BBG Watch Commentary
The Voice of America (VOA) English news website continues to show disastrously poor social media engagement performance against Russia Today and other international news websites.
An early morning check on July 18 showed that seven top news stories on the VOA English website received only 44 (forty-four) Facebook “Likes” (same as “Recommend”) from readers.
Seven top news stories on the Russia Today website showed 14,189 Facebook “Likes” from readers, 322 times more, or 32,200 percent more than VOA.
Voice of America English news stories also attract hardly any comments from readers.
The same seven top news stories showed only 5 (five) comments, all of them from readers in the United States. Comments on some of the VOA news stories were disabled.
One of the top VOA news items was not originated by VOA but came from Reuters. The VOA English website frequently now uses Reuters news items rather than posting its own reports. They tend to get very few Facebook “Likes,” but even VOA’s original reports do not show much better social media engagement numbers.
VOA news reports tend to be short and most are not attributed to VOA correspondents. They include very few VOA-originated videos or photos.
The seven top news stories on the Russia Today English website showed 1,106 comments from readers, 221 times more, or 22,100 percent more than VOA. Most Russia Today news reports are longer than those from VOA, include multiple videos and photos and appear to be originated by Russia Today correspondents or newsroom writers.
A check of Al Jazeera English website also showed thousands of Facebook “Likes” and hundreds of readers’ comments for its seven top news stories. BBC English website’s top news stories showed similar social media engagement performance as Al Jazeera and Russia Today. (BBC English website shows Facebook and Twitter numbers but does not accept comments.)
Such dismal audience engagement through social media for VOA is not limited to today. Extremely low Facebook, Twitter, Google+, and Comments activity has been observed on the VOA English website for many months, even years.
VOA journalists and outside experts attribute these poor results in engaging online audiences to lack of leadership on news reporting from Voice of America Director David Ensor and Executive Editor Steve Redisch, overall bad management of VOA newsroom work and personnel, extremely low employee morale, and severe cuts to the number of newsroom writers and reporters.
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. ”
VOA executives dismissed and refused to answer Gary Thomas’ questions for the article and later accused him through their spokesman of unspecified errors while stressing that VOA has a successful multimedia website.
Former U.S. Ambassador to Poland Victor Ashe, a member of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), the oversight bipartisan board for the Voice of America and other U.S.-funded international broadcasters, later apologized to Thomas and Columbia Journalism Review for VOA management’s refusal to answer questions from a journalist. Ashe said that VOA’s response to Gary Thomas reminded him of how repressive regimes respond to questions from VOA and other journalists.
Ashe was also quoted as saying that BBG members (there are only four left, Ashe is the only Republican and the board no longer has a quorum) knew nothing about the questions submitted by Thomas and were not consulted by the VOA management on the response.
The BBG board seems unable with its current diminished number of members to force management and personnel reforms due to strong resistance from top IBB executives. IBB officials have been reported to be behind efforts to get BBG members removed by the White House and to smear their reputation in a similar manner to how VOA executives respond to those who disagree with them.
There have been other incidents of VOA’s top managers lashing out against their inside and outside critics while claiming that their digital expansion strategy was producing great results.
The claim of successful online audience outreach and digital strength was repeated recently 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.”
Voice of America has also become a subject of controversy over the passage of the Smith-Mundt Modernization Act which now allows the International Broadcasting Bureau to actively distribute VOA news to Americans. The previous law did not grant government officials such rights although Americans were already able to access VOA news on the Internet and could use it on radio, television, in newspapers or online.
IBB Director Lobo, his deputy Jeff Trimble and other top IBB executives are believed to be strong supporters of the controversial new law, which is now undermining Voice of America’s reputation and bipartisan support in the United States due to highly negative media coverage, critics say.
Critics also argue that even if VOA journalists who remain will try to maintain accuracy and objectivity, lack of resources and hostile management may result in the news content being limited, uninteresting and biased if VOA reporters are not able to provide on the scene coverage and talk to various participants in news events.
For example, VOA management did not send a staff correspondent to cover anti-government protests in Turkey in early June which resulted in VOA coverage tilting toward reporting on statements from Prime Minister Erdogan because VOA newsroom had no direct access to the protesters camping in a park in Istanbul and demonstrating on the streets in Ankara and Izmir.
Voice of America Director David Ensor defended VOA coverage as balanced and responsible. It is not known whether the fact that Prime Minister Erdogan is considered a close U.S. ally was a factor in VOA management’s decision not to send a correspondent to Turkey.
Sources told BBG Watch that IBB and VOA executives have been reported as saying in recent days that audience engagement through social media is not a good indicator of successful news distribution, reach and impact. Before BBG Watch started to report on extremely poor performance in this area by VOA and some of the other BBG-managed media entities, IBB and VOA officials were saying that audience engagement through social media is of paramount importance and made unsubstantiated claims of major successes.
As with today’s results for top seven news, the Voice of America English website also did extremely poorly in social media engagement for its coverage of Turkish protests in June when compared with Al Jazeera, Russia Today and BBC, which all had correspondents in Turkey.
For a number of days, Voice of America also failed to provide original coverage of the South Korean plane crash in San Francisco, while BBC, Russia Today and China’s CCTV started to cover the story extensively within hours of the crash.