BBG Watch

A Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) staffer provided this comment to BBG Watch regarding the issue of whether Voice of America should cover breaking news:

“VOA needs to cover breaking news as one way to attract people to the context and analysis. If people turn to BBC, CNN, et. al. when news breaks, they’re going to continue to stay there to follow up on the developments. There’s nothing distinctive anymore about VOA that can lure people away from a major news outlet to one that no longer has the resources or clout to make the grade.”

The following analysis was provided to BBG Watch by a user of VOA news content abroad.

“As a listener, I think there are two entirely different categories of breaking news.

I would not expect Voice of America (VOA) to cover in great depth the first category, which I would categorize as O.J. Simpson car chase-type breaking news, that is, news which would garner huge live coverage within the U.S.A, but which is essentially showbiz news with no substantive diplomatic impact. If VOA doesn’t cover these type of stories live, it’s no great loss.

However, I would put in an entirely different category the second category of breaking news – developments involving the U.S.A which have a significant international / diplomatic impact. I believe VOA’s global audience would expect VOA (in English at least) to cover this type of news on a breaking news basis, with substantive live updates from VOA correspondents at least once an hour whilst the story is still developing.

The VOA News Division used to cover this second type of breaking news incredibly well in the period from the mid 1980s through into the early 1990s. It’s one reason I still listen fairly regularly to VOA today, because of the listening habits I formed during that period. As one example, VOA’s live continuous coverage of the 1988 shooting down of a civilian Iranian aircraft by the U.S.S. Vincennes was exemplary – when the first suggestions broke that a civilian plane had been downed, VOA started providing live coverage each hour on its “Newsline” programmes and stayed with the news for the next several hours with live correspondent two-ways from the State and Defence Departments, live coverage of press conferences and so on. I listened to VOA’s coverage late into the night (here in the UK) because no other broadcasters were providing the live, in-depth coverage that VOA was providing – not even the BBC. I believe VOA could honestly make a convincing case that its coverage of the U.S.S Vincennes incident was among the best – the promptest, most in-depth, and most carefully factual – in the world.

Voice of America was able to cover the story so well back then because (1) it clearly recognised this was a crucial story for VOA to cover, and cover well, for VOA’s own credibility as much as anything else, (2) the VOA News Division had far more reporters and news anchors in Washington than it does today so wasn’t caught short of staff to provide the coverage, and (3) VOA’s hourly newscasts and the many editions of the “Newsline” backgrounder programme which followed always went out live – so the format was ideally geared to covering breaking news when required to do so. Sadly, it seems that today none of these three points apply any more.

So I would respectfully suggest that the BBG/IBB decision makers should recognise that not all breaking news is the same. If O.J. Simpson hits the road again in his Ford Bronco chased by the police, VOA would be right not to cover that as breaking news. A 3 minute correspondents report the next day would suffice.

But for breaking news with an international diplomatic impact (such as the Boston bombings), I think VOA should provide live in-depth hourly updates beyond that provided in the 5 minute top of the hour newscasts, breaking format to provide live continual coverage where the story is diplomatically important enough to justify this. I actually think much of VOA’s global audience, particularly to Global English, would see this as exactly the type of news that VOA should pull out all the stops to cover live and in-depth, and indeed, for which VOA should be seen as one of the authoritative global news providers. Clearly this would require significant additional resources compared to what VOA News presently has allocated to it.

So I think the policy outlined at the BBG meeting should be refined – not that VOA should never cover breaking news, nor indeed that VOA should always cover it. Instead VOA should more carefully set out what types of breaking news it should and should not cover live, with an emphasis (as in the 1980s and early 1990s) on providing live coverage of breaking U.S. news with a significant international diplomatic impact.