30 September 2010

Stories Too Good To Check Out (But We Do): Aliens and UFO’s

One of the fundamentals of journalism is accuracy and one of the chief responsibilities of a reporter is to verify information first and not just slap it on-line, on the air or into print.

But once in a while a story comes along that, as the saying goes, is just too good to check out. A major British newspaper apparently had one of these moments the other day. The London Sunday Times ran an article headlined: “If Mars attacks, she’s our leader.” It said the United Nations was about to designate Malaysian astrophysicist Mazlan Othman to be, in effect, the official greeter for any aliens that might arrive on Earth.

Ms. Othman serves as Director of the little-known U.N. Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA).

Seems a natural choice, right?

There is just one problem. When I checked with UNOOSA about the article, here is what they said:

“The article in the Sunday Times is nonsense.”


But aliens and UFO’s are popular topics. In fact this seems to have been an “alien-UFO” week. Besides the Othman story (or non-story), there was also a news conference at the National Press Club in Washington by some former U.S. Air Force officers who asserted unidentified flying objects hovered near nuclear missile sites as recently as 2003, causing several missiles to malfunction.

You can see some of the presentation here.

In the pursuit of fair and balanced journalism, I turned to the Pentagon to see if they had any response to the former Air Force officers. I was directed to an Air Force Fact Sheet on Unidentified Flying Objects which states:

“No UFO reported, investigated and evaluated by the Air Force was ever an indication of threat to our national security… and there was no evidence indicating that sightings categorized as "unidentified" were extraterrestrial vehicles.”

One more alien-UFO connection. I happened to watch a new U.S. TV show called “The Event” this week. Interestingly, one of the key plot elements of this fictional thriller involves prisoners held in a secret compound in Alaska who are -- you guessed it -- aliens who crash-landed on Earth in 1944. They look just like us (though they don’t age as rapidly) and some of the aliens that survived the crash escaped, blending in with the human population.

Maybe that explains the occasionally strange behavior of news organizations?

[Note: the photo above is from the U.S. Air Force. The Air Force says "Aliens" observed in the New Mexico desert were actually anthropomorphic test dummies that were carried aloft by U.S. Air Force high altitude balloons for scientific research.]

29 September 2010

Meles In A Jam Again With VOA

Meles Zenawi believes it is permissible for Ethiopia to jam VOA broadcasts into his country because the U.S. legally bars the dissemination of VOA programming within the United States itself. (See this on Smith-Mundt Act.)

There’s just one problem with that attempted justification. As VOA Director Danforth Austin tells the NewsBlog: “The U.S. government doesn't jam foreign broadcasts heard and seen by U.S. citizens. The Ethiopian government does jam foreign broadcasts heard and seen by Ethiopian citizens. I think the question has to be: What is it about these international broadcasters that Meles Zenawi and his government fear?”

This isn’t the first time the Ethiopia Prime Minister has said something outrageous involving VOA. Back in March he uttered one of the most outrageous statements of all time when he compared VOA broadcasts to Ethiopia to the broadcasts of Radio Milles Collines, the infamous “hate radio” blamed for inciting the Rwandan genocide of 1994.

Meles’ justification for the Ethiopian jamming of VOA broadcasts back then drew a sharp response from U.S. officials. A State Department spokesman said the Ethiopian leader was entitled to disagree with the news carried by VOA but jamming VOA signals was in conflict with Ethiopia’s constitution. It says Ethiopians have the right to freedom of expression “without any interference” and that this right shall include freedom to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas of all kinds, “regardless of frontiers.”

28 September 2010

A Notable News Media Quote: Obama on Fox

President Obama, interviewed by Rolling Stone:

What do you think of Fox News? Do you think it's a good institution for America and for democracy?

[Laughs] Look, as president, I swore to uphold the Constitution, and part of that Constitution is a free press. We've got a tradition in this country of a press that oftentimes is opinionated. The golden age of an objective press was a pretty narrow span of time in our history. Before that, you had folks like Hearst who used their newspapers very intentionally to promote their viewpoints. I think Fox is part of that tradition — it is part of the tradition that has a very clear, undeniable point of view. It's a point of view that I disagree with. It's a point of view that I think is ultimately destructive for the long-term growth of a country that has a vibrant middle class and is competitive in the world. But as an economic enterprise, it's been wildly successful. And I suspect that if you ask Mr. Murdoch what his number-one concern is, it's that Fox is very successful.

Fox News is a cable and satellite TV news channel. Critics say its reporting and commentary reflect a conservative political agenda and a bias towards the Republican Party. In a 2006 interview with the Financial Times, Roger Ailes, Chairman of the Fox News Channel, said: “We’re not promoting the conservative point of view, we’re merely giving them equal time and access.”

27 September 2010

Going (Lady) Gaga Over Headlines Just(in) Time for Ahmadinejad!

Many years ago, in the pre-computer, pre-Internet era, I worked with a group of former British newspaper copy editors. They told me the best possible headline imaginable to attract the attention of most British readers would be this: “Teenage Doctor Priest in Mad-cap, Sex-change Dash to Palace.”

In today’s lingo, those are called “keywords,” and just about everyone with a web presence knows if you want to gain more visitors, you have to drive them to your site with eye-catching headlines using keywords that attract the attention of the big Internet search engines.

Here at VOA, we are no different in wanting more visitors. But our internal blogging guideline says of headlines: “Avoid puns or wordplay.”

Where is the fun in that? Some of the best headlines I remember include:


“One-armed Man Applauds the Kindness of Strangers”

“Chicken in Bag Puts 38 In Coop As Foxy Cops Crash Cockfight”

“Abraham Lincoln Was A Woman”

Of course, none of these really contain good search engine optimization keywords. It is possible people might search for “Abraham Lincoln” but would anyone look for “headless body” or “foxy cops”?

Instead, the top searches these days generally seem keyed to the names of celebrities or the titles of new movies or television shows. Looking at Google’s “Hot Searches” one day last week, the top 20 searches included just one real foreign news keyword: “Ahmadinejad” – Iran’s President, who had just spoken at the United Nations.

VOANews.com headlines are pretty straightforward – i.e. serious. That’s understandable. We are a serious news organization. But a lighter touch might occasionally be more effective.

The problem is: how do you link Ahmadinejad with Lady Gaga or Justin Bieber? Hmmm. Send us your suggested headlines.

24 September 2010

Journalists Are People, Too, And They Have Emotions

Journalists, like fire fighters, police or soldiers, are first responders. They run towards trouble when everyone else is running in the opposite direction. As a result, they bear witness to human suffering in the most horrific of conditions. As a correspondent in Africa, I and other reporters spoke of covering the five D’s: the dead, the dying, the displaced, the diseased and the depressing.

Whether war or natural disaster, a plane crash or famine, genocide or rioting, child abuse or rape, regular exposure to these kinds of traumatic events can take a toll – because journalists are people and sometimes they can hit an emotional wall.

“Breaking News, Breaking Down” is the title of an award-winning documentary by former television reporter Mike Walter. He visited VOA this week to hold a workshop to help reporters and editors understand the impact of trauma reporting on journalists.

Mike recounted his own emotional breakdown after being an eyewitness to the 9/11 terrorist attack on the Pentagon. He literally watched as the hijacked airliner flew into the building, triggering a massive explosion and fire. He spent that day being interviewed over and over by news organizations about what he saw. He couldn’t shake the images from his mind. It changed his life, leading him to produce a film about his experiences and those of other journalists, shedding light on a topic that had previously been largely ignored.

The Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma says research shows most journalists are resilient despite repeated exposure to work-related traumatic events. “This is evidenced by low rates of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other psychiatric disorders,” the Center says.

But it goes on to report: “A significant minority, however, are at risk for long-term psychological problems.”

The biggest risk falls on war correspondents. A 2003 study of 160 war correspondents found close to 30 percent had symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder.

Editors and journalists alike need to be aware of these risks in advance of an assignment and support structures need to be in place to help a journalist returning from a traumatic assignment. The Dart Center says if that is done, “the likely result is reduced risk of harm, as well as greater work satisfaction and productivity among journalists.”

23 September 2010

Celebrate the Lowly Comma!

You probably don’t know this. (I didn’t.) But tomorrow, Sept. 24, 2010, is National Punctuation Day here in the United States. The event has its own website. The organizer, Jeff Rubin, a former newspaper reporter, describes the day as “a celebration of the lowly comma, correctly used quotation marks, and other proper uses of periods, semicolons, and the ever-mysterious ellipsis.”

In case you wonder how one marks such a special day, Jeff has these suggestions:

1. Read a newspaper and circle all of the punctuation errors you find (or think you find, but aren’t sure) with a red pen. (If you’re reading a website like this one, send a correction email noting punctuation errors.)

2. Take a leisurely stroll, paying close attention to store signs with incorrectly punctuated words. Stop in those stores to correct the owners. If the owners are not there, leave notes.

Frankly, I see no reason why this has to be a mere national event. Anyone anywhere in the world can do this. Have at it!

22 September 2010

Threats Against the News Media

At VOA, we are accustomed to hearing about the plight of reporters, including some working for us, who are harassed, detained, threatened or even killed because of their reporting. Usually these cases occur in countries with authoritarian governments and the threats to our journalists come from officials. A recent example is Abdumalik Boboev, a VOA Uzbek journalist, who has been charged by authorities in Uzbekistan with threatening public safety, slander, insult and visa violations.

But our attention was riveted by a frontpage item in the New York Times about the situation in Mexico, where drug gangs -- not officials -- have silenced some news organizations with killings and other violence.

The latest victims worked for the newspaper El Diario de Juarez in the border city of Ciudad Juarez. Two photographers for the paper were attacked last week. One died and the other was seriously wounded. The attack prompted the publication to publish an open letter to drug cartel leaders:

“We want you to explain to us what you want from us... What are we supposed to publish or not publish, so we know what to abide by? You are at this time the de facto authorities in this city because the legal authorities have not been able to stop our colleagues from falling.”

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) released a report this month titled “Silence or Death in Mexico’s Press.”

The report asserts that “criminal organizations are controlling the information agenda in many cities across Mexico. Some news organizations have tried to opt out, refusing to cover anything related to the drug trade, even if that means ignoring shootouts in the street. But the traffickers don’t always take no for an answer; journalists report being forced to publish stories attacking rival cartels.”

CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon concludes: “The battle for the free flow of information in Mexico has reached a crucial phase. Unless the Mexican government takes bold action, the narcos will continue to define what is news and what is not. That is no way to win the drug war.”

But the report also recommends that the news media take a more active role. It calls on reporters “to consistently cover the issue of violence against the media. Treat attacks against journalists, even those from competing news organizations, as worthy of news coverage. Speak out against attacks on the press in on-air commentary and editorial pages.”

VOA will continue to do its part.

20 September 2010

Islamaphobia, Whitewashes, VOA and Media Criticism

Two reports by VOA correspondents on the controversy over plans to build an Islamic center near the site of the 2001 terrorist attacks on New York City have come under fire. One of the critiques scolded VOA for underplaying anti-Islamic sentiment in the U.S. while the second accused VOA of overplaying anti-Muslim attitudes among Americans.

Yelena Osipova, a student at American University’s School of International Service working on her Master's Degree in International Communication, has a blog called “Global Chaos” which she describes as “The UNdiplomatic blog on public diplomacy and international communication.” In a recent post, she wrote about the issue of American Islamophobia and “the damage this has done to the U.S. image abroad.”

She pointed to a VOA report about a candlelight vigil supporting the right of Muslims to build an Islamic center in lower Manhattan, characterizing it as an “attempted whitewash”. When I asked her why she thought it was a “whitewash”, she explained: “because it does not show all the hostility evident in the society, and emphasizes the 'support' that many show to Muslim Americans (while polls suggest that the majority - even if by a small margin - rather oppose the building of the Islamic Center).” She said she did not think the report was biased, just not comprehensive enough.

On the other hand, Trey Hicks, associate director of government relations at the American Enterprise Institute, claimed another VOA report “reinforced the narrative of those who wish to do us harm—that Americans are warring against Muslims.”

The report he cited began like this: “The controversy over plans to build an Islamic center near the site of the 2001 terrorist attacks on New York City has put many Muslims living in United States on the defensive. But despite a rash of anti-Muslim rhetoric and possible hate crimes, some Muslims see the mosque debate as an opportunity to reaffirm their place in American society.”

Mr. Hicks suggested there is no evidence to back up the references to “possible hate crimes” and “a rash of anti-Muslim rhetoric."

As for evidence of recent hate crimes against Muslims, Newsweek magazine just published an article noting that in a matter of days “a college student allegedly stabbed a New York City cabdriver after the cabbie confirmed he was Muslim…a California imam found his mosque vandalized with graffiti that referenced Ground Zero… (and) more news from New York: police arrested a man for entering a mosque and urinating on prayer rugs…”

Newsweek asks the key question: “are we simply paying closer attention to these sorts of incidents, or are they happening with greater frequency thanks to the mosque controversy?”

Statistics from the Federal Bureau of Investigation show reported hate crimes against Muslims have indeed dropped since their peak in 2001. But their latest data is from 2008. We will have to wait and see if there has been a resurgence in anti-Muslim hate crimes in 2010. In the meantime, though, Newsweek quotes a spokesman for the Center for American-Islamic Relations as asserting anti-Muslim sentiment in the U.S. has skyrocketed as a result of the debate over the proposed Islamic center in lower Manhattan.

It seems apparent both of the VOA reports in question could have contained additional material to make them more comprehensive.

But that is almost always true of any report. The fact is editors and writers have to constantly weigh how much information is enough and whether it is time to move a report to the audience or hold it back.

Journalists also believe this: if you’re being criticized by both sides, you must be doing something right.

14 September 2010

A Funding Question About VOA’s New Afghan TV Program

The other day VOA put out a news release about the launch of a new TV Program to Afghanistan called Karwan (Caravan). As the release noted, the half-hour dual-language weekly program, broadcast in both Dari and Pashto, intends to tackle “social and political issues, culture, health, education and other topics, highlighting what young people are doing in Afghanistan and the United States.”

A NewsBlog reader noted that the announcement disclosed the program is funded by the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs. The reader asked: “On what conditions does VOA accept State funding? None, I hope. And that would imply that well informed Afghan youth is a sufficient goal for the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs.”

I spoke to Joan Mower, who is the Director of Development for VOA. She provided me a copy of the agreement between VOA and the State Department. While there are some minor requirements (like providing quarterly reports on the project and copies of the programs), there are no editorial conditions attached to the deal. As Ms. Mower put it, “we have complete editorial control over our product.”

The agreement provides VOA just over one million dollars for one year to produce the new show. It is one of several such agreements VOA has had with other government agencies, mainly the State Department. Some have involved funding for reporting on refugee issues, HIV/Aids and other health problems as well as some journalism training.

In all cases, Ms. Mower said, “there is a firewall between us and our funders” preserving the editorial integrity of these efforts.

And that is as it should be.

10 September 2010

Quran-Burning and News Judgment

What makes news? And how do editors decide whether to cover some events and not cover others? The plan, now suspended, by the leader of a small Christian church in Florida to burn copies of the Quran makes a good case study.

As the New York Times and other news outlets have noted, another fringe church, this one in Kansas, actually set fire to a Quran in 2008 and captured the event on film. But the news media ignored that incident.

What is the difference between then and now?

The Times offers this analysis: first, unlike 2008 incident, the planned Florida event coincided with a larger political controversy over the proposed building of a Muslim community center near the site of the September 11th terrorist attack in New York. Secondly, the pastor of the small Florida church benefitted from a traditional late summer news lull and the demands of a non-stop cable and Internet news cycle to promote his extremist views about Islam.

This raises a number of questions, among them this central one: should news organizations cover the Quran burning if it happens?

A senior executive at a Fox News, one of the major U.S. cable news networks, said in an interview that his organization would not cover the event.

Michael Clemente, senior vice president at Fox News, said this:

"He's one guy in the middle of the woods with 50 people in his congregation who's decided to try, I gather, to bring some attention to himself by saying he's going to burn a Quran if he gets the permit. Well, you know what, there are many more important things going on in the world than that. I don't know what they will be this weekend, but I am sure they will be more important than that."

Clemente said there will be no live coverage, "video" or "still pictures."

The Associated Press said it would cover the event, if it happened. But it said it would not distribute images that specifically show Qurans being burned.

AP executive Tom Kent explained in a statement that “AP policy is not to provide coverage of events that are gratuitously manufactured to provoke and offend. In the past, AP has declined to provide images of cartoons mocking Islam and Jews. AP has often declined to provide images, audio or detailed descriptions of particularly bloody or grisly scenes, such as the sounds and moments of beheadings and shootings, displays of severed heads on pikes and images of hostages who are displayed by hostage-holders in an effort to intimidate their adversaries and advance their cause. Decisions are made on a case-by-case basis.”

Bill Keller, the executive editor of The New York Times, said in an e-mail message that the newspaper had “no policy against publishing things that might offend someone — lots of people are offended by lots of things — but we try to refrain from giving widespread offense unless there is some offsetting journalistic purpose.” He added, “A picture of a burning book contributes nothing substantial to a story about book-burning… The freedom to publish includes the freedom not to publish.”

As for VOA News, which has been and will continue reporting on the story, VOA Director Danforth Austin has said it is “hard to imagine a circumstance under which running video or a photo of a Quran burning would be justified.” He said VOA would make a final decision only after viewing any video or photo that does become available.

Chris Cuomo, a news anchor at the U.S. ABC network, believes news organizations have made a big mistake by publicizing the event. He wrote: “I am in the media, but think media gave life to this Florida burning ... and that was reckless.”

If no one had reported the Florida pastor’s plans, would there have been any protests like the ones seen in Afghanistan or denunciations by U.S. and world politicians and religious leaders? Probably not.

But once a single news organization decided to report the planned event, could other news organizations ignore it? Think about it. Tell us what you think about the role and responsibility of the news media.

Eds Note: We apologize for the lengthy break since we last posted. We’ll try to do better in the future.