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.