BBG Watch Commentary

Today, the Voice of America’s parent agency, the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) announced the appointment of Thomas Kent, a long time Associated Press journalist, as the new President of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL). In 2015, he had written an article on what is know as “virtual reality journalism.” By coincidence, VOA has posted today a report on virtual reality journalism in the United States.

If VOA wanted to do a balanced and comprehensive report on this topic, it should have asked Tom Kent’s permission to repost his excellent August 2015 Medium article, “An ethical reality check for virtual reality journalism.”

Set to become RFE/RL president on June 27, Tom Kent is Standards Editor for the Associated Press and Columbia University journalism instructor. His article was multifaceted, thought-provoking and worthy of sharing with a worldwide audience. Tom Kent has served as a member of the advisory board of the Ethical Journalism Network, leader of the Online News Association’s Build Your Own Ethics Code project, advisor for the Society of Professional Journalists and international reporting juror for the Pulitzer Prizes. He speaks several languages and is fluent in Russian. He had served as AP’s Moscow Bureau Chief.

The Voice of America posted today its own report on virtual reality journalism. While it is not a life and death topic for anyone to become overly concerned, the VOA report reads more like an infomercial for virtual reality journalism than an article written according to the VOA Charter. It does not address key issues other than money making for commercial media. As intriguing as this topic is to some in the United States and to a more limited degree abroad, although probably not in most countries VOA should be focusing on, there were several other just as important if not more important questions connected with virtual reality journalism worthy of further exploration, which the VOA report failed to do. The VOA report had some good parts to it, but it could have used much more direction from editors, more extensive research, more balance, and much better editing.

In the past, VOA had posted far worse and less balanced reports than this one on much more critical topics, such as Russia, Crimea, and North Korea. There has been some improvement in these other areas, but maintaining consistent standards of journalism is hard to do, BBG Watch was told by some of the concerned and more experienced reporters in the Voice of America newsroom, when VOA’s senior executives allow managing editors to take time off all at the same time, and fail to show leadership.

According to inside sources, the head of the VOA newsroom was in training and four other managers and editors were away on leave. Another one was also away in training. Only one person was truly in charge of the VOA newsroom, not counting VOA director Amanda Bennett and her deputy Sandy Sugawara. The VOA newsroom is usually deserted after business hours and on weekends, and is poorly staffed even 9 to 5, Monday through Friday. This time, the VOA newsroom was deserted during the week even more than usual.

Little wonder that this week, VOA continued to produce unbalanced news reports, posted a partisan electioneering video on its Russian-language social media sites, failed to provide live coverage from Thursday’s memorial events in Louisville for Muhammad Ali, and today posted a poorly researched video report.

Similar problems have been reported to a lesser degree at Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty, a non-federal entity also overseen by the Broadcasting Board of Governors. Until today’s news of Tom Kent’s appointment, RFE/RL has been without permanent leadership for over two years. Amanda Bennett and Sandy Sugawara have only been on the job at VOA for a few weeks. BBG CEO and director John Lansing has been at the agency nine months.

After a VOA writer posted on a personal but publicly accessible Facebook page a meme showing Donald Trump with a Nazi swastika and a Donald Trump penis GIF, experienced VOA reporters told us they are appalled by what they see as a continued deterioration of management standards despite good sounding pronouncements and assurances from the senior staff. We get orders, but no leadership, one VOA staffer was quoted as saying in a private conversation.

Meanwhile, VOA director Amanda Bennett, said, as reported internally to staff, that the organization “is doing a remarkable job” and “has an extraordinary potential to grow.” The Voice of America director was being interviewed by … the Voice of America.

VOA: “Amanda Bennet, Director Voice of America and a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, has said that her organization’s mission is to tell America’s stories to the international audience. In her interview with VOA Urdu’s show Café DC, hosted by Faiz Rehman, she said that VOA is doing a remarkable job by covering all aspects of American life which people around the world don’t know. Ms. Bennet was of the view that there are very few media organizations like VOA in the world, and almost none in the U.S., which reports and produces news in 45 different languages all coming out of a single building. She said her organization is a kind of global reporting force which has an extraordinary potential to grow, do more and transform itself according to the new challenges.”

The VOA Urdu Service had made itself famous in 2014 with a promotional video showing a blood-thirsty zombie dressed like Uncle Sam. It happened under the previous VOA director and was blamed on contract employees. The Wall Street Journal called VOA “A Voice of Anti-Americanism.”

There have been some improvements in VOA news reporting since 2014, but recent highly partisan posts about Donald Trump, regardless of whether one is a Democrat or a Republican, a Trump supporter or a Trump opponent, again highlight serious problems at the taxpayer-funded ($225 million for VOA) government organization (BBG’s total budget is $777 million).

When the Voice of America reported Friday on virtual reality journalism, it failed to ask some of the obvious questions about journalistic standards and ethics. They were thoughtfully covered in Tom Kent’s earlier article, which is how VOA should be reporting on any controversial topic. Much more of such reporting and analysis are needed.

Senior executives at BBG and VOA seem fixated on technology. Longtime failed managers also point to poor digital media infrastructure as an excuse for their poor performance. Outdated technology is a problem, but lack of structural reforms, poor leadership, bad management, wasteful spending of tax dollars, and substandard program content are by far much bigger issues at the Broadcasting Board of Governors and the Voice of America. VOA’s websites and social media pages are indeed ugly and poorly organized, but RFE/RL’s websites and social media outreach are not too bad. At the risk of repeating ourselves, what the agency needs most of all are structural reforms focused and separate missions for VOA and surrogate broadcasters. It needs new leadership, and mission-appropriate content that is different at RFE/RL and at VOA. It needs many more talented and experienced managers and journalists who can produce such programs.


Voice of America

VOA: At The New York Times, editors have found that partnering with advertisers is one way to generate income on virtual reality projects.
“We think there’s a good business here. Virtual reality is a powerful way to tell stories for journalists, but it’s also become a powerful way for brands to tell their stories,” said Sam Dolnick, associate editor at the Times.
The company has partnered with clients like Tag Heuer and Mini to create virtual-reality experiences that target Times readers.
“We think there’s a potential around virtual reality becoming some kind of premium offer, and whether that’s for subscribers, a new paywall, we’re experimenting, we’re thinking about it,” Dolnick added.


SEE: Virtual Reality Journalism Engages New Audiences, Voice of America, June 10, 2016




Tom Kent

“Before the technology gallops any further, it’s time for an ethical reality check. How real is virtual reality intended to be? Where’s the line between actual event and the producer’s artistic license? Is VR journalism supposed to be the event itself, an artist’s conception of the event or something akin to a historical novel, ‘based on a true story’?
Viewers need to know how VR producers expect their work to be perceived, what’s been done to guarantee authenticity and what part of a production may be, frankly, supposition.”



SEE: An ethical reality check for virtual reality journalism, Tom Kent, Medium, August 31, 2015.