Post by Olga Zeveleva. Olga is a sociologist of media and migration currently working on her PhD at the Department of Sociology, University of Cambridge. She is interested in social transformation, ethnic and professional identities, and media. Her PhD research is dedicated to how journalists adapt to political change.

‘The fiercest and often deadliest battles that unfolded in the lead-up to and the aftermath of the Soviet disintegration were for the television tower,’ wrote Arkady Ostrovsky in his book ‘The Invention of Russia’. Even before investigators and journalists in the West started tracing the trail of Russia’s digital breadcrumbs worldwide, it was clear that Russia’s elites did not take power over the media lightly. In my PhD research, I focus on tactics Russia used in 2014 in Ukraine with regard to influencing media landscapes and controlling information flows. My research investigates how the news media landscape of contested Ukrainian territories changed from 2013 to 2017, and how local journalists adapted to these changes. But how could a researcher capture these processes in a research question and research design? I have been grappling with this issue since October 2015, when I started my PhD at the Department of Sociology, University of Cambridge. Since then, I have conducted a pilot study, crafted an interview guide, completed multi-site fieldwork, and have begun to write my thesis. In this post, I reflect on the process of designing an empirical research project that captures the elusive field of ‘the media’ and which allows me to sociologically examine a topic mired in disputed national borders, war, and shifting loyalties.

View over the Black Sea. Fiolent, Crimea. 2016

Posing research questions and designing fieldwork

My main case study focuses on how Crimea’s media landscape has been redrawn between 2013 and 2017. Crimea is a contested territory that is recognised by Russia as part of the Russian Federation since March 2014, yet Ukraine and most of the international community consider it part of Ukraine. Russia has established a de-facto border between the Crimean peninsula and the Ukrainian mainland. As Russia sought to institutionalise its control over the peninsula and to reimagine the ‘new’ borders of the region, the media landscape was redrawn as well. In 2014, the Russian state started producing and disseminating new representations of Crimea as  part of Russian territory. It is precisely the aspect of representation that made the media central to the redrawing of borders and the enactment of state power after 2014. For, without a coherent representation of Crimea as bounded by Russian borders the state could not normalise or implement its practices on the ground. Individual journalists working in the region did the everyday ‘legwork’ of normalising the new borders, both by creating images and participating in the new media regime established by Russia.

The broad research question I pose is ‘how do states transform media landscapes, and how do journalists adapt to these transformations?’ With regard to my case study, I am answering the questions ‘how did the Crimean news media field change as Russia established de-facto control over the region in 2014, and how did journalists who work in Crimea adapt to this media regime change?’

My study recreates two ‘snapshots’ of Crimea’s media landscape and its place in relation to Ukraine’s and Russia’s media fields: first, I analyse a ‘snapshot’ of Crimea’s media landscape prior to Russia’s annexation of the peninsula (in 2012-2013); and, second, I analyse the landscape after the annexation in 2016-2017. I trace the economic and political mechanisms by which the 2012-2013 ‘snapshot’ transformed into what we see in the region today. I locate these mechanisms through my analysis of secondary sources and interviews. I also analyse the strategies employed by local journalists by studying the trajectories of those who remained in contested regions and those who left, as well as how these journalists interacted with state strategies of media transformation.

My research design emerged from alternating periods of planning, conducting fieldwork, and analysing data. Below I explain how I moved through these stages.

Graffiti in Simferopol, Crimea. Pictured: Putin. The writing reads “Crimea is our common heritage”. The closed-down kiosk below the graffiti used to have a phone for international calls and sold newspapers and magazines. 2016

First year of the PhD: Media regimes, field theory, and gaps in literature

I spent 2015-2016 working on a research design that would enable me to analyse how media fields change over time, and how individual journalists react to and participate in these changes. Taking Daniel Hallin’s and Paolo Mancini’s classic work on the study of media systems and the subsequent body of literature that emerged from their approach as a baseline, I drew from Pierre Bourdieu’s field theory to supplement their methodology. Field theory allows me to characterise a changing system, to locate individuals and their strategies within the system, and to uncover hierarchies of various actors in the media field. I call the systems and fields I analyse ‘media regimes’.

To capture individual agency, I planned to collect biographical interviews with journalists. I also planned expert interviews with media scholars, media managers, government officials, and sociologists. I decided to counterpose these interviews against secondary sources.

My biographical interview guide was based largely on Gabriele Rosenthal’s method, which includes a broad question about life story at the beginning of the conversation and a long first response from the study participant. The second part of the interview is semi-structured and touches upon perceptions of the profession and its role in society, journalistic ethics and standards, and political views. I also planned expert interview guides about media ownership and specific media-related events.

To test and modify my interview guide, I conducted a pilot study in June-July 2016. During this period, I collected 12 preliminary interviews and specified some of the semi-structured questions. This pilot study also made me realise the importance of the stories of journalists who had left Crimea and who continued writing about the region from Kyiv, and the vast variety of ways in which individual journalists suffered from and interacted with the Russian state.

Graffiti in Simferopol, Crimea. The writing reads “Say good things about Russia, or say nothing.” 2016

Second year of the PhD: Identifying transformations and tracing mechanisms of change

I spent the autumn of 2016 analysing pilot interviews, gathering secondary data, and planning my second period of fieldwork for December 2016-August 2017.

With the enormous help of the Higher School of Economics-based working group I led remotely in 2016-2017, I collected primary and secondary sources in September 2016-June 2017. These sources are a collection of comparable data on both Russia and Ukraine, and include media rankings; laws regulating media; reports on news media freedom; data on news media outlet ownership; data on unionisation and media-related NGOs; data on arrests, attacks, murders of journalists for both Russia and Ukraine in the years 2013-2016. I then grouped the sources in comparative tables and graphs detailing the transformations of the news media fields of these countries over time.

In my second phase of fieldwork in Ukraine and Russia in December 2016-August 2017, I conducted 74 in-depth interviews with Crimean journalists who worked in Crimea before the events of 2014 took place. I also conducted 20 expert and elite interviews in Russia and in Ukraine. Additional sources include newsroom observation.

The data indicate that Crimea went from resembling the general trends of the Ukrainian media field to resembling the trends characteristic of Russia’s media environment: Crimea went from a media field divided largely between various private Ukrainian entrepreneurs who often used media for political means in 2012-2013, to a media landscape dominated by direct control or ownership by the Russian state in 2016-2017. In addition, while Ukrainian law allows foreign grant-making organisations to fund media, a series of Russian laws passed in 2014-2017 have limited foreign funding and foreign asset ownership in the media. I am currently analysing the adaptation strategies of journalists, and the factors that determined a journalist’s trajectory in the post-2014 period.

View over Kiev, Ukraine from the office of a Kiev-based TV channel. 2017

Concluding remarks: Why should I carry out this study?

This thesis expands on literature concerning the sociology of journalism and media in three ways. First, the work addresses journalists and media regimes in transition. Rather than viewing media systems as static entities as Daniel Hallin and Paolo Mancini have done, the thesis uses the idea of ‘media regimes’, or systems of journalistic conduct that are constantly negotiated by the interplay of political, market, and social forces. I develop a dynamic approach to media systems following the work of Bruce A. Williams and Michael X. Delli Carpini. Second, while much of the sociology of journalism literature addresses case studies of Western democracies and assumes a high degree of stability in media regimes, the thesis examines a post-Soviet transitional case. In addition to expanding our knowledge of media regimes under conditions of transition, the explicit focus of this work on rapid change may lead to theoretical insights that shed light on journalistic strategies and media regimes in developed countries. Third, the study puts journalists at the centre of sociological inquiry, illustrating value systems, career trajectories, and political contexts that shape how they position themselves in relation to governments, people in power, and society.

Studying the media regimes of contested territories in 2014 and the strategies employed by local journalists is important for three reasons. First, the swiftness of political changes that occurred in this case allows us to view political and media regime change in isolation from significant technological advances. Second, this case involves examining the media regimes of two post-Soviet states, Ukraine and Russia, which presents a challenge to understanding how two nationally-bound media regimes can clash, interact, and overlap. Third, the changes that took place in Ukraine’s contested territories have resulted in the formation of ‘exiled’ media outlets that report on the region from outside. Understanding how displaced journalists adapt, narrate their professional identities, and organise their work in relation to their region of origin, their host country, and other actors on the international arena can help us to theorise the under-researched topics of displaced journalists and exiled media.

In this complex path to crafting and implementing a research plan, I am, of course, most grateful to the study participants who have shared their stories with me. My most important task is to do justice to each voice I have heard throughout the past two years.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style)

Zeveleva, O. (2017) Studying conflict and media: Designing a sociological research project on contested territories. Available at: (Accessed [date]).