BBG Watch Commentary
Convicted Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev has been sentenced to death over the April 2013 attack that killed three people and wounded 264 others. But an earlier Voice of America (VOA) news report with the headline, “Boston Marathon Bomber May End Up in ‘Alcatraz of Rockies’,” was heavily skewed toward presenting his defense team’s arguments and had very little on the prosecution’s case in favor of the death penalty. That, combined with a highly speculative headline, made it appear to many international audiences that VOA was taking sides and arguing for the life without parole sentence and sparing Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s life.
SEE: Speculative news headlines: Voice of America can’t learn from its mistakes, BBG Watch, May 14, 2015
Other U.S. media outlets also reported on what a life sentence for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev might entail, but they did not use speculative headlines and their reports were more neutral and balanced.
Some of the other original VOA reports from the Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s trial were also heavily focused on the defendant, his family and his defense defense team, with less attention devoted to the prosecution’s case. In our view, many of these original VOA news reports lacked the necessary balance and comprehensiveness.
VOA executives, managers and editors have not instituted sufficient policy and editorial guidance and control in Washington to make sure that both individual VOA news reports from Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s trial and VOA’s overall coverage were sufficiently balanced.
BBG Watch has criticized the Voice of America management for relying on Reuters and AP to report on important news stories in which presenting U.S. opinions should be more extensive then what wire services can provide and should be left to VOA reporters to cover.
Original reporting by Voice of America correspondents who follow the VOA Charter is the right approach. But in this case, AP and Reuters news reports which VOA also had posted online in covering the Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s trial were, in our opinion, often more balanced and more reflective of American opinions than VOA’s original news reporting from Boston.
VOA’s earlier headline, “Boston Marathon Bomber May End Up in ‘Alcatraz of Rockies’,” was speculative and the report appeared more like advocacy journalism than a neutral and balanced account expected from the Voice of America.
Neutral and balanced reporting does not have to be boring as BBC has demonstrated on numerous occasions with its usually outstanding international and U.S. news coverage. Most BBC reporters know how to be both sufficiently detached from the events and persons they are covering while still providing engaging and informative news reporting and news analysis.
The problem with speculative headlines and speculative news reporting is that they often undermine the credibility of a news organization which uses such writing. That is why other highly respected news organizations, such as BBC, avoid this practice.
A few days ago, the Voice of America News website, voanews.com, speculated in a headline and in an accompanying news report from London that British Prime Minister David Cameron could be “ousted” in the British general elections. He was not only not ousted, but nearly all of the other election outcome predictions in the VOA news report from London did not come true. BBG Watch reported on this, and the Voice of America management should have learned something from this episode, but a week later VOA News posted yet another speculative headline.
International audiences tend to remember these headlines and they will question VOA’s credibility when events do not turn out the way VOA strongly suggests they might.
There is the right way of reporting on various possible future outcomes of developing news events, but the Voice of America under its current chaotic leadership has forgotten how it is done safely to preserve journalistic credibility. VOA executives should learn that the future can rarely be accurately predicted. But the future can still be safely analyzed for the benefit of an audience if one knows how to do it.
SEE: Oops, Cameron not ousted as Voice of America speculated, BBG Watch, May 8, 2015