29 September 2008

We Have A Winner!

Congratulations to Hongwei Liu, who is the winner of our first-ever News Blog contest. He correctly identified the graphic in a recent post as a QR or two-dimensional bar code.

The code contained a message which said: “Welcome to the VOA News Blog. If you can read this, please send an email to the News Blog with the word HAPPINESS in it. You will be featured in an upcoming posting. Thank you.”

Hongwei says he was attracted to a later post announcing this was a contest and asking visitors to “crack the code.”

Alas, he was disappointed because no sophisticated code-cracking software was needed. Instead he just read it by using a cell phone. We hope the promise of a VOA T-shirt will ease any dissatisfaction.

QR codes, by the way, are in growing use overseas, especially in Asia, and appear regularly in magazines and on signs and other objects that people might want more information about. Often they contain web links. Users who have a camera phone loaded with the right software can scan the image of a QR code and translate it.

19 September 2008

Bloggers’ Tele-Conference with Glassman: Blogging Diplomacy with Iran

The State Department this week held a bloggers’ roundtable with James Glassman, Under Secretary For Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs and former Chairman of the Board of Broadcasting Governors, the board that oversees the Voice of America.

The VOA News Blog was invited to take part as were several prominent bloggers who routinely write about public diplomacy and strategic communications issues.

The full transcript has now been posted. Much of the session focused on Iran and included a discussion of a recent online exchange between a member of the State Department’s Digital Outreach Team and a senior Iranian official. (You can read that transcript as well.)

Here is the excerpt of our exchange with the Under Secretary:

QUESTION: Mr. Glassman, how can public diplomacy or, as you recently wrote, diplomacy aimed at publics, succeed when, as in the case of Iran, there’s little or no engagement with officials and both governments have essentially sought to demonize one another in the eyes of their respective publics?

UNDER SECRETARY GLASSMAN: Well, I think public diplomacy can do things that official diplomacy cannot. And examples of that are, you know, in some countries around the world, for reasons of our concerns about stability, we may not be as officially as aggressive in our support of, let’s say, pro-democracy elements in official diplomacy. But in public diplomacy, we can do that.

So here is a really good example, I think, with what’s happening in Iran. For, in my opinion, good reason, we are – we have been limited in our engagement at the official level for – I think, for very good reason. But at the public diplomacy level, where we are engaging with the people of Iran, we can engage quite a bit and we do. And what’s interesting, I think, about this blogging concept is, you know, people talk about – remember it was the Chinese ping-pong diplomacy or table tennis diplomacy, you know. Well, this is this sort of blogging diplomacy, I guess you could say.

We are – we’re actually – and I think that one of the earlier questions was related to this – we are actually engaging with an official. Now, we’re not doing it in an official way. I want to emphasize that. We are doing it because it provides a window into the public or a way to reach the Iranian public. But I don’t think that these two things are incompatible; that is to say, our policy regarding official diplomacy and our policy regarding public diplomacy. I mean, we are – you know, as you know, we’re now broadcasting seven hours a day into – with VOA Persia -- and I say we, Broadcasting Board of Governors. That’s separate from the State Department. But they are broadcasting seven hours a day into Iran right now.

Behruz Nikzat of VOA’s Persian News Network, also took part and asked about the State Department’s recent launch of Parsloop (www.parsloop.com) as a forum for Iranians around the world to exchange opinions and experiences. “How do you intend to promote this website among the Persian-speaking people and what are your expectations of it? How would you persuade Iranians that the U.S. State Department does not exercise any control over its content?”

UNDER SECRETARY GLASSMAN: Actually, I’m glad you asked this question because this is another example of the kind of thing that we’re doing. Your question about how we’re promoting it, I actually don’t know the answer to that. This is – Parsloop is a project of International Information Programs Bureau and it was started before I got here. I think it’s a superb project and I think it is exactly the kind of thing that we are – that we want to do more of. But the specifics of how we’re promoting it, I don’t know. Glen can get back to you on that.

But let me just say this. America.gov, which is our main website for disseminating information that tells America’s story – let’s put it that way – is – we have that – it’s now in seven languages, including Farsi. But we felt that there was more that was needed and so parsloop.com, which is a .com website, it’s not a .gov website, was launched. It is not, strictly speaking, our website. It’s not a United States Government website. But it’s a website that we support and encourage and participate in, and it is a social networking site.

So we feel that when – that if we can be a facilitator of a large conversation such as the conversation that will take place and already is on parsloop.com, that our values and ultimately the kinds of policies that we believe in will benefit. And so that – so we are really focusing on a lot of other projects that have to do with social networking. And let me just say that the war of ideas aspect of this is that our opponents in the war of ideas can’t stand this kind of thing. They use the internet for a completely different purpose. They are broadcasting, exhorting, teaching people how to make bombs, banging them over the head with their ideology, and they don’t want feedback that may be negative. We, on the other hand, are encouraging this kind of conversation with the confidence that people will arrive at the kinds of answers that make the world a better place.

17 September 2008

It’s A Contest

OK. It’s official. The question we put to you in the last posting, identify the graphic or whatever you want to call it, is now a contest.

The first person (outside the U.S.) who can crack the code and send us an email with the answer we are seeking will receive a VOA T-shirt! How about that!

So make haste. We will close the contest on Sept. 30th. So get to work, loyal NewsBlogAudience.

15 September 2008

Journalism and New Tech Trends

Several of us from VOA attended the annual convention of the Online News Association right here in Washington last Friday and Saturday. What impressed us most of all were the statements by several speakers that “the journalism should always comes first” as news organizations worldwide struggle to cope with the ever-growing number of technological applications available to them.

One of the more impressive presentations was called “10 Tech Trends You've Never Heard Of” by Amy Webb, who is a former journalist and now a media consultant.

We won’t go into any detail on her presentation, a summary of which can be found online.

But one of the emerging tech trends with possible journalistic application involves this:
Can anyone out there tell me what this means/says/is? We hope to hear from you soon.

11 September 2008

Annoying the Media as a Campaign Tactic: Please NO Lipstick!

One of the souvenirs we kept from the 1992 U.S. Presidential election campaign is a bright red baseball hat with the inscription: “Annoy the Media: Re-Elect Bush.”

It was handed out to the pro-Republican audience at a rally in the state of Wisconsin for then President George H.W. Bush (who lost out in his re-election bid to Bill Clinton). The reporters traveling with Mr. Bush were amused and scrambled to get hats themselves. But the underlying theme --- media bashing --- captivated the audience then and it is what has captured our attention now.

During the just-concluded Republican National Convention, top party figures repeatedly attacked news organizations – mainly over their reports on the surprise selection of little known Alaska Governor Sarah Palin to be the Vice Presidential running mate to Republican Presidential contender John McCain. Much of the reporting focused on her family, including the revelation that her unmarried 17-year-old daughter was pregnant.

Governor Palin herself joined the fray in a wildly-applauded convention address:

“I've learned quickly, these past few days, that if you're not a member in good standing of the Washington elite, then some in the media consider a candidate unqualified for that reason alone. But here's a little news flash for all those reporters and commentators: I'm not going to Washington to seek their good opinion - I'm going to Washington to serve the people of this country.”

Attacking the media is an old sport in U.S. politics.

Before Palin and before George H.W. Bush, there was the case of Spiro Agnew, who was Vice President under Richard Nixon. He became famous for his attacks on the Nixon administration’s political opponents and critics, including news organizations, using such descriptions as “nattering nabobs of negativism”, “pusillanimous pussyfooters” and “hopeless, hysterical hypochondriacs of history.” Before him, in 1964, former President Dwight Eisenhower denounced “sensation-seeking columnists and commentators.”

Back to Governor Palin. Howard Kurtz, media critic of the Washington Post, says she was, in his opinion, “mauled, minimized and manhandled by an openly skeptical media establishment.”

But then Kurtz says, the McCain team responded by declaring war on the press. He says: “Press-bashing plays well among Republicans.” He says it has also stirred sympathy among the broader public.

Indeed, a survey by Rasmussen Reports last week found over half of American voters (51%) thought reporters were trying to hurt Sarah Palin with their news coverage, and 24% said those stories made them more likely to vote for Republican presidential candidate McCain in November.

Will that apparent sympathy approval last until the November election? It is too soon to say. But the opinion polls released after the Republican convention show the Republican team of McCain and Palin have gained ground on their Democratic rivals, Senator Barack Obama and Senator Joe Biden.

As for the impact on the media? Well, one might ask whether some news outfits are trying to make up for any perceived anti-Palin bias by now showing toughness against her opponents. And by doing so, one might ask if they have fallen victim to a carefully orchestrated put-the-media-on-the-defense campaign?

Consider the “lipstick-on-a-pig” incident. We won’t go into the sordid details but recommend you read VOA National Correspondent Jim Malone’s story and the item “Notes From The Pig Sty In which we all get dirty” by Megan Garber on the web site of the Columbia Journalism Review.

We’ll note only one reference came up on VOANews.com when we searched for stories with the keyword “lipstick.” (And that is fine by us.) But CJR reports its count on U.S. cable news TV networks broke down this way: CNN 28, MSNBC 35 and Fox News 48. And that was just within the first 12 hours after Obama’s comment.

10 September 2008

Internet Freedom Facing New Threats

“There is no freedom without freedom of information. There is no freedom of information without Internet freedom.”

That saying comes from the website of the Global Internet Freedom Consortium, whose ambition is one we can only praise: helping those living in closed societies take down the Internet firewalls that separate them from the rest of the world.

The group was among those represented at VOA headquarters here in Washington DC today at a workshop organized by the Broadcasting Board of Governors on “New Media vs. New Censorship: The Authoritarian Assault on Information.”

China’s government is perhaps the best known and certainly the largest of the Internet censors. Its efforts to control access to the web are well known and received considerable publicity during the recent Olympics.

But the workshop heard that China is now exporting its censorship technology to countries like Iran and Cuba, two other governments who, along with Burma, are responsible for what the Consortium terms “the Dark Ages in cyberspace.”

There is more to fear, though. Today’s meeting also heard that China is working on a new kind of filter that will enable censors to do more sophisticated work than simply block a single page or site. The new filter will target specific content on the Internet. For example, any material that might describe the late Chinese leader Mao Zedong in positive terms would remain open to readers in China. But any derogatory information about Mao would lead to that particular page or site being blocked.

It’s tough work, trying to stay ahead of the Internet censors. But VOA will keep working with its partners to thwart those who would suppress or manipulate information online.

02 September 2008

The Private Lives of the Candidates and Their Families

Are political figures in the United States entitled to any privacy? Do news organizations overstep the bounds of propriety when they expose what might be considered a politician’s private family matters? Do such matters have any public relevance?

These questions come to mind in light of the case of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin who was unexpectedly picked to be the Republican Party’s Vice-Presidential candidate in the coming national elections.

In the face of growing media interest, Palin and her husband, Todd, revealed in a statement that their 17-year-old daughter Bristol is about five months pregnant and will keep the child. The Palins said that Bristol plans to marry the child's father.

Is this news worthy of presenting to the American public --- and for that matter to international audiences? Most major American news organizations think so and so does VOA.

Here’s why. VOA has an obligation to explain not just what is in the news, but also why certain information is considered newsworthy. Sometimes that means explaining why a particular story or development is news in the United States --- even when the topic might be considered off-limits or simply not newsworthy in other countries and cultures.

One of VOA’s stories on the Republican National Convention said the revelation about Gov. Palin’s daughter overshadowed the proceedings.

Unfortunately it did not explain why or how.

But another hinted at the relevance by noting teen pregnancy appeared at odds with the Alaska Governor’s views on sex before marriage:

“…Palin…has been lauded by fellow social conservatives for…her support of abstinence-until-marriage sex education.”

The same item also addressed the question of whether Governor Palin might have concealed this information from Republican Presidential contender John McCain, another relevant question considering how little is known outside Alaska about her.

“Senior officials from the campaign of Republican Presidential Candidate John McCain say he and his top aides were aware of Bristol's pregnancy before selecting Palin as his running mate.”

The article also sought to downplay the importance of the disclosure politically by noting the reaction of Democratic Presidential candidate Barack Obama:

"Obama urged reporters to back away from the story. Obama said people's families, and especially their children, are off limits.”

And it noted: “The Palins have asked the media to respect the young couple's privacy.”

Despite this, American news organizations are interested. The New York Times, for example, has several stories today that mention Governor Palin’s pregnant daughter --- three of them on the front page, a clear sign of the importance the publication attaches to the disclosure.

Whether or not it proves to be a political problem for the Republicans and their Vice Presidential candidate remains to be seen. However reporters have a responsibility to assess the potential political impact by asking analysts and voters for their views. VOA should be presenting such evaluations to audiences --- so they can fully understand the multiple phenomena that might be at play in the minds of Americans before they head to the ballot boxes.

We could also provide a report explaining how the question of politician privacy has evolved over time --- from the period when reporters might conceal a political figure’s health problems to a time when they would expose a candidate’s infidelity or reveal a politician’s daughter is gay.

There is in addition a broader social issue that is worth addressing and that is the rate of teen pregnancy in the United States and how it compares to other countries. One VOA item mentions the situation in the U.S. but fails to present comparative foreign figures:

“A U.S. organization on teen pregnancy, The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, said in a statement Monday that U. S teen birth rates are on the rise for the first time in 15 years and that, at present, 3 in 10 girls in the United States become pregnant by age 20.”

One footnote: in preparing this, because it dealt with politics and morality questions, we looked into the case of John Edwards, a former Senator and unsuccessful contender for the Democratic Party’s Presidential nomination this year. Edwards admitted last month that he had an extra-marital affair in 2006.

The story was originally reported by a U.S. tabloid known for its sensationalism but shunned by mainstream news organizations. Only after the former Senator’s public confession did it receive extensive coverage. Although VOA’s Central Newsroom prepared a report on this, we discovered it was not posted on VOANews.com.

It was an unfortunate oversight. When we inquired, we were told staff shortages were to blame. Sorry.

We’d like to hear from you on the topic of candidates, their families and privacy. How are such matters handled in your country? Write us here at: VOANewsBlog@gmail.com