BBG Watch Commentary


The Voice of America (VOA) English website posted in full President Obama’s statement on the death of former Israeli leader Ariel Sharon. Unfortunately, the statement was not properly formatted and is full of HTLM codes.

VOA-Sharon-Brutal-DescriptionWe also found it strange that in a separate news report, VOA referred to Ariel Sharon as “brutal” without clearly attributing this description to anyone in particular.

The full sentence in the VOA report is: “He [Sharon] was also known to many for being reckless and brutal.” Both BBC and RT (Russia Today) also reported highly critical comments about former Israeli prime minister, but they always attributed them to specific individuals or groups, thus making avoiding an impression of BBC or RT taking any sides.

BBC and RT reports on the death of Ariel Sharon already show thousands of Facebook “Likes.” VOA reports show only between 9 and 40 Facebook “Likes” as of 7PM ET, Saturday.

Obviously, VOA executives and editors are not reading their own website. The improperly formatted President Obama / White House statement has been on the VOA site already for several hours without being corrected. It appears with improper formatting, both on computers and on mobile applications. VOA management needs to pay more attention to the esthetics of their already unappealing and poorly organized and managed websites.

BBG Watch also wants to make another important point.

When we have criticized VOA management in the past for not reporting news on important State Department, White House and Congressional actions and statements, we meant just that: “not reporting,” rather than becoming a “mouthpiece,” to use a famous phrase of VOA Director David Ensor.

Indeed, VOA English Central Newsroom and VOA English website have not been reporting consistently on important U.S. foreign policy news developments. That’s completely different from simply posting full statements and plagiarizing press releases.

We wanted VOA to pay attention to the hard news and to report them promptly, comprehensively and with balance, especially with regard to U.S. foreign policy actions and statements and breaking news.

We have also made an observation many times that when VOA Central Newsroom fails to report on an official U.S. government foreign policy action or statement, more often than not the vast majority of more than 40 VOA foreign language websites also fail to post anything on a particular news story.

Reporting such U.S. news is not only required by the VOA Charter. It also makes sense if VOA wants to attract a larger international audience.

Foreign audiences go to the VOA English website to learn about the United States and what America thinks about their countries and their problems. These audiences, of course, also want to learn about what is happening to them locally, but again — when they go to VOA websites — they expect to learn how the U.S. and VOA see these local news stories. Some VOA language services — Albanian, Ukrainian, Chinese and others — thrive on this kind of news reporting.

Of course, some foreign audiences also want surrogate reporting, even more so that U.S. news, but when they need and want local news, they don’t necessarily expect them from VOA. Outlets such as Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) and Radio Free Asia (RFA) have done a superior job in surrogate reporting of local news in countries without free media.

News Reporting versus Posting Statements

As for the Voice of America is concerned, to achieve its own mission goals of keeping other countries informed as America’s voice, VOA should do balanced and comprehensive news reporting with a stronger focus on U.S. news and U.S. perspectives on world news, as required by the VOA Charter.

This does not mean that VOA has to post U.S. government statements in full. It should report on them, and balance them, if necessary, with other American and foreign viewpoints. If a rare exception is made, and a full statement is posted, then perhaps it should be an insert with a link in a regular correspondent news report.

But if VOA is going to post a U.S. presidential statement in full, then it should do it right, especially on such occasions as the death of a foreign leader. Poor formatting makes it look unprofessional. It looks especially bad on this occasion.

When VOA posts a full statement from the White House as a separate item on its website, it transmits a statement of U.S. public diplomacy at work on behalf of the American people. Whether VOA sees it this way or not, such White House statements are an exercise in U.S. public diplomacy.

If there is a good reason to post an entire White House statement, VOA editors should think carefully how it should be done. They should definitely look at their website to make sure the text is displayed right, especially since they are posting somebody else’s text.

In this case, the Voice of America made President Obama, the First Lady, the White House, and the American people look less then competent. The statement said that President Obama and his wife were expressing condolences “On behalf of the American people.”

If VOA is going to do public diplomacy, it should do it right, or not do it at all. Certainly, not the way it was done today.

We think it would be much better if VOA simply did faster, better and more comprehensive news reporting than it has been doing in recent years.

Public diplomacy should be left in the hands of the White House, the State Department and their public diplomacy professionals. This is something to think about for VOA executives. Do your news reporting job well, according to the VOA Charter, and U.S. public diplomacy goals will be well served automatically without mixing news reporting with public diplomacy.

VOA executives should really think twice how VOA handles presidential statements. Who or what topic gets a full White House statement on which VOA websites? And who or what topic does not?

Nelson Mandela? Ariel Sharon? Who else? There may be exceptions. There may be extraordinary circumstances.

There should be some clear thinking on this point. Perhaps VOA executives could learn a lesson or two from BBC or ask some of its veteran reporters for advice.