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.