Risks Seen as U.S. Media Spotlight North Caucasus

File Photo of Groznya, Looking out Through Hole in Damaged Building at City Landscape in Daylight

(RIA Novosti – Christopher Boian – WASHINGTON, April 22, 2013) A week ago, most Americans had never heard of the North Caucasus. But the region in southern Russia has abruptly filled TV screens in US homes after it became part of the Boston Marathon bombing story, and experts warn such speed reporting on a complex subject can distort as much as it informs.

“American audiences are desperately trying to find out why this happened,” said Butch Ward, a senior faculty member at the Poynter Institute, a nonprofit school based in Florida specializing in journalism expertise and education.

“There were some Americans who, as soon as they heard the word ‘Muslim’, drew some conclusions. There is another segment of the population that is trying really hard not to jump to those conclusions,” Ward said, adding: “A lot of Americans have never heard the name of that place before.”

The place Ward was referring to is Dagestan, an ancient mountainous territory of astonishing natural and cultural diversity situated in southern Russia along the Caspian Sea to the north of Azerbaijan and Georgia, where US journalists have descended en masse to learn more about the Boston suspects.

It sits next to Chechnya, scene of two terrifying wars between Russian federal forces and local armed movements in the 1990s. What began as a fight rooted in politics morphed sometime between the two wars into an Islamist insurgency that spread from Chechnya to Dagestan and elsewhere in the region.

But the fabric of life for the millions of people who live in the North Caucasus cannot be summarized with the unavoidable references to violence and poverty alone and experts say US journalists must work hard to avoid stereotypes and deliver a clear picture of the region’s reality today for US audiences.

One example of how steep that challenge for US media will be was related by Thomas Pickering, a senior diplomat and former US ambassador to Moscow, who described a recent episode of television coverage.

“I noticed that the TV last night had a map and I could find where Chechnya is,” Pickering said.

“But they were talking about Dagestan while they showed a map of Chechnya and had no idea what Dagestan is. Is it a town, city, province or country? Our massive geographic illiteracy is certainly a handicap.”

US officials say the bombing suspects, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 19, and his older brother Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, were ethnic Chechens who lived in various parts of the former Soviet Union, including Dagestan, before they immigrated to the United States and settled in the Boston area.

They also confirm that the FBI was asked in 2011 to investigate Tamerlan Tsarnaev by Russia, which expressed concern the older brother ­ killed in a shootout with police near Boston on Friday ­ had turned to “radical Islam” and may have made connections with Islamist militants in southern Russia.

But while the reasons for the rapid dispatch of US reporters to Dagestan are clear enough ­ they have interviewed friends and family members, including the suspects’ father, Anzor Tsarnaev ­ no material linkage has been made between the Boston attacks and the unrest in the North Caucasus region.

“We know the two suspects are ethnically Chechen,” said Timothy Colton, professor of government and Russian studies and chairman of the government department at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts just across the river from the April 15 attacks at the Boston Marathon.

“But we still don’t know what the violence of last week has to do with the North Caucasus,” Colton stated.

All of the main US broadcast and cable television news networks, along with numerous print, radio and online outlets, have reported from Makhachkala, the capital of Dagestan, in what they say is their effort to shed light on a Russian angle that, as Colton put it, “has become part of the American story.”

The significant Russian element to the Boston attacks story, independent of any links the suspects may or may not have had to militants in the North Caucasus, was driven home Friday when US President Barack Obama thanked Russian President Vladimir Putin for Moscow’s help in the wake of the attacks.

But the sudden looming in US media of a part of the world few Americans know anything about, coupled with the unusual signals from Washington and Moscow of close and effective cooperation on an urgent security issue despite their otherwise testy relations, has American news consumers’ heads spinning.

And the historical and present-day realities of Dagestan, Chechnya and the rest of the Russian North Caucasus are far more complex than any quick “parachute journalism” can hope to address and explain to a neophyte American audience, no matter how thorough the reporting, experts say.

“The problem with this type of reporting is it’s often decontextualized,” explained Lauren Feldman, communications professor at American University in Washington, DC.

“Countries just kind of appear on our radar screen and we don’t have the broader context,” Feldman said, adding: “They will just as quickly disappear from our radar.”