27 February 2008

Transparency at VOA: The Findings

In our last posting, we noted that the International Center for Media and the Public Agenda (ICMPA) at the University of Maryland’s College of Journalism had issued a report on “Transparency in Global Media Outlets” – a study that asked “how transparent are the media themselves? How candid are they about how they cover the news? How willing are the media to make their reporting and editing standards public?”

ICMPA investigated 25 top news sites and found “most news outlets are unwilling to let the public see how their editorial process works.” VOA was not among the news organizations analyzed, so we decided to use the study’s criteria for a self-evaluation. Here is a preliminary assessment.

CORRECTIONS: Willingness to openly correct mistakes—Does the news organization visibly and/or publicly correct its mistakes, even when those mistakes are embarrassing?

VOA correction policy covers all websites and all broadcast programs in all languages:

“For websites: If the error is a simple typo that does not change facts or understanding of the story, we consider it a minor change and simply correct it without further mention. If the error is substantive or one of fact, we change it, add an asterisk *, then a note at the bottom saying when it was corrected and what was wrong originally.

“Examples: http://www.voanews.com/english/archive/2007-11/2007-11-27-voa37.cfm (originally said Mental Health) http://www.voanews.com/english/archive/2007-11/2007-11-15-voa32.cfm (wrong date) http://www.voanews.com/english/archive/2007-09/2007-09-27-voa81.cfm (gives explanation)

”For broadcast errors: If we make a mistake that needs correcting, we should do so as quickly as possible while the same show is on the air. If the error is not detected immediately, then preferably the correction should be aired on the same program in which the original error occurred, whether the following day or week. Make a point to say "On ____ day (state the day and date and time), we erred in reporting..." then go on to explain what we said that was wrong, make the correction and close by saying, "Voice of America regrets the error."

The web corrections policy is posted on VOANews.com as part of our Disclaimer Statement.

The broadcast correction policy is part of the VOA Journalistic Code, posted on our website, which says “VOA corrects errors or omissions in its own broadcasts at the earliest opportunity.”

OWNERSHIP: Openness about ownership—Is it clear to the audience (ie: readers, viewers and listeners) who owns the news organization? Is there other information about the parent corporation that is divulged, such as any other media and non-media holdings?

Go to the “About VOA” section of VOANews.com

Among the details found there is a listing for the Broadcasting Board of Governors which oversees VOA (along with an organizational chart for the BBG and VOA and other US financed broadcasters). As it states, “the Broadcasting Board Governors (BBG) became the independent federal agency responsible for all U.S. government and government sponsored, non-military, international broadcasting” and this includes VOA.

STAFF POLICIES: Openness about conflicts of interest—Does the news outlet post its standards intended to guide the behavior of reporters, editors, producers? Can journalists be taken out to lunch, can they contribute to a political candidate, can they accept speakers’ fees? Is the news organization upfront about any business or other relationships that might put individual reporters or the news organization in a position where the news judgment could be clouded?

As it states in the VOA Journalistic Code, “VOA employees recognize that their conduct both on and off the job can reflect on the work of the Voice of America community. They adhere to the highest standards of journalistic professionalism and integrity.”

VOA recognizes that staff members should be free to engage in creative, civic and personal activities, paid and unpaid, that are separate from their work in our organization. However, before engaging in such outside activities, staff members need to consider whether possible conflicts of interest might arise and consult as needed with supervisors. In all cases, VOA journalists should ensure that any outside activities do not conflict with nor compromise their VOA obligations or the reputation of VOA.

Conflict of Interest regulations are the same as those observed by all US government agencies. These are available on the web.

REPORTING POLICIES: Willingness to explain editorial decisions—including the values and ethics behind them; Does the news organization let its readers know how it does what it does and why? What are the newsroom's writing and editing policies: when can reporters use politicized terms such as “terrorist,” how many sources does it take to confirm a story? In general, does the news outlet make public its reporting standards (such as its sourcing guidelines) and ethical rules (such as its handling of stories about children)?

As noted above, the VOA Charter and Journalistic Code are posted on our website. We also have this VOA News Blog, specifically designed to address editorial policies and decisions. The News Blog has discussed the “terrorist” term usage issue. The Code addresses VOA sourcing rules.

INTERACTIVITY: Openness to reader comments and criticism—Does the news organization have an ombudsman? Does the news organization publish letters to the editor and/or provide other ways for the readers to interact with the people who collect, edit and disseminate the news, such as by posting email addresses for reporters and editors, or by making staff accessible via on-site blogs, live chats, or space to leave remarks at the bottom of stories?”

We don’t have an Ombudsman or Public Editor whose official job is to represent the audience in independently assessing editorial decisions. That said, we do have the News Blog which encourages audience input and has broad leeway to conduct internal inquiries. VOANews.com is also open to email queries and comments as are all our language websites. Contact info is published on the website.

Our broadcast services are also open to listener or viewer comments, criticism and questions, including questions on editorial issues. For example, the Persian service, known as VOA Persian News Network, has a regular weekly segment called “On The Record” hosted by the service’s Managing Editor. The segment addresses editorial decisions and fields questions from the audience.

So, we now leave it to you to judge how well we stack up in terms of our openness.

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