Voice of America obliterated by Russia’s RT on Ferguson coverage, social media outreach

BBG Watch Commentary

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Voice of America (VOA) was not only late in reporting online on the killing of Michael Brown, and days late in sending their reporter to Ferguson, Missouri, the U.S. taxpayer-funded media outlet was also obliterated by Russia’s RT (formerly Russia Today) in social media outreach and audience engagement on this news story, and practically all news stories in recent years.

RT posted its first Ferguson news report on August 10 at 10:08AM (time zone has not be ascertained). According to our search, Voice of America posted its first Ferguson news reports on August 11, in English at 2:05PM EDT and in Russian at 11:16PM EDT.

On Aug. 26, RT’s first Ferguson report from Aug. 10 showed 3,700 Facebook “Shares,” 684 Tweets and 108 comments. VOA’s first Ferguson news report in English from Aug. 11 showed 14 Facebook “Shares,” 8 Tweets and 2 comments on Aug. 26. VOA Russian first Ferguson news report from Aug. 11 showed 5 Facebook “Shares,” 4 Tweets and 3 comments on Aug. 26.

Further analysis by BBG Watch showed that RT not only posted many more multimedia news reports and op-eds about events in Ferguson than VOA, but RT also obliterated Voice of America in social media outreach and audience engagement, often getting thousands and even tens of thousands Facebook “Shares” and in some cases hundreds of readers’ comments, while VOA reports were getting no more than a few dozen Facebook “Shares,” often less than 10–frequently just one or two “Shares,” and not more than a few comments, frequently none. Altogether, Russia’s RT had about two dozen more news reports, op-eds and videos about Ferguson than the Voice of America which operates under the VOA Charter requiring it to report and analyze U.S. news for international audiences.

Voice of America management did not send a correspondent to Ferguson, Missouri until August 20, ten days after the unrest started, but even that did not improve VOA’s social media standing.

Some VOA reports about events in Ferguson have been criticized by online readers for being late and lacking both substance and balance. One VOA report written by a senior correspondent in Washington, which attempted to analyze the situation but seemed to lack the whole spectrum of views, received less than ten Facebook “Shares,” less than ten Tweets and only a couple of comments, while one RT report had over 16,000 Facebook “Shares” and another one over 23,000. Even assuming that some of these may have come from pro-Kremlin trolls, RT’s tremendous social media advantage is undeniable and was commented on recently by U.S. Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Rick Stengel. RT English has over 1.3 million YouTube subscribers; VOA English News only slightly over 37 thousand.

While RT’s news coverage of events in Ferguson was often one-sided and included harsh anti-U.S. rhetoric, some VOA news reports, but not all, also seemed to lack balance and depth. In some cases, online readers were confused whether VOA reports from Ferguson were news reports or personal commentaries by a reporter. Some were poorly written and appeared not to have been edited. One VOA report from Ferguson received the following comment from a reader in the United States: “Nothing new in this for me — VOA was late getting to Missouri, and gives us this?? I’ll be asking for a refund of my tax dollars that went to pay for this poor reporting.”

VOA’s annual budget is close to $200 million.

Some of the few experienced VOA reporters who are left in the decimated VOA Central Newsroom have been allowed by the management to take vacations in August despite major crises in Ukraine and in Iraq and events in Ferguson, Missouri. Many VOA executives also took their vacations.

In early August, as Christians, Kurdish speakers and other minorities in Iraq were being killed by the Islamic State militants, fleeing for their lives, or being stranded as refugees without food, the VOA Kurdish Service was not able to update its news website, Facebook, and Twitter pages for up to 11 hours because the management failed to provide the language service with resources, guidance and oversight.

Voice of America failed to post online even a basic profile of slain American journalist Jim Foley, while RT did, as did Germany’s Deutsche Welle.

At the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) open board meeting on August 13 in Washington, DC, U.S. Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Rick Stengel said that Russia has outstanding messaging capabilities on social media and observed that this is an area the United States should own, but we don’t really own it.”

Under Secretary Stengel represents Secretary of State John Kerry at BBG meetings.

BBG Watch noted earlier that in failing to arrange for prompt and extensive on the scene coverage of the protests in Ferguson, Missouri, and through numerous other management and news reporting failures, the top brass of the U.S. taxpayer-funded Voice of America has shown Under Secretary Stengel exactly why Russia’s RT outperforms VOA online and in social media by a factor of thousands day after day.

The following tables show how RT demolished Voice of America in news reporting, in commentaries and in social media outreach and audience engagement on the Ferguson news story.