31 December 2009

Mobile Progress: A New Year's Gift for Iranians

Voice of America has unveiled a new Web application that will allow users in Iran to download and send content to VOA’s Persian News Network with their iPhones.

"This new application gives Iranians a unique opportunity to get the latest news on their mobile devices and to share with the world the news as it happens in their country," said Acting PNN Director Alex Belida. "It is a groundbreaking way to expand our reach inside Iran and deepen our relationship with a key VOA audience."

The application will enable users of Apple iPhones and Android phones to get the latest news from PNN and, with a single click, to send links to VOA stories via Facebook and Twitter pages and email accounts. The application will be available shortly in Apple’s online store, PNN’s Web site (http://www1.voanews.com/persian/news/) and on PNN’s Facebook and Twitter accounts.

The application, designed by the Washington-based company Intridea, also gives Iran’s “citizen journalists” the opportunity to use their iPhones and Android phones to send video and still pictures taken on their devices to a secure Web site where VOA’s PNN editors can download the images and review them for possible broadcast use and Web posting.

“This Web application empowers Iranians at a time when the government is staging a crackdown against opposition protesters,” Belida said. “As with the disputed elections earlier this year, VOA’s Persian service continues to be a leading source of news and information for Iranians.”

VOA has the largest combined radio and television audience in Iran of all international broadcasters, with one in four adult Iranians tuning in to a VOA program once a week. PNN broadcasts seven hours of television daily, repeated in a 24 hour format, and five hours of radio. Programming is also available around the clock on the Internet.

16 December 2009

Going Mobile Faster: VOA Needs to Do More

It’s a fact that more and more people worldwide are using mobile devices to receive news and information. Going to work here in Washington on the subway, I see scores of fellow commuters glancing at mobile phone screens, surfing the web, reading email and even watching video. Sometimes it seems more people are using mobile devices than are reading newspapers.

A recent study here in the U.S. found nearly 90 percent of mobile device owners were interested in receiving live news and other programming on the go. Separately, 46 percent found the idea of watching live TV programming on their mobile devices appealing.

Voice of America is trying to meet the mobile challenge. It’s an urgent mission, especially since, as VOA’s Africa Division Director Gwen Dillard noted recently, “The growth of mobile technology is largely due to young, urban users of new technology. It’s important to reach this market and try to shape their news habits, since they will socialize the next generation of users.”

VOA is beefing up SMS delivery in places such as Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya, Pakistan, Indonesia and China.

VOA’s Persian News Network is poised to launch an application for Android and iPhones, a VOA first. VOA English has a mobile-compatible site.

But is it enough? And is it coming quickly enough?

With more and more people worldwide embracing smart phones, Steve Buttry, a U.S.-based media trainer and former journalist, suggests too many news organizations are falling behind consumers, stuck on pursuing “web-first” strategies when they should instead be pursuing a “mobile-first” strategy.

Buttry, who has worked not only in the U.S. but also in several foreign countries, including Ireland, Venezuela, Mexico, Germany, Japan, Saudi Arabia, Ecuador and Russia, writes about this in a column on his website.

Buttry says, “we need to make mobile innovation the top priority and the first thing we think of when we plan change in our organizations.”

Buttry notes, and I have heard the same argument from skeptics, that the percentage of people who actually own iPhones or other smart phones is relatively small. But he says, and I have to agree, “if we wait until nearly everyone has some sort of smart phone, someone else will be filling the roles that we can and should fill.”

A new research study indicates the smart phone market is growing dramatically --- with projected sales of nearly two billion devices over the next five years. A report by Pyramid Research says China will become the biggest smart phone market in 2010, and other key markets such as Brazil, India, Turkey and Nigeria will record annual growth rates above 30% through 2014. Pyramid says Latin America will be the fastest growing region overall followed by Africa and the Middle East.

What does a “mobile first” strategy mean in order to meet these market demands? News executives need to devote more resources to mobile device applications. Journalists need to think more about how to package and deliver news for mobile devices. And the information technology workers at news organizations need to pay more attention to the development of mobile applications.

As Buttry says, “This will either be our future or our next squandered opportunity.”

I think it’s a fair question for VOA managers to consider. The NewsBlog would like to hear from them…and from you.

14 December 2009

Give ‘Em Hell, VOA - Part 2

We recently quoted former U.S. President Harry “Give ‘em Hell” Truman as saying back in 1948 about his political rivals: "I don't give them Hell. I just tell the truth about them and they think it's Hell."

We used the quote to explain why it is that VOA has only to report the news accurately and objectively and some foreign officials, usually in repressive countries with no free press, quickly complain.

The latest case is Zimbabwe, where the state-controlled Herald newspaper now describes VOA as a “pirate radio station.”

Real “pirate radios” rose to fame in the 1950’s and 60’s in Europe, when several, mainly commercial, broadcasters took to the seas, sending out programs from vessels anchored in international waters to circumvent strict government regulation of the airwaves in various countries. These radios mainly broadcast popular music of the sort that couldn’t be heard on state-run stations.

(For the record, VOA did mount a sea-based broadcasting operation back in the 1950’s in an initiative approved by President Truman. The Coast Guard cutter Courier was designed to provide a ship-borne radio relay station to transmit VOA programs behind the "Iron Curtain." She was stationed in the waters of the eastern Mediterranean off the island of Rhodes, Greece. You can read a full history of this vessel here.)

But VOA is no “pirate radio station” by any stretch of the imagination. It is a legitimate international broadcaster and it has been since 1942.

Zimbabwe has also taken to criticizing neighboring Botswana for hosting one of VOA’s transmitter relay facilities -- or as Zimbabwe puts it, “hosting pirate radio stations.”

The government of Botswana has just responded, noting “there is nothing exceptional about Botswana hosting the radio relay broadcasting facilities for an international broadcaster such as VOA.”

As a Botswana government statement also noted, “the VOA relay station, located near Selebi-Phikwe, has been in open operation for three decades. Its frequencies are filed with the International Telecommunications Union. The VOA relay transmitter was not constructed to relay to Zimbabwe alone, but to the region as a whole, including of course Botswana. The Government of Botswana is unaware of any broadcasts being relayed by VOA from the facility could be considered as hostile to Zimbabwe.”

Botswana also made the point that hosting international relay stations like VOA’s is consistent with a protocol agreed to by all Southern African countries which provides for a diversity of opinion and free flow of information in the region.

So like a recent VOA editorial said: “If the Mugabe regime really wants foreign-based stations to stop broadcasting into Zimbabwe, let it release its grip on the media there, liberalize the press and broadcasting environment, and domestic radio stations will flourish.”

In the meantime, don’t call us pirates.

09 December 2009

Hunting Tiger Woods

Go to VOANews.com’s sports page and you will see several stories about Tiger Woods, the star golfer who had a mysterious auto accident outside his Florida home and subsequently admitted to unspecified "transgressions". The admission came amid published allegations that he had extramarital affairs.

The Woods story has dominated the news media. On Google’s new search yesterday, there were nearly 4,000 articles – and not all of them from American media outlets. There were items from India and Ireland, Australia, Canada and Britain, just to mention a few foreign news sources.

VOA editors have discussed the issue of global interest in Tiger Woods and their responsibilities in handling the story.

Like other organizations, there are various camps here: those who say that the golfer is entitled to some privacy, and others who say that as a public figure, anything he is involved in is open to coverage. Some say there is no interest in the story in certain foreign markets. Others say it’s an aspect of American life but needs to be treated as part of a bigger issue – like ‘why are people interested in celebrities’ or ‘why do public figures get involved in sex scandals’ or, simply, ‘what is it about the Tiger story that captivates audiences?’

Listening to the discussion, I had to think about something Time magazine’s James Poniewozik wrote in a blog post this week: about watching “the contortions the respectable media go through” to try to justify covering a hot topic “while appearing to be serious-minded, and not like all those other outlets just trying to pry into Tiger Woods’ personal life.”

He says such justifications are unlikely to help the mainstream media: “What these half-measures do, more than anything, is convey the sense that the mainstream media is phony, inauthentic, that it lacks the courage of its convictions either to go all in and give the public what it wants, or take a bullet and stick to its principles. Trying to please everyone, it pleases no one.”

Do you have an opinion? Do you even care? Would more stories about Tiger Woods cause you to visit our website more often? Let us know.

08 December 2009

Give ‘Em Hell, VOA

During the 1948 U.S. election campaign, President Harry Truman, a Democrat, was delivering a speech in which he criticized the opposition Republicans. A supporter yelled out: "Give 'em Hell, Harry!” Mr. Truman replied, "I don't give them Hell. I just tell the truth about them and they think it's Hell."

This pretty much sums up the reason why some foreign officials, usually in repressive countries lacking a free press, routinely complain about Western coverage of events in such countries. And it explains why VOA, contrary to the claims of critics who accuse it of engaging in propaganda, doesn’t need to do more than deliver the news accurately, objectively and comprehensively to its worldwide audiences.

Take Iran, for example. In recent addresses, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamene'i has lashed out sharply at the United States and western media like VOA. In one speech, he put it this way: “The priority is what today they call the soft war; meaning a war using cultural tools, infiltration, lies, rumor mongering. They use advanced tools that exist today, communication tools that did not exist 10, 15, 30 years ago.”

In fact, the advanced tools he mentions are being used by Iranians themselves to counter the media restrictions that exist in Iran. While foreign journalists in Iran were barred from going out and watching the protests that took place on Students Day this week, Iranians used the Internet to send video to the outside world for use by broadcasters like VOA. They disseminated news about anti-government protests via Facebook and Twitter. They used cellphones to take pictures and send them. Authorities tried to slow down Internet service and curtail mobile phone service to curb the flow of information. But the effort was unsuccessful.

State television in Iran carried no reports on the actual protests. Western news organizations had to rely on the contributions of amateur “citizen journalists” to get as complete a picture as possible of what is happening inside Iran.

We believe all people have the right to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers – just as it says in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

We don’t believe they should be harassed, detained, arrested, charged and imprisoned for seeking to exercise this right.

29 September 2009

International Broadcasters Call for End to Government Restrictions on Media

The directors of five leading international broadcasters, including the Voice of America (VOA), released the following statement today at the conclusion of their annual meeting in Berlin, Germany:

Twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War, freedom of speech is still far from being a reality in many countries of the world and journalists have to face ever more sophisticated restrictions preventing them from reporting freely. While, for some of us, multimedia usage has become an almost indispensable part of everyday life, we should not forget that access to free information is still limited to just one third of the world`s population. The global economic downturn has also worsened the situation for many media outlets, especially smaller independent broadcasters.

In light of this, the five largest international broadcasters [VOA, BBC World Service, Deutsche Welle (DW), Radio France International ( RFI) and Radio Netherlands Worldwide (RNW)] call on governments worldwide to end restrictions on the media. The directors general of the group call on heads of state to implement Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which states, “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” The international broadcasters point out that countries' democratic credentials can be measured to the extent by which they permit freedom of information, and that this, in turn, is essential for a dialogue of cultures and free exchange of ideas to take place.

During the past year, restrictions on media, and in particular on international broadcasters, have peaked during national election campaigns. Tactics have included deliberate interference with transmissions, blocking and denial of service on the Internet, and harassment and imprisonment of journalists, notably in Afghanistan, Burma, and Iran.

Nevertheless, many courageous people in societies around the world are fighting for their right to express themselves and to be heard. Erik Bettermann, director of Deutsche Welle and current chair of the international broadcasters’ group, said, “We are impressed by the ingenuity and energy shown by audiences worldwide in using new digital media to facilitate cross-border communication. Their eyewitness accounts of events (many of which their own governments would prefer to go unreported), often accompanied by audio and visual material, have marked the beginning of a new era in communications, one from which we, as international broadcasters, can also benefit, supplementing our own coverage with authentic accounts supplied by citizens in the world's conflict zones keen to see the story told."

Some countries have extended restrictive regulations beyond broadcasting to the Internet and emerging new media, further limiting access to information. Authoritarian nations without the technical wherewithal to block or eliminate new media dissemination are resorting to traditional methods of repression and intimidation – expensive lawsuits, long prison terms, confiscation of property – to restrict the flow of news, both local and international.

Prior to the Berlin meeting, Reporters Without Borders, an international press freedom advocate, issued a press release expressing concern about reports "that Internet Service Providers in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong have installed a new filtering software called Landun (Blue Shield or Blue Dam in English) that is more powerful than its problematic predecessor Green Dam." As a result, the report said, “Access to independent news websites is liable to become more difficult and more risky."

Today, journalism must still be regarded as one of the world’s riskiest livelihoods. “Over the past year, hundreds of journalists worldwide – including some from our organizations - have been harassed, arrested, exiled, kidnapped or killed," the group pointed out.

“This only strengthens our resolve to jointly increase our efforts to set up a global civil society, where the free flow of information and the dialogue of cultures can take place unimpeded,” Bettermann said.

25 September 2009

Are the News Media Trustworthy?

The Pew Research Center for the People & the Press has released what can only be viewed by journalists as a depressing survey of the U.S. public’s assessment of the accuracy of news stories. The Pew Center, an independent, non-partisan public opinion research organization, says that assessment is now at its lowest level in the more than two decades of surveys.

The Pew study finds that only 29 percent of Americans now believe that U.S. news media get the facts straight. In 1985, when the first such survey was conducted, 55 percent said they felt news stories were generally accurate.

The study goes on to report that a majority of those surveyed believe news organizations are politically biased. Other evaluations in the study are also at all-time lows.

Bill Keller, executive editor of the New York Times, believes the results of the survey have been skewered by the surge in Internet and other outlets that substitute opinion for fact:

“The great flood that goes under the heading `news media' has been poisoned by junk blogs, gossip sheets, shout radio and cable-TV partisans that don't deserve to be trusted.”

Here’s another similar observation:

"I am concerned that if the direction of the news is all blogosphere, all opinions, with no serious fact-checking, no serious attempts to put stories in context, that what you will end up getting is people shouting at each other across the void but not a lot of mutual understanding."

You might be surprised to learn that comment was not made by a top editor like Bill Keller, but by President Barack Obama in a discussion this month with reporters from two American newspapers, the Toledo Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

We at VOA share the concern over the proliferation of opinion and argument in place of hard news reporting. Just consider the role of state-controlled or state-run media in many parts of the world: in our view, they do nothing to promote understanding either, existing only to promote support for a ruling government or party and to actually prevent alternative views -- or even the facts -- from being heard.

This is why we at Voice of America remain committed to straight reporting and fact-based analysis of news events as well as sharing responsible points of view on critical issues. It is why we have often made the case in speaking appearances that VOA is one of the last bastions of what we might call “pure journalism,” unadulterated by opinion or driven by political motives.

There is evidence that our audiences -- unlike those Americans surveyed in the Pew study -- believe VOA does get the facts straight. Two recent independent research surveys give VOA services high marks for trustworthiness. One survey conducted in Indonesia puts the trustworthiness rating at 94 percent. The other, carried out in Albania, puts the level of trust in VOA’s main news show, Ditari, at an extraordinary 99 percent.

High marks like those give us confidence that we are doing the right thing.

27 August 2009

Newsblog Holiday

Back in mid-September. See you then.

06 July 2009


In the wake of the election crisis in Iran, VOA and especially its Persian News Network were visited by many news organizations wanting to report on how we were covering events in Iran and what our sources were telling us about developments there. These news organizations included national and international media, including Al-Jazeera, ABC, NBC, the Washington Post and others. They were able to speak freely with our anchors, editors and managers.

Because we are a news organization and rely on the cooperation of sources when we want to cover and report stories, we are conscious of the need to be open and receptive when other journalists are interested in us.

So this week, when someone claiming to represent Danish TV called to set up a visit with a camera crew, VOA’s public affairs team arranged the appointment, escorted them into our Washington headquarters building, and allowed them to film and conduct interviews.

Only as their visit neared an end did we learn that this was not in fact Danish TV (as in Denmark’s well-known state-owned broadcaster) but an independent television production company that identifies itself as Danish. And they were not reporting on behalf of Danish TV but for Iran’s state-sponsored and Tehran-based Press TV, which is billed as “the first Iranian international news network, broadcasting in English on a round-the-clock basis.”

Now, let us be clear, although VOA is regularly denounced by Iranian officials and our reporters are unable to get visas to go there to report on events like the recent presidential election, we at VOA would be more than willing to allow Press TV to come and report. (We’d love Iran to reciprocate and let our journalists into Iran, but that is not nor will it ever be a precondition.)

What we do ask is that people be honest and not misrepresent themselves. That is no way to do business. Not in real journalism, which is, after all, all about transparency.

23 June 2009

Iran: “We do not know what is going on without you”

Over the past two weeks, since Iran’s disputed June 12th Presidential election, the number of visitors from Iran to the VOANewsBlog has surged to new heights. Despite heavy internet filtering by Iranian authorities, several hundred visits have been recorded from inside Iran – most of them from Tehran-based servers but also from 30 other locations in the country, including the holy city of Qom, home to some of Iran’s main religious leaders. Visits from Iran now exceed those from all other countries.

We view this as further evidence of the hunger of Iranians for news about developments in their own country. While the NewsBlog’s contributions have been limited, VOA’s main website and its Persian language site are also reporting record numbers of visits.Iranians are doing more than just visiting websites like ours. They are also sending thousands of emails, still photos and videos – many of which are being used in VOA programming. Iranian officials have denounced those who are sending out information and images to news organizations outside the country as foreign agents.

But the flow of information from what we call “citizen journalists” and others in Iran is unabated. Iranian officials have been trying to block the transmissions of VOA and other broadcasters from getting back into Iran – a technique known as jamming. We have been trying to stay ahead of this by increasing the number of satellites and frequencies we use.

Why is this so important? It’s simple. Here are the words of one Iranian who called us:

“Me and my family need your broadcasts to find out what is going on in our country. It is very important and we do not know what is going on without you.”

22 June 2009

Iranians Standing Up for Free Speech

There was a cartoon in the Boston Globe newspaper last week about developments in Iran since the country’s disputed presidential election. It shows two religious leaders standing on a balcony, overlooking a large crowd of protestors. One of the men is shouting “expel the correspondents,” a reference to the crackdown by Iranian authorities aimed at preventing foreign journalists from reporting on events.

But the other religious leader notes that in addition to protest signs, the crowd of demonstrators includes many holding up cellphones, cameras and other electronic devices – some labeled “Facebook”, “Twitter” and “email.” In response to the man shouting “expel the correspondents,” the other says, “but they’re all correspondents!”

Since the disputed June 12 election and the ensuing demonstrations and clashes between protestors and security forces, Voice of America’s Persian News Network, like other news organizations, has received hundreds of pieces of video sent in by ordinary Iranians. These videos are carefully evaluated by Farsi speaking staff before being used in airshows and posted on the web.

Some of these citizen contributions clearly reflect the courage of the contributors, like the one showing militia opening fire on protestors, clearly wounding some of them. Another shows a young woman, just moments after she has been fatally shot. Still another shows baton-wielding police lashing out at group of people that includes elderly women. The video-shooter, a man, can be heard shouting emotionally at the police to “stop beating old ladies” – even as he continues to film the scene.

The world owes these citizen journalists in Iran a deep debt of gratitude. With the government arrests, deportations and attacks on professional journalists, they continue to defy Iran’s effort to eliminate all potential witnesses to what is unfolding in the country.

29 May 2009

Roxana Saberi at VOA

Poised and thoughtful, Iranian-American journalist Roxana Saberi came to VOA this past week for her first and only Farsi-language interview since returning to the United States after being detained in Iran.

In the interview with VOA’s Persian News Network (PNN), Saberi says she was accused of spying and admits she confessed. But she says it was a forced confession while she was under what she calls “extreme psychological pressure.” She says because she was a journalist and was working on a book, Iranian authorities were suspicious of her:

"From the outset, I was charged with being ‘threat to national security’, which, as you know, its definition in Iran can be very extensive. Maybe even what viewers are doing, watching your show [VOA’s PNN] via satellite, fits one of those definitions and they too are a threat to national security. Since I’m a dual citizen, American and Iranian, and was a journalist and was working on a book, they were suspicious of me. I wanted to write a book about Iran’s society and depict the positive aspect of Iran, that Iranians have a rich history and culture. This was for foreigners, but those who interrogated me at the beginning said to me that ‘you are a spy.’ I want to say that most people know that I’m not a spy, but for those who don’t know, I want to say that I am not a spy, never was and never will be."

The 32-year old journalist spent nearly four months in a jail in Tehran. But an Iranian court ordered her release following an international outcry.

She says despite her ordeal, she hopes to return to Iran:

“I went to Iran 6 years ago. I didn’t speak Farsi and wanted to learn it. My father is Iranian and I wanted to see my Iranian homeland and I wanted to do some work there. I had not intended to stay that long, but it proved so attractive to me that I decided to stay. I realized what a beautiful culture, what hospitable and kind people Iranians are. I was so excited in Iran that every time I traveled overseas, I missed the country and wanted to return as soon as possible… I would definitely love to return to Iran someday.”

Stories about the Saberi interview are on VOANews.com, including a full transcript translated into English

04 May 2009

Bad for Bloggers, Bad for Press Freedom

The Committee to Protect Journalists has released a report identifying what it calls the “10 Worst Countries to be a Blogger.” CPJ puts Burma in first place because it has “a military government that severely restricts Internet access and imprisons people for years for posting critical material.”

CPJ goes on to call Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, and Egypt the leading online oppressors in the Middle East and North Africa, while it pegs China and Vietnam as Asia’s worst blogging nations. Cuba and Turkmenistan round out the CPJ list.

The CPJ report coincides with World Press Freedom Day, May 3rd. Last year CPJ reported that bloggers and other online journalists were the single largest professional group in prison, overtaking print and broadcast journalists for the first time.

CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon says: “The governments on the list are trying to roll back the information revolution, and, for now, they are having success. Freedom of expression groups, concerned governments, the online community, and technology companies need to come together to defend the rights of bloggers around the world.”

The Committee to Protect Journalists report comes as the New York Times carries a fascinating report about how unusual alliances have been forged to help people worldwide use technology to try to defeat government efforts to censor what they can read online.

The report by John Markoff notes, for example, that Iranian Internet users last year began circumventing government censorship by using a freely-downloaded computer program created by Chinese computer experts with the Falun Gong spiritual movement, which has been suppressed by the Chinese government.

As Markoff reports: “a disparate alliance of political and religious activists, civil libertarians, Internet entrepreneurs, diplomats and even military officers and intelligence agents are now challenging growing Internet censorship.”

The article notes the Voice of America has financed some circumvention technology efforts. With a growing audience online, especially in countries where authorities try to censor the news, it is in VOA’s interests to support what is, after all, considered a fundamental human right: that everyone has the right to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

20 April 2009

A Debate Over A Story About Dress Codes

We recently received an email about a report by Abuja-based correspondent Gilbert da Costa headlined “Nigerian Muslim Nurse Sacked for Violating Dress Code.”

The report earlier this month said the Ahmadu Bello University Teaching Hospital, one of the largest health facilities in northern Nigeria, had fired a nurse named Safiya Ahmed for allegedly persistently violating the dress code for nurses at the hospital by wearing an unapproved hijab or head covering. The report went on to say Muslim groups were calling the woman’s dismissal unfair and a violation of her constitutional rights.

Our email writer, a faculty member at Ahmadu Bello University, said that she had a daughter who was a nursing student at the school and that she and her daughter were both “aware of what is the dress code requirement for both students and staff nurses.” She notes the dress criteria were set by the Nursing Council of Nigeria and established mainly “for the purpose protecting the health interests of both patients and the medical personnel.”

She complains the VOA report was incomplete “because you only report about one side and did not bother to hear what the other side (teaching hospital) has as a reason for the action. This kind of act is what initiates and precipitates misunderstandings and because religious sentiments are involved, some serious problems may arise.”

We forwarded the faculty member’s comments to correspondent da Costa, who responded that he believes his piece “highlighted the position of the hospital authorities on the matter.”

Correspondent da Costa concedes that it might have been better to have a recorded interview with a hospital official. But he feels, “having anchored the story on the stated position of the medical facility, I sincerely think that all sides had their views amply conveyed in my reporting.”

If you have questions or comments about any of the stories on VOANews.com, please send them to us here at the NewsBlog and we will try to get a response for you.

08 April 2009

VOA Cares

Last month we received and wrote about an email from a garment worker who was upset about a VOA story in which two prominent world figures, during a visit to Haiti, said that what the people of that poor Caribbean country needed most of all were jobs.

The garment worker, who lives in the United States (our audiences are outside the United States, but our website can be accessed from almost any location in the world), said she appreciated the need for jobs in Haiti.

But she said she was about to lose her own job and said, “what about the need here? There are about 250 of us and no one seems to care that we are losing our jobs.”

We passed her email on to VOA’s Central News Division --- and they dispatched one of VOA’s videojournalists to York, Pennsylvania where he linked up with the woman.

Jeff Swicord’s report is up on our website under the headline, “Laid Off Workers in Pennsylvania City Try to Retool.” It’s definitely worth a read. And it demonstrates how interaction via the web can produce results.

25 March 2009

Internet Enemies

Reporters Without Borders recently issued a report on what it calls “Internet Enemies.” It named 12 countries: Saudi Arabia, Burma, China, Cuba, Egypt, Iran, North Korea, Syria, Tunisia, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Vietnam.

The press freedom group says: “All of these countries mark themselves out not just for their capacity to censor news and information online but also for their almost systematic repression of Internet users.”

Of all these countries, Reporters Without Borders casts China as Internet Enemy Number One:

“The Chinese government has the sorry distinction of leading the world in repression of the Internet. With the world’s largest number of Internet users, its censorship mechanisms are among the world’s most blatant. However, the authorities are rarely caught napping on the content of articles posted online.”

This past week, Chinese authorities showed how quickly they can move. After they denounced as a fake a video posted on YouTube that appeared to show police beating Tibetan prisoners, the owners of the popular video-sharing site reported it was being blocked inside China.

17 March 2009

Declining Trust in the News Media?

Here at VOA, we’re pleased when we see independent research that suggests our audiences around the world consider our news products highly credible. For example, a recent survey in Albania found 82% of those polled considered VOA’s “Ditari” news program “very trustworthy.” In Indonesia, a similar survey of VOA radio listeners there found 60% considered our broadcasts “very trustworthy.”

But here in the United States, people seem to be much more skeptical about the news they see, hear and read.

“The State of the News Media 2009”, an annual report on the health and status of American journalism, has just been released by the Project for Excellence in Journalism of the Pew Research Center, a nonpolitical, nonpartisan research institute.

It says on the issue of credibility:

“No major [U.S.] news outlet – broadcast or cable, print or online – stood out as particularly credible. There was no indication that Americans altered their fundamental judgment that the news media are politically biased, that stories are often inaccurate and that journalists do not care about the people they report on.”

In a bizarre twist, the survey found more and more Americans are relying on the Internet for their news. But at the same time the study found they “gave it [Internet] particularly low marks for credibility.”

The Pew report recalls that 10 years ago, more than 40% of Americans said they believed most or all of the reporting carried by major newspapers and television news operations. That figure has been dropping since then.

The most believable newspaper now is considered the Wall Street Journal, but only 25% “believe all or most” of what they read. Only 18% “believe all or most” of what they see in the New York Times.

Among broadcasters and cable news outlets, CNN gets a 30% rating for “believe all or most” with National Public Radio (NPR) at 27%.

Although Internet usage is up among people seeking news, the credibility ratings for on-line news outlets are lower than those for newspapers and broadcast and cable outlets. Just 13% give Google News the highest rating for believability, with Yahoo News second with 11%.

We wonder why there is such a discrepancy between the views of our audiences on media credibility and those of audiences looking at big name news organizations in the U.S. Is it that many people outside the United States, especially in countries where the independent media are less developed or press freedom is repressed, hunger for the kind of information that is available here and, as a result, give high marks to VOA? On the other hand, have U.S. news media somehow let their American audiences down or are American audiences simply too jaded?

If you have any thoughts on this, please share them with us by sending your comments to the News Blog: VOANewsBlog@gmail.com

13 March 2009

Whose Jobs Are More Important? And What Is Our Role In Reporting?

The News Blog received an email this week about a report filed by VOA’s UN correspondent Margaret Besheer from Port-au-Prince, Haiti where she accompanied UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and former US President Bill Clinton on brief visit.

Unemployment is rampant in Haiti, the 14th poorest country in the world, and Mr. Ban said what the impoverished Caribbean nation needs most is jobs. Ms. Besheer reported the two men visited a T-shirt factory where Mr. Clinton said the owner told him he employs 3,000 workers, but, if his operating costs were lower, he could increase that to 10,000.

Our email writer said she was a garment worker in York, Pennsylvania. (Our audiences are outside the United States, but our website can be accessed from almost any location in the world.) She said she was about to lose her job. She told the News Blog that “an investor is interested in buying into the company but guess what he wants to do? Take our jobs to Haiti.”

She went on: “While I realize the need in Haiti, what about the need here? There are about 250 of us and no one seems to care that we are losing our jobs.” The emailer also said she had heard garment workers in Haiti experienced what she described as “horrific working conditions.”

She then asked, “Is this what you are condoning? To me, your [report] is further encouraging companies to leave the US for Haiti.”

First of all, we’d like to say that by reporting on something, we are not condoning anything. Nor do we consider that by reporting on any topic, we are encouraging anyone to do anything. We don’t approve of genocide nor would we ever encourage bloodshed, but that doesn’t mean, for example, that we as journalists can ignore stories about Darfur.

The purpose of reporting is to inform, so those receiving information -- like our email writer -- can make their own judgments and, if they choose, voice their own opinions. That is why we believe a free press is essential to democracy.

One thing we can do is report on the problems facing people like the garment worker in Pennsylvania. We have passed her email on to our Central News Division for a possible story for our global audience on the economic challenges she is dealing with.

10 March 2009

Terrorists, Fundamentalists and Extremists

Is it journalistically-sound to avoid the use of certain phrases, like Islamic terrorist and Muslim Fundamentalist?

We think it is sometimes, and here is why: a terrorist is a terrorist. The terrorist may belong to a particular religion, but if in a news report, one adds Islamic/Christian/Hindu/Jewish, it creates the perception of a bias.

As for avoiding the phrase Muslim fundamentalist, every religion is based on some ‘fundamentals’, be it Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism or Islam. The use of such an expression in the case of Muslims adds to existing misgivings in the Islamic world of an anti-Muslim sentiment in the Western media. Similarly, the use of the phrase Christian fundamentalist adds to similar misgivings among many Christians of an anti-Christian bias in that same media. Stereotyping in this way, without context, is at best lazy journalism.

Think about it. How often do you actually see references in news reports to Buddhist radicals or Hindu terrorists or Jewish extremists? We suspect the answer is rarely if ever.

The VOA Stylebook says this about the use of the phrase Islamic fundamentalists: “Except in direct quotation avoid this term, which suggests that violence is somehow a fundamental part of Islam… It is important to remember that most Muslims are neither radical nor militant.”

To go one step further, identifying anyone by religion, race or gender in a news story should only be done when religion, race or gender is relevant to what’s being reported.

We can’t guarantee that everyone will like this policy just as we don’t expect everyone to approve of the way we write our news reports.

But we’re not out to please, just inform.

Our job, as our Charter says, is to serve as a consistently reliable and authoritative source of news and to represent America, not any single segment of American society, while at the same time presenting the policies of the United States clearly and effectively along with responsible discussions and opinion on these policies.

And that’s just what we will continue to do.

17 February 2009

The Amazing, Growing Foreign Media Corps in Washington

The Project for Excellence in Journalism has just released a study on “The New Washington Press Corps.”

One of its major findings is that there has been amazing growth in the number of foreign media outlets now covering the U.S. capital.

“When the U.S. State Department first opened a Foreign Press Center for representatives of non-U.S. media in 1968, there were about 160 foreign correspondents reporting from Washington. In October, 2008, there were nearly ten times as many.”

According to the report, 1,490 foreign correspondents were accredited to the Foreign Press Center in Washington as of last October. They represent nearly 800 media outlets from 113 countries and territories. Much of the growth in recent years has come from media from China, the Middle East and Africa. All are regions where U.S. policies and actions have taken on increased importance over the past decade.

The study finds the foreign presence in such large numbers “has changed the way the world gets its news from Washington, and the implications of their presence for America’s image in the world are considerable.”

As a long-time communicator to the rest of the world from Washington, VOA welcomes the presence of so many reporters from so many countries. We hope they share our commitment to delivering news that is consistently reliable and authoritative as well as accurate, objective, and comprehensive. We know their audiences will appreciate it.

05 February 2009

What VOA Covers

In today’s post, we’d like to take up what we consider the tired old shibboleth of what VOA is supposed to be about. You may have heard it in one form or another. It goes something like this: one international broadcaster claims to focus on local news inside a particular country or group of countries. Another international broadcaster, it is argued, reports on the whole world. VOA, meanwhile, is alleged to report mainly on America and U.S. policy and not much else.

What bothers us about this portrait is that it is utterly false and misleading. VOA broadcasts on local news in countries around the world --- and it reports on global developments. Yes, it reports on America and U.S. policy (like other international news organizations) but that represents just a portion of what VOA offers to its audiences.

Take a look at VOANews.com. As this is written there are five main stories headlined on the portal page of the website: two involve the U.S., one deals with Iraq, another with Sri Lanka and the last one with Israel.

Go to the main English news page and in addition to these a reader will find stories involving Britain, Iran, China, North Korea, South Africa and Libya.

Go to some of the other websites hosted by VOA and a reader will find an assortment of detailed items dealing with local news from a particular country. Consider VOA’s Persian News Network. There is a whole page on PNN’s site for Iran news (and a separate page for articles from the Iranian press).

Or look at Studio Seven, VOA’s service to Zimbabwe in English, Shona and Ndebele. Every single item on the Studio Seven site involves local news for Zimbabweans, just as if it were a local broadcaster or daily news publication.

So the next time someone says VOA is just about the United States, don’t believe it. Listen, watch or go to our websites and check it out yourself --- and tell others to do the same. We cover the world --- and we cover your country. And we cover the United States. We’re a full service news organization.

26 January 2009

Secretary of State Clinton and VOA

The subject of U.S. International Broadcasting, including VOA, came up during the recent confirmation hearings for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. In response to questions from Senator Richard Lugar, Mrs. Clinton for the most part praised the performance of America's international broadcast entities.

Most important, from our perspective, she underscored a point we have often tried to make: “our international broadcast services demonstrate an essential lesson of free societies --- the requirement of an independent media for a robust democracy.”

She also underscored the need for what she termed “a strong and unambiguous fire wall between the professional journalists and editors (at VOA and other U.S. International Broadcasters)… and others in the U.S. government whether at the White House or the State Department. I recognize this to be a fundamental requirement of effective international broadcasting.”

The Secretary of State holds one of the seats on the Board of Broadcasting Governors (BBG), which oversees VOA and the other U.S.-financed broadcasters.

But Mrs. Clinton said the “most effective BBG will be one at arms length” from State and other government agencies.

Her comments come at a time when there has been much discussion about improving U.S. public diplomacy --- sometimes with proposals that would draw VOA into some new U.S. global communications strategy.

We at VOA believe, like Mrs. Clinton, that we can do our best work and serve our audiences best when we are able to operate independently.

VOA’s Journalistic Code says specifically: “VOA reporters and broadcasters must strive for accuracy and objectivity in all their work. They do not speak for the U.S. government.” The VOA Charter says, “VOA will represent America, not any single segment of American society…”

VOA offers news about the United States and US government policies because the United States has global interests that no responsible news organization, American or non-American, can ignore. Our research also shows many of our audiences want to hear about American culture, life, history, youth and more.

But our emphasis will always remain on offering reliable and authoritative news. As we have said before, if our audience perceives we are more interested in pursuing a political or ideological agenda than straight reporting, we will lose our credibility --- and our audience.

16 January 2009

Smith-Mundt Symposium

There was a symposium this past week here in Washington on the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948. We’ve written about this legislation before because it formally bars the dissemination in the United States of official American information aimed at foreign audiences. That includes the news and information generated by the Voice of America.

In fact, here is what the act says: “information produced by VOA for audiences outside the United States shall not be disseminated within the United States.”

Of course, the legislation has been somewhat outdated by technology. Audiences with access to the Internet or satellite TV or even a shortwave can still access VOA programming --- even if they live in the United States.

The point is, VOA is not allowed to intentionally target the U.S. audience. (And there is nothing illegal about Americans viewing, reading or listening to VOA material.)

In any case, the symposium heard a variety of voices on the subject of Smith-Mundt and the broader topic of U.S. public diplomacy efforts. Some 200 people attended -- officials from the State Department, the Pentagon and Congress as well as former U.S. Information Agency officials, some representatives from VOA and the Broadcasting Board of Governors, members of the academic community and others. There was no immediate consensus on whether Smith-Mundt should be thrown out altogether, made less restrictive or made tougher.

But former VOA Director David Jackson, a panelist at the symposium, did make a couple of points we believe are worth repeating here. First of all, he stressed that all those working in the VOA headquarters in Washington are journalists. He said U.S. officials can “no more tell them what to write” than they can tell journalists at the Washington Post (newspaper) what to write. And he suggested that removal of the Smith-Mundt restrictions on VOA could help silence critics who claim the contents of VOA shows must be suspicious if the American people aren’t allowed to see them.

Well, we’ll just have to wait and see if Congress and the next administration consider this a priority.

In the meantime, more information about the symposium can be viewed at the “Mountainrunner” website of its organizer, Matt Armstrong.