BBG Watch Commentary
Starved for staff and resources and badly managed, U.S. international broadcaster Voice of America (VOA) offered only scant coverage of the Zimmerman trial “not guilty” verdict in the first 12 hours after it was announced. The VOA English website had little information about post-tial protests, while BBC, Russia Today and Al Jazeera provided full coverage which attracted enormous audience interest abroad.
Voice of America had a chance to likewise impress foreign audiences with its coverage of the Zimmerman trial verdict. It was the kind of U.S.-originated news story that would be natural for the U.S. taxpayer-funded international broadcaster to cover. Its Congressionally-approved VOA Charter requires it to offer comprehensive news coverage.
But VOA’s short news item on the Zimmerman trial verdict got barely over 450 Facebook “Likes” on the VOA English website as of Sunday morning. Even that number is much higher than what VOA English news, some of which now consist of short reports from Reuters, get these days. VOA’s top seven news on its English website usually collect no more then 20 Facebook “Likes” and sometimes less then 10.
Still, more than 450 “Likes” for this VOA story by 8AM showed that initial foreign audience interest was high. But the VOA news report was short, 990 words, had no video and only one AP photo. It has not been updated for many hours. By 8AM Washington time the next morning, it was still the same version initially posted (VOA provides no information as to when a news story is posted or updated). The VOA news story contained very little information on American reactions to the verdict and post-trial protests in the United States. It was obvious that it was no more than a compilation of wire service reports.
VOA did no original reporting for the story and did not conduct interviews with experts or with ordinary Americans. It even said on the bottom of the VOA Zimmerman verdict story that “Some information for this report [was] provided by AP, AFP and Reuters.” Its Readers’ Comments feature was not turned on, probably because it was not an original VOA news report.
On the other hand, coverage Zimmerman trial verdict by Al Jazeera, BBC, Russia Today and other international broadcasters was quick, frequently updated and extensive. By Sunday morning, Russia Today had three separate news stories on its English website with multiple videos, photos, and comments from experts, including a special “LIVE UPDATES” report. BBC and Al Jazeera likewise provided extensive coverage with updates. To VOA’s 450 Facebook “Likes,” Russia Today, BBC and Al Jazeera accumulated close to 20,000.
Russia Today’s initial report, “Zimmerman acquitted of Trayvon Martin murder,” already had 3,300 Facebook “Likes” by 9AM Sunday.
Not Voice of America but Russia Today quoted Benjamin Todd Jealous, President and CEO of the NAACP, saying:
“We are outraged and heartbroken over today’s verdict.”
“We stand with Trayvon’s family and we are called to act. We will pursue civil rights charges with the Department of Justice, we will continue to fight for the removal of Stand Your Ground laws in every state, and we will not rest until racial profiling in all its forms is outlawed.” – Benjamin Todd Jealous, President and CEO of the NAACP, quoted by Russia Today.
Russia Today report, “US hit with civil disorder following Zimmerman ‘not guilty’ verdict,” had 5,400 Facebook “Likes.” By 9:20AM, this Russia Today story had more than 500 comments from readers.
Russia Today also recently offered, “Zimmerman verdict protests: LIVE UPDATES.”
All of Russia Today reports on the Zimmerman trial verdict had videos, multiple images, including images of Tweets from on the scene observers and experts.
By 9:20AM Washington time, BBC report, “George Zimmerman not guilty of Trayvon Martin murder” already had 11,175 Facebook “Likes” to VOA’s 488 (6:20AM).
Al Jazeera report with video, “Zimmerman acquitted of Trayvon Martin murder,” had 2,181 Facebook “Likes” by 9:30AM.
The Voice of America had a tremendous opportunity to provide full original coverage of the Zimmerman trial verdict and reactions to it from experts and various groups in the United States. It did not. For more than 12 hours, the VOA English website has not updated its news story. International audiences went for more and fresher information to BBC, Russia Today and Al Jazeera. They found it there, not on the VOA English website.
At 10:15 AM, the VOA Zimmerman verdict story still has not been expanded or updated. Its top news story, “Egypt Swears in ElBaradei as Interim Vice President,” was from Reuters, not an original VOA story. It had 0 (zero) Facebook “Likes” by 10:15AM.
VOA’s second top news story, not counting the un-updated Zimmerman news item, was “Pakistan Taliban Set up Camps in Syria, Join Anti-Assad War.” It was also a short report from Reuters. It had 5 Facebook “Likes” by 10:15AM.
VOA’s third top news story was “Zimbabwe Police, Soldiers Cast Early Votes Contested by PM.” It was again from Reuters. It had 7 Facebook Likes by 10:15AM.
Not counting the Zimmerman story, VOA English news website accumulated 12 Facebook “Likes” for its top news stories, all from Reuters.
For comparison, Russia Today’s three top news stories, again, not counting its Zimmerman trial verdict stories, accumulated 8,565 Facebook “Likes to VOA’s 12.
BBC accumulated 33,180 Facebook “Likes,” that is correct, over 30,000, for its three top news stories (not counting the Zimmerman story) Sunday morning, Washington, DC time, to VOA’s 12.
According to our sources, despite severe cutbacks to its news operation, Voice of America still has a few veteran correspondents and reporters who know their beats and are able to turn around original reports in a timely manner. Our sources say that the fault is not with VOA correspondents and reporters but with the top VOA leadership. One insider told us: “To put it simply, the VOA Newsroom staff is trying to make the best of a bad situation. The onus of failure does not rest with them. It rests with senior agency officials who have rendered the agency’s ability to engage in timely news reporting and to carry out the agency’s mission dysfunctional and defunct.”
VOA employees have been complaining for several years that original news reporting is being de-emphasized by the management and news gathering resources severely limited. They have also complained about mismanagement at the highest level and in running the central English Newsroom and the VOA English website. Their complains apparently have been ignored by the VOA management, the agency’s top managers in the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) and even the U.S. Government’s Office of the Inspector General in the State Department. No action has been taken by anyone within the management structure or by the OIG to address these problems, sources told us.
But top agency executives, especially those in the International Broadcasting Bureau, have been painting a rosy picture of the use of digital technology and social media engagement by VOA and other U.S.-funded broadcasters. Officials have been bragging to members of their oversight board, the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), members of Congress, Congressional staffers and media about the agency’s investments in social media outreach. They have also tried to intimidate and discredit their critics.
In attacking journalistic skills of a former Voice of America senior correspondent Gary Thomas who had published an article in Columbia Journalism Review outlining serious inadequacies in VOA news coverage, management and employee morale, Kyle King, a spokesman for Voice of America director David Ensor responded that “A simple look at the Voice of America’s website demonstrates we are a hard-hitting and effective international multimedia news organization. ”
In a manner typical for VOA management, executives dismissed and refused to answer Gary Thomas’ questions for the article and later accused him through their spokesman of unspecified errors while bragging about their non-esistent online prowess.
The claim of successful online audience outreach and digital strength was repeated by International Broadcasting Bureau Director Richard Lobo who said at a recent Digital Innovation Expo hosted by IBB on Capitol Hill that “today we are reaching and engaging audiences like never before.”
Director Lobo has been responsible for hundreds of millions of dollars of investments in digital and social media technology, which critics charge was wasted on IBB bureaucracy and contractors as the money was being taken from news and programs. IBB and VOA executives eliminated many newsroom and reporters’ positions or left them vacant.
In a pattern that has been obvious for the last several years, original news coverage by VOA English correspondents has greatly diminished. In the last few days, VOA English website was late repeatedly, between three and 48 hours, in posting original reports on violence in Egypt, the plane crash in San Francisco and other important international and domestic developments. A few days ago, VOA was late by several hours in generating its own report on the White House press conference statements on the future of U.S. assistance to the Egyptian military.
VOA Director David Ensor is reported to be on an extended summer vacation.
This short Voice of America news report has not been updated for many hours. It was still not updated or expanded by 11AM Washington time, Sunday, July 14. Compared to its 450 Facebook “Likes,” a similar BBC news report received more than 10,000. Russia Today and Al Jazeera also collected thousands of Facebook “Likes” for their coverage of the story.
Zimmerman Found Not Guilty in Trayvon Martin Shooting
July 14, 2013
A jury in the southeastern U.S. state of Florida has ruled shooting suspect George Zimmerman is not guilty of murder or manslaughter in the killing of a black teenager last year.
The 6-woman jury late Saturday acquitted Zimmerman of all charges in the racially-charged proceedings. Zimmerman’s father is white and mother Hispanic. Martin’s supporters had accused Zimmerman of racially profiling 17-year-old Trayvon Martin because he was black.
Immediately after the verdict, Martin’s supporters – including his family members – took to social media to express their displeasure with the decision. A crowd outside the courthouse peacefully protested the outcome. Police presence has been increased in the town of Sanford, where the trial was held.
Spontaneous protests sprang up in several cities across the U.S., including thousands of kilometers from Florida in San Francisco. The protests were largely peaceful, although some windows were broken and small fires were set.
Civil rights leaders Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton used their Twitter accounts to call on people to remain calm and constructive.
Zimmerman was driving in his neighborhood February 26, 2012, when he saw Martin and called police. Zimmerman – a neighborhood watch volunteer – got out of his vehicle and followed Martin. A confrontation and struggle followed, ending with Zimmerman shooting Martin.
The case made national news after it was revealed that Zimmerman walked free for more than six weeks after the shooting, because police did not contest his claim that he shot Martin in self-defense.
Prosecution and defense concluded their arguments on Friday. The jury then deliberated for 16 and a half hours before delivering the decision late Saturday.
Zimmerman smiled briefly after hearing the not guilty decision, but did not otherwise react outwardly.
The prosecution said Zimmerman profiled the teen and followed him through a gated community because he assumed Martin was intent on making trouble. Zimmerman said he acted in self-defense once he and Martin entered into a struggle, with Martin banging Zimmerman’s head against the concrete pavement.
Florida’s controversial “Stand Your Ground” law authorizes people who fear for their lives to use deadly force without having to avoid a confrontation.