25 June 2008

Making A Difference

Audiences around the world don’t just share the desires to feel entertained or informed. They also, from time to time, want to feel inspired. And what better way to inspire audiences than to tell the stories of individuals who are engaged in activities that are truly inspirational.

So VOA is today launching a new multimedia series profiling people around the world who are, as the series is called, Making A Difference.

“We hope to inspire those who see, hear and read about these people, who are making a difference against some terrific odds,” says Steve Redisch, VOA's Executive Editor. “Our audience will see that others are enduring problems and situations similar to their own, and yet finding solutions.”

The series premier is about Cynthia Maung, a Burmese doctor and refugee who established a health clinic in Thailand along the border between the two countries. Her work taking care of refugees has led the Burmese government to brand her a terrorist.

Future profiles include those of an Ethiopian man who travels by donkey to remote villages throughout the country distributing books to children; a day in the life of Dr. Robert Gallo, including reflections on his groundbreaking discovery of and research into HIV; and a close-up look at a retired Liberian priest who teaches people how to type in order to make a living on the streets of the country's capital city, Monrovia.

Series producer Erin Brummett Klein says their stories “go beyond the news we see and hear everyday and explore the human spirit behind individual actions that help people.”

We hope you’ll enjoy these profiles. And if you are inspired by them, we want to hear your stories of what you decided to do. Write us here at the VOA News Blog.

19 June 2008

Journalists As Refugees

June 20th is World Refugee Day and the US-based Committee to Protect Journalists has just completed a study on the number of journalists who have joined the ranks of the global refugee community. CPJ reports at least 82 journalists fled their native countries under threat or harassment in the last 12 months, with more than half coming from Iraq and Somalia. CPJ says the rate of journalists going into exile—about seven per month—is double the average that recorded since it began compiling such data in 2001.

CPJ reports 51 journalists fled after being assaulted or threatened with violence or death. It says police surveillance, repeated interrogations, and sporadic detentions prompted another 19 journalists to flee while the threat of imprisonment led 12 more to seek exile.

Joel Simon, CPJ executive director, says: “CPJ is concerned when threats, imprisonment, and harassment force any journalist from his or her home, but when the media are driven out en masse as in Iraq and Somalia, a vital piece of those societies is being lost.”

The CPJ survey documents the cases of 22 Iraqi journalists and 21 Somali journalists who have fled their homes. At least 14 journalists fled Chad, although most have since returned. In the last year, at least four journalist s left Eritrea and three left Ethiopia.

Meanwhile, VOA’s correspondent in Moscow, Peter Fedynsky, reports controversy surrounds the investigations of two journalists killed in Russia and Kyrgyzstan. Please take a look at his report with the latest on the 2006 murder of Anna Politkovskaya and the 2007 killing of Alisher Saipov, a stringer for VOA's Uzbek Service.

13 June 2008

Zimbabwe, Performance Review and Objectivity

Every VOA programming service regularly undergoes what is called a performance review. A dedicated team of specialists evaluates the content and production values of the service’s output for TV, radio and the web. These evaluations are usually coupled with fresh research data and an analysis of the service’s audience and its needs and desires. The goal is to improve overall quality and hopefully increase audience appeal while checking on the service's adherence to VOA's standards.

This past week VOA’s Zimbabwe service, known as Studio 7, had its performance review. Given the current crisis in Zimbabwe, Studio 7, now in its sixth year, is providing an important service to Zimbabweans. Its audience has increased steadily despite what our research terms “substantial barriers” to tuning to VOA, including jamming, recurring power outages and ever-soaring battery prices.

Interviews conducted among listeners in three Zimbabwean cities late last year found that almost unanimously, they think Studio 7 delivers credible stories of Zimbabwean news and politics. Most said if VOA went off the air, they would be very sad and at a loss for equivalent coverage.

While radio remains the dominant method for Zimbabweans to access news, cell phone use has increased substantially in the last two years with a corresponding increase in the use of SMS to get news. Studio 7 has integrated SMS text messaging into its operations.

Internet use has also grown. VOA’s Zimbabwe website has experienced remarkable growth with monthly average visits exploding from about 16,500 a month in 2006 to just under 70,000 visits a month this year.

And like VOA’s broadcasts to Zimbabwe, the Zimbabwe website posts news content in three languages: English, Shona and Ndebele.

The latest performance review found Studio 7 “has done an outstanding job of providing comprehensive coverage” of political developments in Zimbabwe. Reports on the political atmosphere, voter expectations, incidents of violence and more were described as “remarkable for the depth of views and analysis they offered.”

The review noted one of the service’s challenges has been getting senior Zimbabwean government officials to appear in programs. They routinely declined, accusing Studio 7 of being opposed to President Robert Mugabe. As a result, broadcasts mainly included the voices of opposition politicians, human rights activists and regional analysts.

But over the past two years, some high profile individuals within the Mugabe government have appeared on Studio 7. They include cabinet ministers, ambassadors and the chief spokesman of the ruling party.

As the performance review team’s content analysis report states, “the appearance of these officials… has allowed for a more comprehensive and balanced presentation of the news. The impact and credibility of Studio 7 may have contributed to prompting Zimbabwean officials to participate in… programs they regard as anti-Mugabe.” The review team now hopes that perhaps Mr. Mugabe himself will soon consent to an interview.

Given that government-controlled media dominate Zimbabwe and that, unlike VOA, they make no effort to air points of view other than Mr. Mugabe’s, some might wonder why Studio 7, like all VOA services, strives to be inclusive?

To answer that, we want to quote Bill Keller, Executive Editor of the New York Times. At a meeting held earlier this year of leading journalists and journalism educators, there was a discussion about objectivity in which he said the following:

“…our job is not to tell people what we think, or what they ought to think, but to provide them with enough information to make up their own minds about what they ought to think. That’s my standard of objectivity.”

If that sounds somewhat familiar, it’s because we have said much the same right here on the News Blog:

“…we believe strongly that our responsibility is to inform audiences about all significant points of view and let them make up their own minds. It is not our job to tell the people in our audiences what position to take or what to believe. When we say, ‘we report and you decide,’ we mean it.”

We still mean it.

11 June 2008

Protecting Reputations

We moved a report on May 27 from London with the headline: “Study Finds Rampant Child Abuse by Aid Workers, Peacekeepers.” The article was about a report by Save the Children UK which accused some international aid workers and peacekeepers of sexually exploiting children living in countries affected by conflict and natural disaster. It was, to say the least, a shocking story.

The article as displayed on VOANews.com included a photograph of a Brazilian UN peacekeeper being followed by Haitian child --- clearly marked as a “file photo.” It was not intended to imply the soldier in the picture was involved in the kind of abuse described in the Save The Children report.

Unfortunately, that is just what one reader from Brazil saw:

“This picture gives an idea that the Brazilian Peacekeeper is guilty. I'm very upset about this. I'm a former Peacekeeper, (who) was in Haiti from December 2006 until May 2007…I left my family, my wife and my son in Brazil and went to Haiti to help that people, to fight against the gangs, to help the children, to help the weak people, to bring peace to that place.”

The writer told us that he reads and listens to VOA about twice a week and likes it. But, he doesn’t approve of the decision to run that file photo with the item on child abuse. He says, “I hope to get an excuse. I hope (for) an answer. I hope (for) justice.”

Our web team has sent him an apology. It says:

“We struggled to find a photo to illustrate that report. Obviously we're not going to find a photo that represents abuse - and the best we could do was to find a photo that illustrated how dependent local populations, including children, are on international peacekeepers, because they play such an important role. We were very careful to make sure the photo caption did not give the impression the peacekeeper in the picture was involved in any abuse. We apologize, because we tried very hard to avoid exactly the kind of impression you report. Please understand that was not our intent.”

In retrospect, we think a better decision might have been not to use any file photo but a picture of the actual cover of the Save The Children report.

03 June 2008

Drawing A Line Between Honest Reporting And “Influence Operations”

VOA Director Dan Austin has delivered a speech at a panel on new media in Germany. It is well worth reading in its entirety. But we wanted to point out a few noteworthy passages:

“Ever since the Voice of America was founded in 1942, we have been in competition with those who use media to mislead and manipulate, to promote agendas of narrow self-interest, even hate.

“I can tell you from experience that there seems to be little we can do to make some of those who inhabit this space responsible, let alone accountable.

“That is not to say, however, that there is nothing to be done. Indeed I want to offer some practical steps that I believe broadcasters and, in some cases, governments can take to promote better, more responsible use of both old and new media.”

Austin calls first for more resources for international media training. He also calls for more legal protections for journalists and more access to information:

“That includes open meeting laws, freedom of information statutes, and transparency in the workings of government.”

The VOA Director also calls for “rigidly enforcing the dividing line between government-financed efforts to inform people – and government-financed attempts to influence and even mislead a population without revealing that government's involvement or motives.”

He then makes a point which readers of the News Blog will find familiar:

“The Voice of America does not do propaganda. And neither do other international broadcasters who recognize that credibility with an audience is the most powerful tool they have, that reporting news accurately and fairly in order to help people reach their own decisions is an end, not a means.

“If we draw the line between honest, fair reporting and analysis and “influence operations” that are disguised as journalism, we show the world what it means to be responsible. We also give the people of the world, who often know propaganda when they see it, a clear choice of whom to believe, and whom to ignore or reject.”