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VOA: Voice of ambiguity

VOA: Voice of ambiguity
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From 1985 to 2017, I was an audience research analyst at the Voice of America. During that time I was preoccupied by the fact that the BBC World Service had a larger audience than VOA. VOA had a larger budget, so money was not the issue

In audience surveys, I inserted a question asking those who listened to BBC more often than VOA: “why?” The answer provided most often was trustworthiness of the news. 

I asked a listener from Burma (now known as Myanmar) why he thought BBC is considered more trustworthy than VOA. He replied that VOA is more closely connected to the U.S. government than BBC is to the U.K. government. I asked how he knows this. He responded that it’s because VOA says so every day.

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He was referring to the “disclaimer” at the beginning of the editorials that, by the 1980s, were heard daily on VOA’s English broadcasts: “Next, an editorial reflecting the views of the United States government.”

The daily editorial was a requirement handed down by VOA’s parent U.S. Information Agency. The editorials are drafted by the VOA’s policy staff, sent to the State Department for approval and finally broadcast after a sometimes lengthy back and forth. 

Michael Pack, the new CEO of the U.S. Agency for Global Media, VOA’s present parent agency, is restoring the editorials to their previous prominence on VOA. In recent years, with diminished radio output, editorials were relegated to VOA’s little-viewed satellite television service and to a website separate from the main voanews.com. The revival of the editorials is a step in the repoliticization of VOA.

VOA is required to broadcast editorials. On BBC World Service, government editorials are not broadcast. This stark difference cannot possibly go unnoticed by audiences. This is important because audiences seek international broadcasts to provide a credible antidote to the biased news coverage of their state-controlled domestic media. Credibility is the be-all and end-all of international broadcasting. 

The editorial requirement is based on the part of the VOA Charter that states “VOA will present the policies of the United States clearly and effectively, and will also present responsible discussions and opinion on these policies.” Actually, the policies of the United States would be most effectively presented by way of news, which is what audiences are seeking, rather than government propaganda, which is what audiences are trying to escape. VOA News covers U.S. foreign policy extensively.

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A video accompanying the USAGM’s announcement of the editorials’ re-ascendancy notes that the New York Times, Washington Post, Sydney Morning Herald, etc., publish editorials, so why not VOA? The answer is that those newspapers are not funded by governments. VOA’s government funding is necessary because there is little commercial potential for broadcasting in languages such as Kinyarwanda, Uyghur and Creole. But government-funded news media, for the sake of their credibility, must fastidiously demonstrate their independence from government control. The requirement of government editorials cannot be helpful.

The uneasy combination of news and editorials might have been justified in the Cold War era, when limited shortwave facilities were the only means to transmit information throughout the world. Now, in the internet age, it would not be unduly expensive for the editorials to have their own global online distribution, separate from VOA’s news operation.

In fact, the editorials now distributed by VOA could join the State Department’s share.america.gov, already active in 11 languages. This could be ramped up to the 61 languages on VOA and its USAGM partners (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia, etc). Languages such as German, Japanese, Italian and Hindi, not broadcast by VOA, could be added. This enhanced public diplomacy outlet can compete in cyberspace with the same marketing tools used by VOA.

With this reform, both the U.S. government’s news and policy advocacy efforts would be on firmer footing. Each would have its own, unambiguous presence. VOA would no longer be the duckbill platypus of international media. Audiences would no longer have any doubts about whether they are consuming independent news or “the views of the United States Government.”

Kim Andrew Elliott is a retired Voice of America audience research analyst and media journalist.