of a particular story. It would be interesting to do a comparison of the broadcasting styles also and see what tactics carry over and what new ones are introduced on both RT and CNN.

    Posted by Logan Botts | April 30, 2017, 2:18 pm
  3. I think you did an excellent job of analyzing the two outlets. It may have been fun to examine how RT views CNN, and vice versa. For example, this RT is hilarious on its attack on CNN (and BBC) for the award nomination they received compared to RT (

    Posted by reedelman | April 30, 2017, 1:54 pm
  4. You bring up some really interesting points here. While CNN would say that its goal is to tell the news objectively, you mention here how they advanced American policy narratives. I like how you put these two media in that bigger picture and demonstrate through your examples, how both work as arms of national interests. If you’re interested in RT, check out Media Matters’ coverage of them. They highlight many of the nefarious objectives you mention in this piece:

    Posted by LeninHernandez | April 30, 2017, 12:50 pm
  5. I really enjoyed your CNN and RT comparison. Hadas Gold, another GW graduate who now works at Politico, analyzed a conversation with a CNN anchor and an RT anchor on TV. I think you might like to check it out and see if there are any similarities from your observations to their discussion:

    Posted by ilanacreinin | April 30, 2017, 12:23 pm
  6. This is a great article that, in comparing RT and CNN, outlines the subtle ways Russian propaganda influences its audience. In order to minimize the effects of Russian disinformation, the United States needs to improve media literacy of its citizens, as well as audiences abroad. Russia will persist on using disinformation until its tools become ineffective.

    Posted by egorpelevkin | April 30, 2017, 2:14 am
  7. I really like the side by side, because while maybe CNN isn’t the most trusted network, it is among the most watched in the US, thus making it the perfect comparison. I think the visuals are really effective! Overall the piece was very insightful and presents a good analysis that is very important in a time when framing is crucial to public diplomacy.

    Posted by Anna Pokrovsky | April 29, 2017, 7:31 pm
  8. The Author’s Blog was Informative and thorough.

    Posted by Phil Travaglini | April 13, 2017, 8:23 pm

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