BBG Watch Commentary


All of this may be beating a dead horse by reporting on it again, as the Voice of America (VOA) top executives continue to deny that there is any problem, but at least in our view something is terribly wrong with the VOA English news website and we are giving this topic one last try.

It’s hard to pinpoint what combination of problems is causing the primary English-language U.S. government-funded international media outreach outlet to lose the social media war in a big way to such competitors as BBC, Russia Today or Al Jazeera.

The VOA management says that unlike Al Jazeera English, Russia Today English and BBC English, which are focused heavily on audiences in the United States – where Facebook “Likes” and sharing via Twitter Tweets are common — VOA is focused by law on areas of the world where the media are less free, and these countries have uneven usage of social media.

We think that it is a highly misleading and self-serving statement that does not explain at all such a dismal social media engagement performance. The problem is not only with the VOA English website but extends to many VOA language services as well, including those for countries such as Russia where social media is still free and is widely used. We do not think that the U.S. market has anything to do with it. The problem is that VOA is not doing well everywhere, worldwide. If a news organization cannot do well in Russia with social media engagement, it would not do well in the United States.

We might even agree with VOA’s statement if the difference was 10%, 20% or even 100% or 500%. But if the difference is 92,300% or such similar astronomical number, it is hard to sustain the VOA management’s argument. They would like everyone to believe that all 26 “Likes” for a VOA story came from North Korea, and none from the U.S., while all 24,000 “Likes” for a Russia Today story come from the U.S. and none from the rest of the world.

Poor leadership and bad management can certainly play a big role. It could also be a boring website design or the fact that most VOA English news stories are short on details audiences want, and quite a few are reposted straight from Reuters. Not enough staff in the VOA Central Newsroom and record low employee morale could be big factors that go back to poor leadership and bad management.

U.S. foreign policy can also be blamed for foreigners not being excited about VOA English news. VOA management claims that their English website is not targeting Americans and UK residents and BBC and Russia Today are, but this argument is quite weak considering Internet’s worldwide reach and the fact that many comments on the Russia Today website come from outside the U.S. and the UK. In any case, it is hard to explain away the difference in Facebook “Likes” that often runs into tens of thousands.

Decisions by the VOA management team made over the last few years to downplay original news reporting may have driven away site visitors, so even if a particular VOA news report is excellent it does not get noticed by too many people.

A perfect example was a report from Moscow by VOA correspondent James Brooke on Edward Snowden getting political asylum in Russia, “Snowden Leaves Moscow Airport.” It received only 26 Facebook Likes, only 2 comments, 19 Tweets and 1 Google+.

By all accounts, it was a good report: accurate, well-written, interesting, balanced, not too short by VOA’s usual standards.

Another report by VOA’s James Brooke, “Snowden Drops Out of Sight, Kremlin Changes Subject,” also well-written and interesting, received 58 Facebook “Likes.”


But Russia Today’s largely factual report on Snowden’s asylum, “Snowden granted 1-year asylum in Russia, leaves airport (PHOTOS),” got more than 24,000 Facebook “Likes,” 2,936 Tweets, 375 Google+ and over 300 comments.

Even when it comes to reporting on purely American reposes to news events, Russia Today beats VOA in a big way.
RT report, “White House ‘extremely disappointed’ with Snowden asylum,” had over 9,000 Facebook “Likes,” 618 Tweets, and 117 Google+ , and over 180 comments.

VOA report, “White House ‘Extremely Disappointed’ in Russia’s Asylum Offer to Snowden,” had 26 Facebook “Likes,” 18 Tweets, 3 Google+, and 0 (zero) comments.

Granted, some Russia Today news reports are written in a provocative style and appeal to a certain angry audience. These particular RT reports were not. While there is plenty of provocative anti-Americanism in RT content, quite a few news reports are largely factual. A recent Russia Today report, “Gay rights in Russia: Facts and Myths,” was quite straightforward and did not present Russia in particularly good way. It had 169 Facebook “Likes.”

VOA used a short Reuters’ story, “Russia: ‘Gay Propaganda’ Ban Stands for Sochi Games.” It received 0 (zero) Facebook “Likes.”


BBC English news report on Snowden, “NSA spy leaks: Edward Snowden leaves Moscow airport” received 5,876 Facebook “Likes” and 1,548 Tweets.

Even accounting for BBC’s English speaking audience in the UK — which, by the way, can also access VOA English website and might want to in order to learn about U.S. positions on the spying scandal — the difference between over 5,800 “Likes” for BBC and only 26 “Likes” for VOA cannot be easily explained away.


Al Jazeera’s story, “Snowden ‘to build a life in Russia’,” received 827 Facebook “Likes” and 116 Tweets on its English-language website. Again, the difference between 26 and 827 cannot be easily explained away by VOA leadership. Al Jazeera English attracts a large English-speaking audience worldwide rather than just in the United States, as VOA management claims.

The problem is not limited by any means to the VOA English website only, which undermines the management’s explanation that VOA does not write their stories for the U.S. audience. Frankly, BBC’s and Russia Today’s stories may contain more detail, have more photos and videos, but they are also written in English or, as the case may be, in Russian.


One of VOA Russian Service news report on Snowden’s asylum in Russia, “Сноуден в России: последствия для перебежчика и для российско-американских отношений? (Snowden and the Future of U.S.-Russia Relations),” was showing 0 (zero) Facebook “Likes” and only 9 “Likes” from the Russian-language social media site VK as of Saturday evening Washington, DC time.

Another VOA Russian Service news report, “Что ждет Сноудена в России?” (What Awaits Snowden in Russia), showed 0 (zero) Facebook “Likes” and also 0 (zero) VK “Likes.” The story did get 21 comments.

Radio Liberty Russian Service report, “Эксперты – о России и США после Сноудена” (Experts on Russia and US After Snowden), received 24 Facebook “Likes.”

The VOA English website does sometimes get more than a hundred Facebook “Likes” for some of its news stories. A VOA report, “US Warns Citizens Abroad of Possible Attacks,” by its State Department correspondent Jeff Seldin, was showing 189 Facebook “Likes” and 33 Tweets.

But a BBC news story on the same topic, “US worldwide travel alert over fear of al-Qaeda attack,” showed 7,976 Facebook “Likes” and 1,227 Tweets.

This should have been primarily a VOA story, so there is something fundamentally wrong with VOA leadership, news management, VOA website, the organization itself. Even Russia Today got over 1,800 Facebook “Likes” and 139 Tweets for its story “US issues global travel alert over al-Qaeda attack threat.”

All social media engagement scores for this article were checked at about the same time on Saturday.

The following announcement was sent out to VOA employees:

“On Tuesday, August 6, from 2-3 pm, David Ensor will meet with VOA staff and other colleagues. David will be discussing the budget, current programming initiatives, Frequently Asked Questions from office visits, the Workplace Engagement effort and more. Details about accessing the video/audio of the meeting to follow. Please join us for the discussion.”

We are quite sure that if asked, Director Ensor will have a good explanation for everything, but that may be part of the problem. It is not that VOA cannot produce excellent news reports. But VOA and International Broadcasting Bureau officials must have done something wrong that these reports are not getting even a small fraction of social media attention that BBC, Al Jazeera and Russia Today get. There is something terribly wrong with the management of U.S. international broadcasting.


VOA Correspondent Report We Like

Snowden Leaves Moscow Airport

James Brooke, VOA

August 01, 2013

MOSCOW — Former U.S. intelligence contractor Edward Snowden has created an international uproar by leaking classified documents detailing massive Internet and telephone data surveillance programs.

After almost six weeks in the transit zone of a Moscow airport, Edward Snowden won asylum in Russia and left the airport Thursday for an undisclosed location in Moscow.

Anatoly Kucherena, his Russian lawyer, showed reporters Snowden’s asylum document. He said it was valid for one year and would allow the American fugitive to travel anywhere in Russia.

He said he could not say where Snowden is for safety reasons, adding that Snowden is the world’s most wanted man.

Snowden, a former U.S. government computer expert, fled here from Hong Kong. He has been on the run for two months, after Britain’s Guardian newspaper started running articles based on thousands of files that Snowden says he downloaded from computers of the National Security Administration.

After the White House demanded the Russia return Snowden to the United States for trial, President Vladimir Putin said the American could remain in Russia only “if he stops harming our U.S. partners.”

But on Wednesday, the Guardian published a new story based on information leaked by Snowden, purporting to outline yet another secret NSA data collection program. On Thursday, Kucherena, the lawyer, said the newspaper received the documents from Snowden when he was in Hong Kong, before Russia’s president laid down asylum conditions.

In recent days, several Washington analysts have written that White House frustration over the Snowden affair is so high that President Barack Obama may not come to Moscow next month for a scheduled two-day summit with Putin.

After Snowden left Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport on Thursday, Yury Ushakov, a top Kremlin aide, downplayed this latest development. He told the Interfax news agency he saw no moves from Washington to cancel the Putin-Obama summit.

On Wednesday, Carnegie Moscow analyst Lilia Shevtsova said the Kremlin hopes the Snowden affair will not derail the summit.

“They definitely need Obama to come to Moscow in the fall, and so they would not like Snowden to prevent it,” she said.

Last month, Obama telephoned Putin asking for Snowden’s return. Last week, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder sent a letter to the Russia’s justice minister, saying that the United States would not seek the death penalty against Snowden and that he would be granted a fair trial.

But Snowden’s determination to stay in Russia may have been strengthened on Monday, when U.S. Army Private Bradley Manning, who leaked thousands of classified documents to WikiLeaks, was convicted on 20 charges, ranging from theft to espionage. On Thursday, a sentencing hearing started in that case. Manning could be sentenced to up to 136 years in jail.

On Wednesday, Rossiya 24 TV broadcast an interview with Snowden’s father, Lon. He said: “I want to thank President Vladimir Putin for having the courage to keep my son safe.”

Lon Snowden is applying for a visa to visit his son in Russia this month.

While the Kremlin harshly punishes its own leakers, Russia’s state media has been very supportive of Snowden’s asylum bid.

In a Levada Center poll released Wednesday, 51 percent of Russians approved of Snowden releasing information on U.S. internet surveillance programs. Forty-three percent favored granting asylum to the American.

Moscow traditionally welcomes former employees of Western intelligence agencies. Tuesday marked the 50th anniversary of Moscow granting Soviet citizenship to Kim Philby, the leader of a British spy ring for the Soviet Union. Philby died here in 1988, 25 years after his defection.

James Brooke

A foreign correspondent who has reported from five continents, Brooke, known universally as Jim, is the Voice of America bureau chief for Russia and former Soviet Union countries. From his base in Moscow, Jim roams Russia and Russia’s southern neighbors.

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