USAGM WATCH COMMENTARY

The senior management of the Voice of America (VOA) in the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM) is following the example of Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE) in protecting privacy rights of employees who may be infected with the COVID-19 virus, but some VOA and USAGM employees say that more critical and more specific information should be shared by VOA leaders with the entire staff without jeopardizing patient privacy.

In a press release issued this morning several hours after USAGM Watch reported on the first confirmed VOA case of coronavirus infection, the VOA management said:

VOA: VOA will handle this case – and any future cases that may arise – with the utmost respect to privacy, while also promptly informing potentially affected staff and taking swift and decisive measures to mitigate spread of the virus. Out of respect for individual privacy, there are details about this case (or any others that might occur in the future) that the agency will not be able to share.

VOA Reports First Known Employee with COVID-19 Infection. VOICE OF AMERICA PUBLIC RELATIONS, March 20, 2020. LINK

Some Voice of America reporters, however, complained to USAGM Watch and to their colleagues and friends that the VOA senior management should have been more transparent and more specific even while protecting the privacy of the employee who became sick.

READ: VOA Director’s Internal Emails Reveal First Confirmed Coronavirus Staff Illness. USAGM Watch Commentary, March 20, 2020.

One VOA foreign language service journalist said that he would not know with absolute certainty whether the person who is ill was present near his office. He assumed that the person was not present in his service because it did not undergo a major decontamination.

Investigative Reporters and Editors took a similar approach to privacy of COVID-19 patients. IRE released this statement on March 16:

IRE: The attendee has asked to remain private. To protect those privacy rights, IRE will not release the person’s conference schedule or cross-check it against other attendee schedules. In addition, IRE doesn’t want to give anyone a false sense of security. Given what we’ve all learned recently about COVID-19, it seems likely that far more people across the country have been infected with it than any of us realized. For those of us who traveled through airports, sat on planes and interacted with lots of people before, during and after the NICAR conference, there’s a chance that we encountered someone along the way who was carrying the novel coronavirus.

SECOND NICAR20 ATTENDEE TESTS PRESUMPTIVELY POSITIVE FOR NOVEL CORONAVIRUS. INVESTIGATIVE REPORTERS & EDITORS (IRE). Updated March 16, 1:30 p.m. LINK

READ: Second NICAR20 attendee tests presumptively positive for coronavirus. USAGM Watch Commentary, March 19, 2020.

Some VOA employees told USAGM Watch that they are concerned because they still do not know whether any VOA journalists attended the NICAR20 conference in New Orleans. A VOA broadcaster told USAGM Watch that since there is no social stigma attached to COVID-19 patients, IRE and VOA senior management could be more forthcoming with information that could help employees make better choices and protect themselves better. Employees pointed out that this could be done without having to identify COVID-19 patients by name. The spread of coronavirus can be stopped with prompt and reliable information. Leaders of media organizations and journalists have a professional duty to protect the public. Unfortunately, in the last several days in addition to a lot of good reporting, the Voice of America broadcast some false or misleading information, which in one case contributed to panic in Serbia and in another case helped to spread anti-American disinformation.

SEE Voice of America Service Apologizes for False VOA Serbian Coronavirus Death News After Criticism by President Vučić, USAGM Watch Commentary, March 13, 2020.

We have also noted a disturbingly low number of views for Voice of America English News YouTube videos on coronavirus and most other topics. After five hours on YouTube, today’s VOA program, “VOA: CORONAVIRUS VIRTUAL TOWN HALL” had only 1,084 views as of 7:25 PM Friday, March 20, 2019. The VOA Mandarin Service did better although its YouTube videos also did not have a great number of views. The Chinese communist regime blocks VOA online content in China.

The VOA English TV program “The 2020 Coronavirus Crisis | Plugged In with Greta Van Susteren” had only slightly over one thousand views in two days. None of VOA’s produced YouTube videos in English in the last two days had more than 2,000 views.

Germany’s DW English News is showing YouTube videos in the last two days with views between 10,000 and 1.6 million.

Most of Russia’s RT English News YouTube videos in the last two days have over 10,000 views.

BBC News English YouTube videos in the last two days show over 250,000 views and one video shows 1.1 million views.

A March 12 press release from the U.S. Agency for Global Media quoted VOA director Amanda Bennett as saying that “As a result of their reliable and accurate reporting, VOA … saw substantial growth online and on … social media platforms.”


VOA PRESS RELEASE

March 20, 2020

VOA Reports First Known Employee with COVID-19 Infection

The Voice of America confirms the first case of 2019 novel coronavirus disease (COVID-2019) in one of its employees. Laboratory testing confirmed this diagnosis. This individual was last in the VOA headquarters building on March 11, 2020, became sick, went home and immediately went for testing which was performed the following day. This individual is in good condition and is isolated to prevent spread of infection to others. The entire VOA workforce sends its best wishes to the employee for a rapid and full recovery.

Upon first being made aware of the employee’s illness, VOA leadership responded aggressively, taking all appropriate measures to respond to this situation even before learning of the test results. VOA’s parent agency, the U.S. Agency for Global Media, immediately arranged for the General Service Administration’s recommended industrial cleaning crew to clean and sanitize all areas where this individual works, as well as offices the individual used. In addition, the same industrial cleaners have cleaned and sanitized VOA studios every other day.

Out of an abundance of caution, on first being made aware of this employee’s illness on March 11, all individuals who came in contact with the employee who received the positive coronavirus diagnosis were immediately sent home to self-quarantine. They will continue to self-quarantine based on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommended guidelines, including contacting their respective health providers for further guidance.

VOA will handle this case – and any future cases that may arise – with the utmost respect to privacy, while also promptly informing potentially affected staff and taking swift and decisive measures to mitigate spread of the virus. Out of respect for individual privacy, there are details about this case (or any others that might occur in the future) that the agency will not be able to share.

VOA is considering and taking all necessary actions to further protect the health and safety of its workforce. The agency is taking proactive steps to reduce the risk of infection among the workforce. These steps have included encouraging sick employees to stay home, increasing the frequency of cleaning all VOA facilities, canceling meetings and staff travel, increasing the use of teleworking among staff to more than 80 percent of the total workforce, and encouraging social distancing and other preventive measures.

The health and safety of the global VOA workforce is the top priority for the agency. VOA leadership will continue to assess and improve ways to protect staff from COVID-19 in every manner and measure available and will keep the workforce fully informed, should new cases occur in the future.

WATCH: VOA: CORONAVIRUS VIRTUAL TOWN HALL, March 20, 2020

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