24 April 2008

The Future of the News Business and VOA

There has been a lot of discussion in recent months about the future of journalism. The big question is: can the current purveyors of news in its traditional forms --- especially newspapers --- survive in an Internet world?

A fascinating read on this comes from Nicholas Carr, author and former executive editor of the Harvard Business Review who has written for the New York Times, the Financial Times, Wired, and many other publications.
Carr recently wrote in the Britannica Blogs:

“So if you’re a beleaguered publisher, losing readers and money and facing Wall Street’s wrath, what are you going do as you shift your content online? Hire more investigative journalists? Or publish more articles about consumer electronics? It seems clear that as newspapers adapt to the economics of the Web, they are far more likely to continue to fire reporters than hire new ones.

“Speaking before the Online Publishing Association in 2006, the head of the New York Times’s Web operation, Martin Nisenholtz, summed up the dilemma facing newspapers today. He asked the audience a simple question: 'How do we create high quality content in a world where advertisers want to pay by the click, and consumers don’t want to pay at all? The answer may turn out to be equally simple: We don’t.'”

Carr is not alone in his grim assessment. Jay Rosen is a teacher of journalism at New York University and the author of PressThink, a weblog about journalism.

Rosen recently suggested it is an urgent problem:

“I think he’s (Carr) right… The fact that we could lose something makes it somewhat urgent. It’s remarkable to me how many accomplished producers of those goods, the future production of which is in doubt, are still at the stage of asking other people, 'How are we going to pay our reporters if you guys don’t want to pay for our news?' Recently I heard one such person say, 'Society should be worried about this!'”

What struck us about this discussion is the possibility that commercially-funded serious news-oriented journalism outlets might soon become things of the past, possibly leaving publicly-funded news organizations like VOA alone to provide serious news that people ought to know.

VOA, as we have said here before, is unique in that it has a legal Charter obliging it to present accurate, objective and comprehensive news. In fact, we often tell visitors who come to our offices in Washington that we believe VOA is one of the few remaining practitioners of what one might call “pure journalism” in a media world that is increasingly characterized by commentary, attitude, argument, gossip and celebrity.

VOA needs, in our view, to work harder than ever to build on its legacy of being a consistently reliable and authoritative source of news --- especially if the future of the commercial news business seems anything but bright.

For if VOA fails to continue to provide “pure” news, then we will all be the worse off. We are reminded of what legendary broadcaster Edward R. Murrow said in a controversial 1958 speech to broadcast executives about the use of television:

“This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and it can even inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise it is merely wires and lights in a box. There is a great and perhaps decisive battle to be fought against ignorance, intolerance and indifference. This weapon of television could be useful.”

Think about it. And let us know what you think.

One final thought on why we believe this is an important matter for all audiences. It comes from the thoughtful book The Elements of Journalism by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel:

“The issue isn't just the loss of journalism. At stake is whether, as citizens, we have access to independent information that makes it possible for us to take part in governing ourselves.”

23 April 2008

Enterprising Reporters, Worthwhile Reports

Luis Ramirez is one of VOA's most intrepid and enterprising correspondents. The latest evidence of his talent is a four-part multi-media series on the thousands of North Koreans who each year risk their lives to escape poverty and oppression by fleeing their country.

Ramirez followed the trail of these refugees, traveling from China's border with North Korea to Thailand where they wait to take their final steps to freedom in South Korea or the United States.

In the first of a four-part series, he looks at the defectors' treacherous and painful journey. In part two, he reports on how China has tightened its efforts to keep these North Korean refugees out, apparently to avoid being embarrassed over the issue during the coming Olympic games in Beijing.

In the third segment, Ramirez reports that Thailand's policy of not deporting refugees has resulted in a growing number of North Koreans making Thailand a final stop in their trek to freedom. In the conclusion, he reports that for North Korean refugees, entering freer countries is like encountering a new universe but while freedom brings exhilaration, there is also fear of being suddenly on their own.

This series took a year of reporting and more than six weeks of painstaking production work. It’s well worth a look!

Ramirez is currently serving as VOA’s Southeast Asia correspondent in Bangkok after a stint as VOA’s Beijing bureau chief. He began his overseas reporting career as VOA’s West Africa correspondent in Abidjan. Ramirez came to VOA in 1999 after working for a number of years as a reporter for an all-news radio station in his hometown of Los Angeles, California.

Ramirez isn’t alone among VOA correspondents in producing excellent material. Take a look at our five-part series on the problems and challenges posed internationally by so-called Failed States.

You’ll find other Special Reports, new and old, on our special webpage. Well worth visiting if you haven’t been there already.

18 April 2008

In Case You Missed It: VOA Murrow Event April 23rd

VOA's global webchat T2A (Talk To America) marks Edward R. Murrow's 100th birth anniversary on Wednesday, April 23rd at 1800 utc / 2pm edt. The guest will be Lynne Olson, co-author of The Murrow Boys: Pioneers on the Frontlines of Broadcast Journalism.

You can join the chat in a number of ways:

By telephone
You can leave a voice message at: 202-205-9942, then wait for prompt and enter 82, then leave message.

By e-mail
If you prefer, you can e-mail your question before the chat begins to chat@voanews.com

Chat LIVE!
T2A chat is best viewed in Internet Explorer.
To participate simply follow the online form
Type your name.
Type the 5 digit security code (you will get a new code after each submission).
Type your question or comment.
Hit the “Submit” button.
Chat should update automatically as questions are answered. If the chat fails to update after 5 minutes, please hit the refresh page button on your browser. Not all questions may be answered.

14 April 2008

Journalism Moments: Remembering Edward R. Murrow

The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in Massachusetts is this week celebrating the 100th anniversary of the birth of legendary journalist Edward R. Murrow. It seems a fitting opportunity to launch what we hope will become a regular feature at the VOA News Blog: a look at notable people and reporting moments in the history of journalism.

Murrow is a worthy first choice. He was born April 25th, 1908 and rose to fame as a radio broadcaster during World War Two, reporting for the CBS network. He turned to television after the war and was involved in many memorable, award-winning news shows. He was appointed in 1961 by President John F. Kennedy to head the US Information Agency, which no longer exists but was at the time the parent agency for the Voice of America. He remained in that post until 1964. He died April 27th, 1965.

For many of us at VOA, Murrow is remembered for his rock solid support of the principles of objective journalism. Take this quote, for example:

“American traditions and the American ethic require us to be truthful, but the most important reason is that truth is the best propaganda and lies are the worst. To be persuasive we must be believable; to be believable we must be credible; to be credible we must be truthful. It is as simple as that.”

Here in the US, Murrow is perhaps best-known for his March and April 1954 televised reports exposing the activities of Senator Joseph McCarthy.

McCarthy (1947–1957) is remembered for hearings in which he accused government officials and other public figures of being Communists. His tactics resulted in the creation of the word “McCarthyism,” which, according to the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, is: “The practice of publicizing accusations of political disloyalty or subversion with insufficient regard to evidence” as well as “the use of unfair investigatory or accusatory methods in order to suppress opposition.”

Here are some key quotes from Murrow’s broadcasts about McCarthy:

“No one familiar with the history of this country can deny that congressional committees are useful. It is necessary to investigate before legislating, but the line between investigating and persecuting is a very fine one and the junior Senator from Wisconsin (McCarthy) has stepped over it repeatedly. His primary achievement has been in confusing the public mind, as between the internal and the external threats of Communism. We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty. We must remember always that accusation is not proof and that conviction depends upon evidence and due process of law. We will not walk in fear, one of another. We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason, if we dig deep in our history and our doctrine, and remember that we are not descended from fearful men -- not from men who feared to write, to speak, to associate and to defend causes that were, for the moment, unpopular.”

“This is no time for men who oppose Senator McCarthy's methods to keep silent, or for those who approve. We can deny our heritage and our history, but we cannot escape responsibility for the result. There is no way for a citizen of a republic to abdicate his responsibilities. As a nation we have come into our full inheritance at a tender age. We proclaim ourselves, as indeed we are, the defenders of freedom, wherever it continues to exist in the world, but we cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home. The actions of the junior Senator from Wisconsin have caused alarm and dismay amongst our allies abroad, and given considerable comfort to our enemies. And whose fault is that? Not really his. He didn't create this situation of fear; he merely exploited it -- and rather successfully. Cassius was right. "The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves."

“Senator McCarthy ... proved again that anyone who exposes him, anyone who does not share his hysterical disregard for decency and human dignity and the rights guaranteed by the Constitution, must be either a Communist or a fellow traveler. I fully expected this treatment. The Senator added this reporter's name to a long list of individuals and institutions he has accused of serving the Communist cause. His proposition is very simple: Anyone who criticizes or opposes McCarthy's methods must be a Communist. And if that be true, there are an awful lot of Communists in this country. Having searched my conscience and my files, I cannot contend that I have always been right or wise. But I have attempted to pursue the truth with some diligence and to report it, even though, as in this case, I had been warned in advance that I would be subjected to the attentions of Senator McCarthy.”

The Saipov Case: Re-Open the Investigation

The Committee to Protect Journalists is reporting that authorities in Kyrgyzstan have closed their investigation into the murder of Alisher Saipov, editor of the independent Uzbek-language weekly Siyosat (Politics) and a reporter for the Voice of America.

According to CPJ, the Saipov family said Kyrgyz officials informed them that the investigation had been stopped on March 31st due to “the inability to identify a suspect.” The family learned about the closure of the case when they went to the police to inquire about the status of Saipov’s seized laptop.

Kyrgyz police opened a murder probe immediately after the killing in October last year, and President Kurmanbek Bakiyev personally pledged his commitment to solving the case.

CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon says “By refusing to fully investigate this killing, authorities are breaking their own pledge to solve it and sending a signal that journalists can be killed with impunity. We call on the investigators to reopen this case and bring those responsible to justice.”

Saipov, 26, a Kyrgyz citizen of Uzbek ethnicity, was shot dead near his office in Osh in southern Kyrgyzstan. Saipov had covered Uzbekistan’s political and social issues for the Voice of America as well as Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and the popular Russia-based Central Asia news Web site Ferghana.

11 April 2008

Olympic Protestors or Supporters? The Case of the Erroneous Photo Caption

We had a misleading caption on a photo we used with a story on VOANews.com regarding the San Francisco Olympic demonstrations. Our caption read: “Protesters at the beginning of the route of the Olympic torch run in San Francisco on 09 Apr 2008.”

Unfortunately, these were supporters, not protesters, as evidenced by the Chinese text in the banner which read "Go Beijing Olympics" and the English sign which read "Hurting the Games Will Turn China Backwards not Forward Don't Extinguish the Torch of Hope."

We corrected the English caption to read: “Spectators at the beginning of Olympic torch route in San Francisco, 09 Apr 2008”. We also added an asterisk (*) with a correction note at the bottom of the story, explaining when it was changed and what was wrong originally.

The mistake occurred when one of our web editors made an error in retyping the caption supplied by the Associated Press with the photo, incorrectly using the word “protesters” instead of “spectators”.

We have sent an email to everyone who complained: "Thank you. We have posted a correction on the photo caption, and we apologize for the error. It was not our intent to be misleading."

We received lots of complaints, some gracious, others less so. Here’s a sampling:

Ming accused VOA of “making up news.”

John Wang addressed his complaint to: “Distorted Reporter on Beijing Olympic Game.”

Xia said: “This kind of misrepresentation is very off-putting to many members of the Chinese community…”

Ben Shi said: “Voice of America was and still is a my reliable source of news around world…As your loyal listener, I really hope that VOA makes less mistakes, especially on sensitive issue. No business or organization afford the accumulative effect of the cost of small mistakes, if they do not pay attention to it.”

Zhang Lu said: “…you should feel shame on what you have reported, you're breaking your principle of ‘a trusted source of news and information since 1942.’”

09 April 2008

To Honor and Remember Brave Journalists Past and Present

There is in Washington a 12-meter tall memorial honoring those journalists who have been killed in the line of duty. The memorial is located at the newly-opened Newseum on Pennsylvania Avenue -- just a short walk across the grassy mall from VOA headquarters. It bears the names of 1,843 journalists from around the world who died between 1837 and 2007.

None of them are from VOA. But if you visit the website for the memorial, you will see one is under consideration for addition to the memorial. He is Alisher Saipov, an Uzbek journalist who worked in Kyrgyzstan and reported extensively for the Voice of America. He was shot and killed in October 2007 in Osh, the city where he was based. Although he was only 26, VOA said he had reported on “a variety of sensitive political issues critical to the audience throughout Central Asia.” His colleagues referred to him as “a fearless journalist.” He left a wife and a three-month-old daughter.

I didn’t know Saipov. But I did work with two of the reporters whose names are on the wall. I visited the memorial just ahead of the Newseum's formal opening this week to remember them and pay my respects.

One is Dan Eldon, a young British-American photographer who was working for the Reuters news service in Somalia when I met him. He was killed on July 12th, 1993 in Mogadishu by an enraged mob as he tried to cover a US attack on supporters of a Somali warlord.

The second name etched on the glass wall of the memorial that I want to honor is Hitoshi Numasawa of Japan’s Kyodo new service. He was Kyodo’s bureau chief in Nairobi. He was killed on Dec. 6, 1994 when a small plane he was flying in struck a television transmitting tower in bad weather shortly after takeoff from Nairobi's Wilson Airport. He was en route to Goma in what was then called Zaire, where Japanese troops had been deployed in the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide. One of his sons and one of mine were best buddies.

The Newseum Executive Director, Joe Urschel, says of all those whose names are on the Journalists Memorial: “They live on as an inspiration to the highest ideals of journalism.”

Indeed they do.

Most of the reporters whose names are inscribed on the Memorial, like Dan and Toshi, were involved in what is called war reporting. No doubt, they had no desire to themselves become part of the stories they were covering. But war reporting is inherently dangerous.

It might not seem so to a reader for whom “scattered exchanges of small arms and mortar fire” are just words. But for a reporter in a combat zone, getting in position to witness events can be a matter of life and death. The unexpected can always happen, no matter how many precautions you take, no matter how safe you think you are.

When I returned to VOA after visiting the Newseum, I was privileged to attend the annual Burke Awards ceremonies. The award is named for a former Chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, David Burke, who was also a former top executive of both CBS and ABC News. The award recognizes courage, integrity, and originality in reporting by journalists within the BBG broadcast organizations (which include VOA along with Radio Free Asia, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio/TV Marti, Radio Sawa and Alhurra TV.)

This year’s VOA winners include a reporter living in Zimbabwe whose identity must be withheld for security reasons. That reporter and honoree John Miller, another freelancer, provided us with video material on the tumultuous situation in Zimbabwe.

Another VOA winner is Adrian Criscaut, a videojournalist honored for providing exceptional news coverage from Venezuela this past year.

We congratulate them and all the other recipients of the award and acknowledge the sacrifices they have made to serve the interests of their audiences.

06 April 2008

We Blew It And We Apologize

Last week, our website VOANews.com posted an item on which was placed the headline:

“Jewish Settler Kills Palestinian in West Bank.”

It was misleading and inflammatory for two reasons:

First, the original headline made it seem the settler initiated the act. But the actual story made clear the act of killing was to stop an attack by the Palestinian. One wire service report cited a police spokesman as calling it an act of self-defense.

Secondly, why were we saying a "Jewish settler" in our headline? It makes an assumption that the Israeli settler was Jewish, which was probably a correct assumption, but an assumption nonetheless. It was unbalanced to identify one person as Jewish but the other as Palestinian. We did not make any assumption or identification of the religion of the dead man.

We changed the headline. But not quickly enough to ward off a slew of irate emails:

“…the most biased headline I have ever seen. The most vital piece of information is not seen until the second graph. That is when readers learn that the Palestinian was attacking other Jews and so the Jewish man defended himself and the others”

“Considering it was a case of self-defense, why doesn't the headline read something along the lines of ‘Palestianian attacker killed’ or ‘Jewish man killed Palestinian in self-defense’?”

“Bias is something journalists are to fight against.”

“What an inciteful headline!”

“The headline and content of the article…belie VOA's policy of being a trusted news source…Imagine a headline that says ‘US soldier kills Iraqi in Baghdad’ when the Iraqi was a militant trying to kill the soldier…”

“Your… headline, ‘Israeli kills Palestinian in West Bank’, is absurdly misleading.” “[That] headline… was so shameful … [and] so infuriated me…Please see to it that VOA is even-handed in its headlines and reporting.”

We apologize.

05 April 2008

It’s A Grand Old Flag But It’s Not the Official Flag of the Country

In recent days, some of the offices here at VOA headquarters received phone calls from Iranians around the US and the world.

According to those involved in handling the calls, this apparently organized campaign was aimed at getting our VOA Persian service, known as PNN or the Persian News Network, to drop any use of the current, official flag of Iran and to replace it with another, older Iranian flag, one that depicts a lion and a rising sun.

One caller, identified as a 60-year-old woman who was in Montreal, Canada, said she was protesting the use of what she called the wrong flag in all Persian broadcasts. When asked what she meant by the wrong flag, she said "the flag of the Islamic Regime." She said "VOA should display the proper flag -- of the lion and the sun."

This caller also complained that a recent guest on a Persian show had requested that this older Iranian flag be displayed and that the guest's request had been denied.

Well, we looked into this and discovered what it was all about. According to our sources, it stemmed from the appearance of a guest on a Los Angeles-based Persian satellite television station who was also a recent guest on a PNN show. While here at VOA he showed up with a couple of the old Iranian flags and asked that they be displayed behind him during his appearance. His request was turned down. During his interview with the Los Angeles station, he recounted this experience. His interviewer was the owner of the LA station who, we are told, also sells the lion and sun flag and lapel pins. The owner asked his audience to call VOA in Washington to protest.

Sorry, but use of the old flag would be a political action --- not in line with our commitment to being an accurate, objective and authoritative source of news. Would anyone seriously expect VOA to show an older flag of the United States with fewer stars or perhaps the Confederate flag? Or what about the old apartheid-era flag of South Africa? Or any number of other flags no longer recognized internationally.

This is a case where we, like other mainstream news organizations, rely on government sources to check what flags are currently in official, recognized use by other countries. You are welcome to go to the State Department’s website to see what flag it uses in connection with its background report on Iran. Trust us. It’s not the lion and sun.

04 April 2008

The New Look At VOANews.com

The long-awaited new portal page for VOANews.com is up and running. And it looks terrific! Our congratulations to the entire team who worked so hard on the launch which actually took place Thursday afternoon (Washington DC time).

Less than an hour after the launch, we received an email from a visitor from Senegal:

“Congratulations! I really enjoy your new page! It is splendid! Many happy returns! Yours, sincerely; Papa Assane DIEYE, English teacher SENEGAL.”

We’re glad you like it and we hope all our millions of visitors eventually feel the same way. Internet Director Michael Messinger says the new page is designed to be live and dynamic and notes that it reflects an enormous amount of feedback we have received from past visitors.

So what’s different?

The new portal page features news headlines in five key languages (Chinese, English, Persian, Russian and Spanish) so you can click on the tab of the language you want and explore our worldwide news coverage.

You also can access content in VOA’s 40 other languages more easily by clicking the language you want to view.

Visitors will also have quick access on the new portal page to all of the special services VOA provides, like podcasts and mobile feeds and Learning English.

And we have more flexibility to highlight special news features, like our continuing coverage of the US election campaign.

It is designed to be a user-centric website. So we want your feedback.

E-mail us at newdesign@voanews.com or here at the News Blog.

03 April 2008

Cricket: Missing the Stumps at VOA?

The News Blog received an email this week from a listener in India who said he follows VOA daily. No complaint about the news, but he has a problem with our sports coverage. Here is what he writes:

“…your sports section coverage is given mostly to American sports like baseball, football etc. While I understand that this will be of interest to U.S. listeners among your audience, I feel you [should] also keep the interests of listeners in the target area in mind, e.g. in your broadcast targeted to South Asia, international cricket news should also be included… [C]ricket is hugely popular in most parts of South Asia like India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh. Only international cricket news need be broadcast, which may take a minute or so… Please consider the feasibility of this suggestion.”

We referred this email to VOA Sports Editor Parke Brewer. He disputes the notion VOA focuses on American sports and says, “when we have international cricket news, we're usually pretty good about reporting it in our broadcasts.”

But, as sometimes happens with all sports, time pressures may limit the coverage in a single short sports show to just a brief headline-type item, like “South Africa leads India by 147 runs after the first day of their second test.”

If our listener in India were to check out VOANews.com on the web in hopes of finding more cricket-news, he might still be disappointed. With limited resources, much of what our sports staff writes doesn’t end up on the website at all. (There is a “sports” link, but you have to go to “regions and topics” to find it.)

Still, we checked VOANews.com, using the word “cricket” in our search function. Since the start of 2008 we have had numerous stories about cricket and not just results. Here are some examples, some of which came not from our Sports team but from our Zimbabwe service:

On March 19th, there was an item on a forensic report by KPMG South Africa that “highlighted serious financial irregularities but found no evidence of criminality” on the part of Cricket Zimbabwe management.

On March 4th, we had a report that British Prime Minister Gordon Brown was stepping up efforts to ban Zimbabwe’s cricket team from touring Britain to pressure the government of President Robert Mugabe for its alleged human rights violations and humanitarian negligence.

Admittedly, those involved what we might call sports politics versus simple match results. But earlier in the year, there was considerable cricket coverage:

On February 19th: Zimbabwe's women cricket team put up an impressive performance at the preliminary round of the World Cup qualifiers in South Africa Monday by beating Scotland by 75 runs.

On February 1st: Australia's cricket team has beaten India in a Twenty20 International match in Melbourne.

On January 30th: Pakistan Cricketers Thrash Zimbabwe In Series, Taking Four Of Five Matches despite impressive batting by Tatenda Taibu who put 51 runs on the scoreboard.

And on January 19th: India's cricket team has beaten Australia and ended the Aussies winning streak at 16 test matches.

We here at the News Blog would have to say that is evidence of a pretty solid interest in cricket by our sports team. Maybe our listener in India was just listening at the wrong time?

Sonny Young, host of the ever-popular “Sonny Side of Sports” on VOA’s English-to-Africa show, has also weighed in on this issue. Sonny says:
“I agree with Parke that we do a decent job on major international cricket stories. Cricket is much more popular in South Asia than it is in Africa, but I'll do the occasional cricket story if there's an African angle. For example, today I'm picking up some Dave Byrd audio on the India vs. South Africa cricket competition. You're never going to please everyone ... I still get occasional e-mails asking why I don't cover WWF professional wrestling!”

Hey, how about a VOA web page focusing just on international cricket?