This article is part of New Europe’s: Our World in 2017

Macedonia-Skopje – From conflict theory we know that while reporting on complex disputes or conflicts journalists tend to reduce them to two antagonizing sides. This ‘issue dualism’, as it is called, tends to marginalize or exclude a variety of moderate actors or aspects of the dispute that are likely to lead to de-escalation. It also might augment divergent interpretations of the conflict, thus antagonizing news audiences. Second, according to conflict studies research, journalists who report about inter-ethnic conflicts tend to frame events solely from the perspective of their own ethnic group. It is argued that this reporting strategy is polarizing the parties and it justifies and encourages beliefs, attitudes and actions of one’s own group, delegitimizing those of the outgroup. 

INFOCORE, a comparative research project funded by the 7th European Framework Program of the EU, explores, among other things, whether and how these polarizing frames interwoven in media coverage are deconstructed by audiences and media active lay publics. One of the research case studies is the landlocked Balkan state of Macedonia. Macedonia is a post-conflict society. Beneath the declarative liberal-democratic concept of the state, class-ideological and ethno-particular antagonisms lay, within and between members of ethnic communities. Media landscape is plural, but also polarized along both ideological and ethno-political lines. Most influential TV stations, which are still the main source of information, although aware of their   role in supporting reconciliation and democratization, present reality mainly from the angle of their own ethnic group and serving the interests of their party-political patrons, thus bolding the differences and stimulating resentment. The events from the last political crisis in the country, have also demonstrated that politicians in power are the actors who, for their party-political and personal benefit, frequently invoke nationalistic sentiments of audiences misusing the media to create tensions.                            

From our previous research, we know that media in Macedonia, including the public broadcaster, frequently frame events from an ethnocentric perspective, by reducing the sporadic incidents to a problem between the two “homogenous” ethnic communities. As part of INFOCORs WP3 we were interested whether the publics belonging to these ethnic communities tend to detect and deconstruct ethnocentric framing in media coverage in Macedonian and Albanian language media in the country, and as well, whether audiences themselves demonstrate ethnocentric attitudes in their expectations of how media should report. We selected media coverage pieces covering the May 2015 incident in an Albanian populated neighborhood in the north-west Macedonian town of Kumanovo – a clash in a densely populated area between an armed group coming from Kosovo and the Macedonian police forces. The clash occurred in the midst of a political crisis in the country, with anti-government protesters mobilized after a massive phone-tapping scandal revealed a large-scale corruption of top state officials including the PM, public figures and media professionals. Some arguments in the public domain suggested that the clash was organized by the highest officials in the government and in the security services in order to divert attention of the public from the scandal.

We have conducted focus group discussions with publics from both ethnic communities. Participants were exposed to two TV news packages of the clash in Kumanovo, one from a TV station in Albanian language and the other from a TV station in Macedonian language. Both news supplements framed the event from an ethnocentric perspective. In some of the focus group discussions, we identified that the participants of both ethnic groups developed divergent interpretations from the news coverage and constructed frames of ethnic self-victimization which were directed towards justification and legitimization of the political claims of their own ethnic group.

Furthermore, we checked these findings through a survey conducted on a sample representative for the entire audience in Macedonia. We have established that large segments of the audiences belonging to one ethnic community perceive the media of the ‘Other’ ethnic community as ethnocentrically oriented, but also that these perceptions are very much related to their pre-existing ethnocentric attitudes. For example, ethnic Albanians’ perceptions are much more negative towards the media in Macedonian language: 80% of them think that these media blame the Albanians for the conflict, 61% think they do not pay attention to peace and co-existence or 52% think they reinforce the tensions between the two communities. Asked about their opinion about the news coverage of the clash that happened in May 2015 in Kumanovo, 66% of the Albanians agreed that the coverage of the media in Macedonian language could have jeopardized existing interethnic relations. On the other side, it is interesting to note that both Albanians and Macedonians agree that politicians are misusing media to create tensions in order to divert public’s attention from other issues.   

Our results indicated also that media assistance strategies implemented so far in the post-conflict Macedonian society did not sufficiently put attention to supporting the media with integrated newsrooms and editorial policy which take into consideration the negative consequences of the one-sided and polarizing reporting for the audiences. This is especially relevant for the public broadcaster which has not ever change its divergent editorial policy since the armed conflict in 2001.