BBG Watch Commentary
English is America’s official language, but critics charge that news collection and reporting by the Voice of America (VOA) English Service has been undermined to such a degree by bad planning and bad management that foreign media like Al Jazeera and Russia Today have developed insurmountable advantage in English-language news coverage over the U.S. taxpayer-funded multimedia international broadcaster. These foreign broadcasters are also beating VOA by multiple factors in social media engagement.
On the initial news story on July 3rd on President Morsi’s ouster in Egypt, Al Jazeera English was 43 times more effective in social media engagement than VOA English. Russia Today English was almost 27 times more effective than VOA.
BBC World English News was 53 times more effective in social media outreach on the Morsi ouster news story than VOA English News using a slightly different statistic that may have inflated BBC’s social media engagement but not by much. Such shocking disparities in effectiveness between VOA English Service and its international competitors are not limited to this single story. They can be seen for almost any news report posted on the Internet. They were clearly visible during the height of anti-government protests in Turkey in early June.
Al Jazeera and Russia Today already have an enormous lead over VOA with their 24/7 satellite television news English channels, which VOA does not have. But their advantage in news reporting in English over VOA is especially visible on the web and easily measured through social media statistics provided by Facebook and YouTube. Anyone these days can check online how VOA is doing against its competition.
VOA and International broadcasting Bureau (IBB) executives have been telling members of their oversight Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) and members of Congress that while they were cutting down on radio and television broadcasts, they were developing state of the art digital media and social media outreach capabilities. All statistics for the main VOA English news website show that these were completely empty claims. Voice of America is facing a major crisis in terms of its performance on social media platforms.
Critics point out that Voice of America English news service is simply being demolished by Al Jazeera, Russia Today and other international media outlets in social media engagement due to VOA’s poor and often late news coverage, inadequate staff and limited ability to send reporters to cover stories. They attribute nearly all of these problems to bad management on the part of Voice of America and International Broadcasting Bureau executives and the parent agency, the Broadcasting Board of Governors, rather than to any problems with VOA reporters who are working under extremely difficult conditions.
While BBC World, Russia Today and Al Jazeera were quick to report this morning on their English news websites on the killing of a least three supporters of President Morsi in Cairo, VOA English story had not been yet updated with the latest information. VOA’s latest Facebook news post on Egypt this morning was 19 hours old. Both Al Jazeera and Russia Today had numerous new Facebook posts on Egypt, including the latest news on the killing of protesters. VOA English Service was not updating its Facebook Page and had very few news updates from Egypt on its main news website.
Voice of America Worldwide English Service does have all the social media features a news website needs, which ironically may be the ultimate cause of its problem. The management and technical division — the International Broadcasting Bureau — has spent enormous resources on developing tools to interact with what critics point out is largely free social media technology, such as Facebook and YouTube. Most of the money is believed to have been spent on IBB’s numerous highly-paid bureaucrats, contractors and consultants whose numbers have grown as programs and news reporting positions were being eliminated.
At a recent exhibit on Capitol Hill showing the agency’s latest technological advancements, International Broadcasting Bureau Director Richard Lobo bragged that “Today we are reaching and engaging audiences like never before.” Critics counter that there very little engaging news content left to engage any audience, as demonstrated in social media use statistics for VOA English news.
Voice of America employees point out that many VOA Central English Newsroom positions have been cut or remained unfilled, news coverage has been greatly curtailed and employee morale sunk to a new low level under VOA Director David Ensor, Executive Editor Steve Redisch and IBB Director and Deputy Director Richard Lobo and Jeff Trimble. They also blame former members of the bipartisan Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) for allowing the management crisis to continue.
The two top IBB executives do not influence VOA news content production, but they control how the whole agency’s resources are allocated and are responsible for management practices throughout the federal part of the agency — the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), which includes VOA and Radio and TV Marti — and to a lesser extent also at the so called grantee broadcasters such as Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), Radio Free Asia (RFA) and Middle East Broadcasting Networks (MBN – Alhurra TV and Radio Sawa).
The Broadcasting Board of Governors requested from Congress $731.08 million for FY 2014. IBB’s Office of Technology, Services, and Innovation is to get nearly $185 million. The entire Voice of America with multiple language services is to get not quite $201 million.
Still, VOA English news has 43 times less social media engagement on the Internet than Al Jazeera English news though readers’ comments, Facebook and Twitter. VOA English is even less competitive on YouTube. It has 27 million total views while Russia Today has over one billion. VOA has only 24,157 YouTube subscribers to Russia Today’s nearly one million.
It is not that IBB has not invested hundreds of millions of dollars in developing tools for social media outreach. But due to bad management, this was done largely by closing down or reducing programming positions at VOA language services and by undermining VOA’s capacity for generating news coverage in English and in other languages. The FY 2014 budget proposal calls for consolidating and reorganizing VOA Central News and English Divisions and cutting its budget by $3.7 million. Thirty-five positions would be decreased in the News and English divisions under this proposal, many of which are already unfilled.
In the meantime, VOA English news website already can’t provide timely and comprehensive coverage of important news stories and when it does, its coverage is so limited, that it cannot attract any significant international audience, especially through social media.
VOA Director David Ensor and Executive Editor Steve Redisch had decided not send a VOA staff reporter to Turkey at the height of anti-government protests in early June. Both Russia Today and Al Jazeera had reporters on the ground in Turkey.
A single Russia Today English video news report on censorship of Turkish media had received more than 150,000 views on YouTube. A VOA English video news report on the Turkish protests filed from Washington had received under 300 YouTube views.
Director Ensor defended VOA’s coverage in Turkey as balanced and responsible, but a BBG Watch review of VOA English news reports from early June showed that it leaned toward reporting on official statement from Prime Minister Erdogan because VOA English Newsroom had no direct access to protesters. The VOA Turkish Service was providing balanced coverage despite limited resources and a constant threat from IBB of having its staff further reduced or being eliminated altogether.
The Ouster of President Morsi — Social Media Outreach for English News by Voice of America, Al Jazeera and Russia Today
On Morsi ouster news, Voice of America was beaten by Al Jazeera 43 to 1 and by Russia Today nearly 27 to 1 in social media engagement on the Internet.
Social media engagement index is the sum of Site Facebook “Likes/Recommends,” Facebook Page “Likes,” Tweets and Readers Comments.
Note: BBC site lists “Shares,” which in addition to Facebook “Likes” also include other social media. The BBC’s social media engagement score may therefore be higher.
The news reports selected were the first reports on July 3 and early July 4 indicating that Egypt’s President Morsi had been ousted.
Social media statistics were last checked between 11AM and Noon Washington time on July 5.
Here are the results:[aside]
For those who may wonder whether Facebook “Like” and Facebook “Recommend” may be different: there is no difference between a Facebook “Like” and a “Recommend.” The two buttons are programmed in exactly the same way, and clicking either one on an article will do the same thing – post it to someone’s profile.
When web programmers embed a Facebook Like/Recommend button in their sites, they’re given the option to choose between the two words. News websites tend to choose the more neutral “Recommend.” The thinking is that readers might not be inclined to “Like” a story that tells bad news, but would still “Recommend” it to their friends. Most other sites use “Like.”
A Facebook “Like” on Al Jazeera site is the same as a Facebook “Recommend” on VOA site. The numbers were: 71 for VOA and 14,599 for Al Jazeera on news stories on the same topic (ouster of Morsi) posted at about the same time. Both sites were checked for their Facebook statistics for these two comparable news reports at the same time on June 5.[/aside]
Russia Today English – ‘Game Over’: Morsi ousted, constitution suspended, army in control (PHOTOS, VIDEO), Published time: July 03, 2013 19:09 – 8,000 Facebook “Likes” on RT website, 1,534 on Facebook Page – 596 Comments – 890 Tweets.
Total Russia Today score: 11,020
Al Jazeera English – President Morsi overthrown in Egypt, Last Modified: 04 Jul 2013 07:23 – 1359 Tweets – 1278 Comments – 511 Facebook Page “Likes” – 14,599 Site Facebook “Likes.”
Total Al Jazeera score: 17,747
Voice of America English – Egypt’s President Ousted; Military Names Interim Head of State, July 03, 2013 – 330 “Likes” on Facebook Page; 71 Facebook “Recommend” on VOA website – 10 Tweets – Comments 0 – N/A
Total VOA score: 411
BBC World English News – Egypt crisis: Army ousts President Mohammed Morsi, 4 July 2013 Last updated at 00:27 ET – 19,000 BBC site “Shares” – 2,556 “Likes” on Facebook Page – Twitter 504 – Comments 0 – N/A
Total BBC Score: 22,060
Note: BBC score may be higher due to inclusion of the site’s “Shares” for the news story rather than Facebook only “Likes/Recommends,” which were not available for BBC.
Gary Thomas, who before retiring in 2012 spent 27 years at Voice of America where he was a senior correspondent and news analyst specializing in national security and intelligence issues, published an article in Columbia Journalism Review in which he described many of the management problems which made VOA English news coverage a mere shadow of what it was before.
VOA’s management had been given a chance to clarify any issues but refused to answer Thomas’ questions for his Columbia. They dismissed his questions as containing inaccuracies and showing bias. After his article was published, they again accused him of errors and hostility but did not identified alleged errors.
Critics described VOA management’s treatment of Thomas as being similar to how Soviet officials treated journalists who asked them questions about human rights violations.
Despite all evidence to the contrary, VOA Public Relations Director Kyle King insisted that all is well with VOA and even invited readers to check VOA’s website.
“It is disappointing CJR would publish this commentary, which contains multiple errors, and calls for changes that are either unrealistic or have already been proposed by the very organization Mr. Thomas maligns.
A simple look at the Voice of America’s website demonstrates we are a hard-hitting and effective international multimedia news organization.
Our audience numbers have never been higher. They are based on VOA’s credibility as an independent news organization. In Africa, we are big on radio and mobile. In Iran, one in five adults watch us every week on TV.
There is nothing “schizophrenic” about what we do.
Times have changed from the days when newsroom journalists rewrote wire copy for shortwave radio. Today, VOA produces dozens of television programs, has nearly 50 separate websites and a wide range of mobile platforms, in addition to radio, podcasts and social media.
Audiences look to VOA for accurate and balanced news they cannot get on state controlled media in many countries, and we provide that in more than 40 languages.”
Posted by Kyle King, Director, VOA Public Relations on Wed 3 Jul 2013 at 05:23 PM
Critics have pointed out that the dismissive tone of the response and an attack on the professionalism of a former senior VOA correspondent, show the management’s culture of contempt for employees as reflected in the lowest employee morale and management skills scores in the Office of Personnel Management (OMP) Federal Employee Viewpoint Surveys.
Because of Mr. King’s challenge, we looked at the VOA English website, and compared it to Al Jazeera, Russia Today and BBG World English news websites. This is what we found in social media use numbers. They speak for themselves. To VOA’s 10 Tweets and 71 Site Facebook “Recommends” – Al Jazeera had 1359 Tweets and 14,599 Site Facebook “Likes.”
As to Mr. King’s claim of a record audience, it does not indicate a growth in audience to VOA English content but rather a newly found audience for VOA Spanish in Latin America that may have been there already. VOA global audience has declined in several recent years. Also, for many years VOA global audience has not kept up with world’s population growth or with explosive growth of Internet and social media users.
To come up with a better figure after declines in audience for VOA, IBB may have changed the way it measures audience reach. Critics suspect that IBB is now counting audiences for VOA programs placed on all other media. It may now be counting audiences that may have been exposed to programs on stations not identifying them as generated by VOA. Such programs may not include any hard news or mission-oriented content. Preselection of content and elimination of hard news are believed to be widely practiced by the management to achieve such placement.