05 March 2008

The Audiences Targeted by VOA And The Smith-Mundt Act

It's time to clear up a recurring misunderstanding about the audiences VOA tries to reach. And we’ll refer to two recent emails to help.

The first was from someone who thought VOA’s reporting was, in this person’s view, “ABSOLUTELY PATHETIC.” (Yes, the writer used all capital letters.)

His displeasure originated with a story last month that previewed a campaign debate between US Democratic Party Presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. The complaint had nothing to do with alleged political bias or an error.

Instead, as the writer put it, “the story leaves out what I think are the most important details and the reason why I searched for this story: on which channel will it appear and when?”

We have to make an assumption here based on the way the email was written. That assumption is that the writer was located in the United States and looking for a TV schedule listing for when the debate would be broadcast and on what channel, something common in most American newspapers.

We don’t carry that type of information because VOA does not broadcast TO the United States and does not intentionally target American audiences (even though our websites are accessible and, web statistics show, highly popular in the US). In fact there is a law (Smith-Mundt Act) which prohibits us from targeting broadcasts within the United States.

Now, if the writer was a non-American living outside the United States, then it is a different matter altogether. In this case, though, we’d still have to disappoint him because, to our knowledge, none of VOA’s various language services has carried any of the candidate’s debates live and in full. That is likely to change once the Democrats and Republicans have made their formal candidate selections and the two finalists stage debates prior to the November election. We’re almost certain you will be able to hear those debates and we will be sure to include programming information so any one in our audience will know what time the debate will take place and how to watch or hear it. In general, when we do know a major event will be carried live, we note that at the top of news reports appearing on VOANews.com.

The second email was somewhat similar. It complained about a recent VOA story involving the recall of suspect American beef. The writer wanted to know why, if it was a story about American beef, our story stated weight measurements in kilograms instead of pounds.

Again the answer has to do with where our main audiences are located. Since we are not directing our news materials towards the United States, we have to use the measurement system our non-American audiences are most familiar with --- and that means kilograms instead of pounds, kilometers instead of miles, hectares instead of acres and so on.

All clear now?

For the record, here is what the Smith-Mundt Act says (and we’ve taken this right off our own website):

The Smith-Mundt Act of 1948 bars the domestic dissemination of official American information aimed at foreign audiences. Section 501(a) of the Act provides that “information produced by VOA for audiences outside the United States shall not be disseminated within the United States ... but, on request, shall be available in the English language at VOA, at all reasonable times following its release as information abroad, for examination only by representatives of United States press associations, newspapers, magazines, radio systems, and stations, and by research students and scholars, and, on, request, shall be made available for examination only to Members of Congress.”

1 comment:

Azrael Brown said...

My, that's funny -- I like VOA because of the external slant. I appreciate that the programming considers what's important to other countries; it helps give some different perspective on our news. I'm surprised those readers/listeners found the VOA's news at all, given how ubiquitous CNN, Fox News, etc. are. They may appreciate the same thing I do, without really understanding the whys and hows of it.