What's In VOA's Charter – And What Isn't

Tuesday, March 7th 2017

Since last year there has been an effort at the Voice of America to expand into “investigative reporting”. The best response by VOA’s stakeholders to this effort should be a firm and unequivocal No.

Why? Just look at VOA’s website.

Every day this government agency distributes stories to audiences around the world that are not even written by VOA’s employees. Instead, they’re written by reporters at The Associated Press, or Reuters. And that’s a problem.

The reason is because VOA’s reporters are required by law to follow strict guidelines regulating what kind of stories they should cover and, even more importantly, how to cover them. But outside organizations such as AP don’t have to follow those rules, and when they don’t, that’s a violation of the Charter under which VOA operates.

VOA’s Charter isn’t hard to understand. It was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Gerald Ford in 1976, and its guidelines are clear and succinct:

(1) VOA will serve as a consistently reliable and authoritative source of news. VOA news will be accurate, objective, and comprehensive.

(2) VOA will represent America, not any single segment of American society, and will therefore present a balanced and comprehensive projection of significant American thought and institutions.

(3) VOA will present the policies of the United States clearly and effectively, and will also present responsible discussions and opinion on these policies. (Public Law 94-350)

Yet VOA constantly violates that Charter.

For example, VOA’s English language website recently ran this story from AP: “As Mugabe Turns 93, Anxious Zimbabwe Wonders Who's Next”.

It’s a fair question, but VOA’s African audience is probably wondering even more what the U.S. government’s position is on who should follow the long-time dictator. But there isn’t a word in this story on what the U.S. policy is on Zimbabwe, or on its prospective future leaders.

Another recent example from VOA’s website: “Mexico's Likely Next Envoy to US: Ties at ‘Critical' Point”.

This AP story consists entirely of the Mexican diplomat’s views about his country’s relationship with the United States, and his strategy for managing that relationship. And that’s fine, if you happen to be the Voice of Mexico. But the job of the Voice of America is to report on the U.S. government’s perspective, and a story like this should have included that too.

Unfortunately, even some of VOA’s staff-written stories violate the Charter. A recent story, also about Africa (where a majority of VOA’s audience historically has lived) and headlined “Al-Shabab Opposes Election of New President in Somalia”, reports in detail threats by an official of the al Qaeda-linked terrorist group. But, here again, there’s nothing about where the U.S. stands on the election of Somalia’s new president.

Comprehensive”? No. “Balanced”? No. Including “the policies of the United States”? No.

If you were to ask VOA’s editors why they run stories that violate their Charter, they would probably tell you that they don’t have the manpower to cover everything. But these lapses are, in the end, inexcusable.

If VOA’s editors have to choose between running a one-sided story that violates their Charter, or no story at all, then they should run no story at all.

When Congress approved the Charter, they didn’t tell VOA that it would be nice if their stories were balanced, or that, if it wasn’t too much trouble, they hoped VOA would try to report on U.S. policies. Instead, they used the word “will”. Repeatedly.

The guidelines were not meant to be an option.

There are also other good reasons why VOA shouldn’t expand into “investigative reporting”. For one thing, it’s not part of their congressionally-mandated mission, and it never has been. They also don’t have the resources or the expertise. Real investigative reporting is expensive, time-consuming, difficult to do well, and potentially litigious. VOA doesn’t need (and can’t afford) any of those problems.

The current hiring freeze has halted VOA’s effort to hire investigative reporters, but this bad idea needs to be rejected permanently. VOA’s reporters need to focus instead on the day-to-day basics that their Charter actually demands, and make sure that all of the stories they run are balanced, objective, and comprehensive, and that the stories they run about international issues in particular include information about U.S. policies and where the American government stands.

Because the members of Congress are not the only ones who expect that from the Voice of America; VOA’s audience does too.

One person has commented on this article so far

David S. Jackson

David Jackson is a veteran journalist and former U.S. government official with extensive multimedia communications experience in domestic and international markets.

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Author: David S Jackson

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VOA News and the Wire Services

Jackson raises an interesting issue, and it's one that has been commented on frequently in numerous commentaries appearing on the BBG Watch website (here's one example: http://bbgwatch.com/bbgwatch/bbc-has-reporters-in-yemen-voa-relies-on-wi...)

The story is a long one, of course and involves the decision, under a now former VOA director and his deputy, to create what we liked to call the "43 newsroom" world, in which the wire services were made available to all language services, and the role of VOA's central newsroom was diminished.

A general comment can be applied, where this is concerned, which is that as everyone knows, or should have known in this case, not all language services were prepared from a human resource perspective to handle the burden of processing wire service stories.

The kind of close attention that the VOA newsroom, in its earlier form, paid to the assessment, editing, preparation of stories based on AP, Reuter and other services, was not able to be applied. I still recall the comments of one newsroom editor who was assigned to help language services deal with this sudden flood -- he called it a "disaster".

Since 2010, what one has seen when looking at the VOA website has been a steady increase in reliance on wire service stories, which as Jackson -- and numerous commentaries at BBG Watch -- have observed, means that whatever audiences VOA thinks it still has (that's a whole separate story), end up seeing VOA acting as a conduit for AP, Reuters, AFP, etc -- when in fact these agencies already have their own online sites, and mobile apps.

So, the federal government is doing "the wires" a great service -- and of course, does pay for use of these stories (there's a maximum number of stories that VOA can use during a 24 hour cycle).

But another aspect of this involves a certain degree of dishonesty by VOA. When Google news alerts, which are used by millions of people globally, pick up VOA reports, the initial news alert shows those stories as coming from "Voice of America", when in fact the actual story is a direct pick up of Reuter or AP. So, people around the world gain an impression that VOA is somehow covering zillions of stories that it is actually not, and in numerous datelines around the world that it is not.

Heavy use of wire service stories allows VOA, with its depleted and mismanaged news coverage capabilities, to be seen as still being the force it once was on the global media scene, but isn't now.

Another aspect of this that I experienced personally, during my four years as VOA's chief White House correspondent, involved the extensive re-writing of stories being filed by VOA's own correspondents.

Once, when I was able to add a considerable amount of background based on a White House background briefing (which for VOA were always hard if not impossible to be included in because VOA was so disrespected by the Obama administration) I found that my report had been literally taken apart by VOA's own newsroom, with content added to it (and left out) -- newspaper style.

The reason this was being done at the time, was that VOA news managers felt they were under pressure to provide coverage in EACH story that was as comprehensive as possible. But the price VOA paid for this shortsighted approach was the absence of the kind of detailed, skilled reporting by VOA's own correspondents, from their own datelines -- disappeared, as the saying goes, from the VOA site.

With all this said, what Jackson is proposing here sounds awfully familiar -- while balance is important, VOA reporters should not be adding lines from State Department policy reports on individual countries and issues, to their reports. It's a simple thing to reflect what is known to be U.S. positions -- but during the mid-2000s under Bush 43, reporters were under pressure to reflect positives about U.S. policies, and events in certain countries, such as Iraq to cite one example.

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