Voice of America English service failed to send staff reporters to Turkey to cover protests

BBG Watch Commentary

Russia Today reporter on Taksim Square in Istanbul

Russia Today reporter on Taksim Square in Istanbul. Voice of America English service did not send a staff correspondent to Turkey.

A survey prepared by the Voice of America management showed that much of VOA English news coverage of the ongoing anti-government protests in Turkey consisted of short, usually under-one-minute long, re-written and condensed wire service reports. The station’s management failed to send any VOA English staff reporters to Turkey and the VOA English website did not provide in-depth coverage of the protests. The management claims, however, that it did an excellent job. Voice of America Director David Ensor has been assuring his superiors that his top managers have arranged for “responsible” and “balanced” coverage.

But even after weeks of escalating demonstrations and the Turkish government’s violent response to them, with most of international media attention by then focused largely on Turkey as well as fighting in neighboring Syria, VOA has not enhanced its English-language coverage of the Turkish protests with on the ground staff presence. A VOA English stringer in Istanbul was not asked to file reports during the initial weeks of the anti-government protests.

In contrast to VOA English, Al Jazeera, Russia Today and other international broadcasters provided daily on the scene reports by their own correspondents for their satellite television news channels, affiliates, websites, YouTube and other social media. Despite the management’s claim of leading a digital transformation, VOA English generated almost no original multimedia content from Turkey in photos, videos or audio interviews.

The reasons behind Voice of America management’s decision not to send an staff correspondent or a staff video journalist to cover the protests in Turkey for their English language radio and TV broadcasts and VOA English news website are not clear at this point. Mismanagement within the agency and poor judgment by top executives appear to be a most likely explanation. There is also a valid argument that Voice of America does not have enough money in its budget to spend on such international news coverage. But it is also true that VOA and IBB executives spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on their domestic and international travels. They also spend millions of taxpayers’ dollars on contractors to provide new technologies to deliver news content to the audience with no money left to produce it.

On a few occasions, long after the protests in Turkey attracted worldwide attention, VOA English website had posted reports by a local stringer who also works for other news organizations. For most of the time, however, the website relied on shortened wire service stories, sometimes adding video footage from Reuters.

A search of the VOA website shows that in May, there were almost no English reports from the stringer in Istanbul on the protests. A May 14 report on Erdogan’s upcoming trip to Washington and a meeting with President Obama made no mention of opposition protests in Turkey. Even a report filed May 29 on critics blaming ‘Islamic Agenda’ for sweeping alcohol restrictions in Turkey made no mention of anti-government demonstrations spreading from the Gezi Park in Istanbul to other cities. At one point, VOA English was covering demonstrations in Istanbul in Turkey from London. The Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), the federal board and agency which oversees VOA, has received complaints about inadequacy of VOA’s coverage of the Turkish protests.

The list of recent English language news reports on Turkey provided by the VOA management in response to these complaints may look at first impressive because of its length — but the list covers several weeks and a closer look shows that most of it consists of very short, sometimes repetitious news items. These news items have far fewer details than an average wire service report.

A question arises why would anyone want to go to VOA for a summary of wire service reports when they can get a full story somewhere else? The VOA English website also failed to provide substantive coverage of solidarity protests by Turkish Americans and others in the United States.

BBG Watch could not determine why VOA’s top managers decided not to send a reporter or even several staffers to Turkey to cover such a major news story. There is no direct evidence that the decision was driven by a desire not to embarrass Prime Minister Erdogan or avoid causing damage to official U.S.-Turkish relations because of Turkey’s status as a close U.S. ally. But sources tell BBG Watch that some top VOA officials were pointing out to their associates that Prime Minister Erdogan was democratically elected and enjoys substantial electoral support in Turkey. VOA officials were also quoted as saying that the news coverage they initiated was balanced and responsible. They did not explain their decision not to dispatch a reporter to Istanbul.

Whatever the reasons were, it appears that not sending a corespondent to Turkey to provide full on the ground coverage of a major news story was a result of a management failure at the top levels of the Voice of America, as well as within the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB), which is charged with providing resources to broadcasters but instead has been eliminating broadcasting jobs and expanding its own bureaucracy in recent years. Without sufficient resources and ability to talk directly to sources, there was little chance that VOA’s English coverage could be adequate and balanced.

VOA English Service came under criticism not only from media experts, but also in some of the few comments left by readers on the VOA website. The list of short reports and short news items compiled by the management showed that Voice of America English coverage leaned toward reporting statements from Turkish government officials. While apparently not intentional in this case, such bias toward using officials statements usually happens when a news organization lacks on the ground presence, as in this case for VOA. VOA journalists tried to balance these official statements with news about the protesters, but the overall impression was that Erdogan received more coverage than the opposition.

This small group of protesters in Canakkale, Turkey, under the Trojan Horse used in the movie "Troy," a gift to the Turkish city from actor Brad Pitt, had asked a group of American tourists to share their protest with American media. Attempts to get the Voice of America English Service to post the photo were unsuccessful. An executive from the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) explained how the process works. ’If 10 people take a picture of the same event, the news editors in Washington figure something’s going on and prepare a report.'

A veteran international journalist explained to BBG Watch that in this kind of situation where there are diverse groups of protesters without any central leadership or easy central access to the media, there is an automatic bias in favor of the official sources if a news organization does not have on the ground reporters.

“Erdogan has no problem communicating with the media and getting his point across. Voice of America had a journalistic professional duty to reach out to the protesters because they could not reach out to VOA. Its English Service failed to do so,” a veteran journalist and a media expert said.

Coward Media

Coward Media sign on Taksim Square in Istanbul.

Turkish protesters have accused their own local media of practicing self-censorship. Signs “Coward Media” were spray painted on buildings near Taksim Square in Istanbul. Protesters were especially angry with the Turkish state TV, but also with local Turkish partners of MSNBC and CNN.

Voice of America English Service had an opportunity to step in by providing extensive, on the scene coverage, if not for radio and television, then at least for its website, YouTube and social media. It failed to do so.

The failure was clearly not the fault of rank and file VOA journalists who were asked to condense wire reports into 40-seconds news items, but the fault of VOA and IBB managers who wrongly assessed the situation, made wrong news coverage decisions and failed to provide resources. VOA journalists were put in a difficult situation of reporting on Turkey without direct access to protesters and local experts.

Most employees are convinced that IBB and VOA executives are pushing to turn Voice of America into a global news agency, run by a central IBB bureaucracy, while at the same time destroying VOA’s news gathering capabilities. IBB bureacrats are also trying to bring other U.S.-funded international broadcasters, such as Radio Free Asia (RFA) and Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), under their control. These broadcasters specialize in coverage of various countries without free media, but Turkey is not one of them. They generally do an excellent job, but their independence and ability to provide specialized news coverage are also being threatened.

For now, International Broadcasting Bureau executives are focusing on the Voice of America. IBB’s latest budget proposal calls for eliminating numerous positions in the VOA Central Newsroom. IBB managers have also been trying for years to shut down various VOA language services, including the Turkish Service. Their FY 2013 proposal called for eliminating four journalistic positions in the Turkish Service, but this management initiative was not approved in Congress and the positions were kept for the time being.

VOA Turkish Service website

VOA Turkish Service website.

While the VOA Turkish Service was forced to work with very limited resources, it managed to save Voice of America’s reputation in Turkey with its far more comprehensive reporting on the protests.

VOA Turkish delivers its programming through a TV affiliation, Internet and social media. The TV affiliate is TGRT Haber, one of the five major news networks in Turkey.  Recently, the network went on cable, increasing its nationwide viewership.

VOA Turkish provides the TV affiliate with daily news bulletins through webcam, a live 15-minute news show (four days a week), and a weekly 30-minute feature and culture magazine. Special reporting is also done frequently as events in Washington warrant.

The Service also acts as a “Washington bureau” to other TV networks in Turkey whenever they request coverage of major developments in the United States. The other component of VOA Turkish programming includes web and mobile sites, a Facebook fan club, Twitter and YouTube accounts, five blogs and a daily newsletter emailed to hundreds of subscribers.  Turkish domestic media often reprint VOA Turkish major stories.

But VOA’s position worldwide as an international broadcaster does not look good compared to such outlets as Al Jazeera or Russia Today. Unlike these two, VOA does not have a 24/7 English TV news satellite news channel, while its radio broadcasting capability has been practically destroyed by IBB’s top officials and strategic planners.

IBB now consumes the largest portion of BBG’s budget (35%) without producing any programs. It feeds on the destruction of language services and journalistic positions, including those in VOA English services. IBB executives are rated in the official Office of Personnel Management (OPM) Federal Employee Viewpoint Surveys as being some of the worst in the federal government. The same surveys also blame them for the agency’s dismal employee morale.

While many VOA language services are doing a heroic job, the overall future of U.S. international broadcasting does not look good at the moment. Having nearly destroyed VOA English news and broadcasts, IBB executives may turn next to finishing their destruction of the VOA Turkish Service and other language services. Many of these language services are already gone. Members of the Broadcasting Board of Governors need to act quickly to put a stop to this kind of mismanagement.

On June 13, the International Broadcasting Bureau sponsored an exhibition on Capitol Hill, calling it “Innovating at the Speed of News” to show off “paper USBs, translation tools, and mobile crisis intervention projects.” “Today we are reaching and engaging audiences like never before,” said Director of International Broadcasting Bureau Dick Lobo. “And it’s thanks to the hard work and creativity of the great minds in this room.” According to IBB, its “digital innovation expo on June 13 was a huge success! A capacity crowd learned all about the innovative tools and strategies that the BBG and its broadcasters use to get reliable news and information to people who live in press-restrictive countries.” But if Voice of America cannot send a reporter to cover a major news event and cannot produce adequate and balanced news content, technology will not fill the void.

Everyday, more and more resources are being diverted from journalists and content production to pay for bureaucrats, consultants, and outside vendors working for IBB. Every year, IBB executives propose to reduce or eliminate more and more language services and programming positions. Not sending reporters to Turkey at such a historic moment for that country, the region and even the world is a final warning that something is terribly wrong within the top ranks of VOA and IBB management.

List of Recent Voice of America English News Reports on Turkey

Turkey Warns It May Use Army to Quell Protests
http://www.voanews.com/content/turkey-warns-it-may-use-army-to-quell-protests/1683170.html

Turkish Protesters March Ahead of Planned Strike
http://www.voanews.com/content/protesters-march-in-turkey-ahead-of-planned-strike/1683036.html

Erdogan Says It Was His ‘Duty’ to Evict Protesters
http://www.voanews.com/content/protesters-gather-at-istanbul-bridge-as-erdogan-supporters-plan-for-rally/1682704.html

Turkey Cracks Down on Istanbul Protesters – CN Feed 
http://www.voanews.com/content/turkey-cracks-down-on-istanbul-protesters/1682757.html

Turkish Riot Police Storm Istanbul Park in Bid to End Protests - Reuters
http://www.voanews.com/content/turkish-riot-police-storm-istanbul-park-protests/1682644.html

Turkish Riot Police Move to Quash Protests – CN Feed
http://www.voanews.com/content/turkish-riot-police-move-to-quash-protests/1682649.html

Turkish Protesters Vow to Continue Park Sit-In
http://www.voanews.com/content/turkish-protesters-vow-to-continue-park-sitin/1682359.html

Turkish Protesters Vow to Continue Park Sit-In – CN Feed
http://www.voanews.com/content/turkish-protesters-vow-to-continue-park-sitin/1682437.html

Dozens Detained in Turkey Despite Negotiations  – CN Feed
http://www.voanews.com/content/dozens-detained-in-turkey-despite-negotiations/1682314.html

Turkish PM Agrees to Postpone Park Redevelopment
http://www.voanews.com/content/final-warning-looms-over-turkish-protesters/1681617.html

Turkish PM Appeals to Protesters to Evacuate Park – CN Feed
http://www.voanews.com/content/turkish-pm-appeals-to-protesters-to-evacuate-park/1681954.html

Protesters say Turkish PM Pledges to Hold Off on Park Project  – CN Feed
http://www.voanews.com/content/protesters-say-turkish-pm-pledges-to-hold-off-on-park-project/1681638.html

Erdogan to Meet With Second Group of Protesters  – CN Feed
http://www.voanews.com/content/erdogan-to-meet-with-second-group-of-protesters/1681385.html

Turkish PM Issues Final Warning to Protesters
http://www.voanews.com/content/turkish-pm-warns-protesters-to-leave-park/1680839.html

Officials: Turkey Protests Will Not Affect 2020 Olympic Bid - Reuters
http://www.voanews.com/content/officials-turkey-protests-do-not-affect-olympic-bid/1680681.html

Erdogan: From ‘Rock Star’ to Mixed Reviews From Arabs - Reuters
http://www.voanews.com/content/erdogan-from-rock-star-to-mixed-reviews-from-arabs/1680671.html

Turkey Offers Possible Referendum on Public Park
http://www.voanews.com/content/turkey-offers-possible-referendum-on-public-park/1680586.html

Turkey Protests Symptomatic of Deeper Problems
http://www.voanews.com/content/turkey-protests-symptomatic-of-deeper-problems/1680527.html

Lawyers Protest Government Crackdown in Turkey
http://www.voanews.com/content/lawyers-protest-government-crackdown-in-turkey/1680473.html

Turkish Prime Minister Meets Park Protesters
http://www.voanews.com/content/turkish-prime-minister-meets-park-protesters/1680237.html

Turkish Police Clear Taksim Square
http://www.voanews.com/content/turkish-police-clear-taksim-square/1680032.html

Turkish Riot Police, Protesters Clash  – CN Feed
http://www.voanews.com/content/turkish-riot-police-protesters-clash/1680016.html

Turkish Riot Police Overrun Taksim Square
http://www.voanews.com/content/turkish-police-enter-taksim-square/1679261.html

Turkish Riot Police Overrun Taksim Square – CN Feed
http://www.voanews.com/content/turkish-riot-police-overrun-taksim-square/1679372.html

Protesters are Part of Conspiracy Against Government  – CN Feed
http://www.voanews.com/content/protesters-are-part-of-conspiracy-against-government/1679301.html

Turkish Police Enter Taksim Square  – CN Feed
http://www.voanews.com/content/turkish-police-enter-taksim-square/1679255.html

Erdogan Agrees to Meet with Turkish Protesters
http://www.voanews.com/content/erdogan-agrees-to-meet-with-turkish-protesters/1679162.html

Erdogan Agrees to Meet with Turkish Protesters  – CN Feed
http://www.voanews.com/content/erdogan-agrees-to-meet-with-turkish-protesters/1679174.html

Erdogan’s Rule at Center of Turkey’s Mounting Protests
http://www.voanews.com/content/erdogans-rule-at-center-of-turkeys-mounting-protsts/1678946.html

Turkish Troubles Highlight Cultural Divide - Reuters
http://www.voanews.com/content/turkish-troubles-highlight-cultural-divide/1678625.html

Turkish Opposition Calls on PM to End Tensions
http://www.voanews.com/content/turkish-protesters-clash-with-police/1678483.html

Turkish Opposition Calls on Erdogan to End Tension  – CN Feed
http://www.voanews.com/content/turkish-opposition-calls-on-erdogan-to-end-tension/1678610.html

Erdogan ‘Losing Patience’ With Protests
http://www.voanews.com/content/erdogan-defiant-as-protesters-call-for-more-rallies/1678212.html

Erdogan ‘Losing Patience’ With Protests  – CN Feed
http://www.voanews.com/content/erdogan-losing-patience-with-protests/1678421.html

Erdogan Defiant as Protesters Rally – CN Feed
http://www.voanews.com/content/erdogan-defiant-as-protesters-rally/1678316.html

Turkish Demonstrations Enter 10th Day
http://www.voanews.com/content/turkey-protests/1677796.html

Turkey Protesters Clash with Police as Demonstrations Enter 10th Day  – CN Feed
http://www.voanews.com/content/turkey-protesters-clash-with-police-as-demonstrations-enter-10th-day/1678101.html

Thousands Hold Anti-Government Protests in Turkey  – CN Feed
http://www.voanews.com/content/thousands-hold-antigovernment-protests-in-turkey/1677879.html

Turkey’s Erdogan Rejects EU Criticism – CN Feed
http://www.voanews.com/content/turkeys-erdogan-rejects-eu-criticism/1677620.html

Turkish PM Demands End to Protests
http://www.voanews.com/content/turkish-pm-demands-end-to-protests/1676996.html

EU: Turkish Police Should Avoid Excessive Force
http://www.voanews.com/content/eu-turkey-should-avoid-use-of-excessive-police-force/1677342.html

Thousands Welcome Back Turkish PM, Protests Continue  – CN Feed
http://www.voanews.com/content/thousands-welcome-back-turkish-pm-protests-continue/1676937.html

Thousands Welcome Back Turkish PM, Protests Continue  – CN Feed
http://www.voanews.com/content/thousands-welcome-back-turkish-pm-protests-continue/1676916.html

Turkish PM Says Re-Development Plans Will Continue
http://www.voanews.com/content/turkish-pm-says-will-continue-redevelopment-plans/1676396.html

Turkey Unrest May Impact Syria Peace Talks
http://www.voanews.com/content/turkey-unrest-may-impact-syria-peace-talks/1676252.html

Turks Skip Suspected Censorship With Internet Lifelines - Reuters
http://www.voanews.com/content/turks-skip-suspected-censorship-with-internet-lifelines/1676048.html

Protesters Give Turkish Government List of Demands
http://www.voanews.com/content/turkish-unions-join-antigovernment-protests/1675718.html

Protesters Give Turkish Government List of Demands  – CN Feed
http://www.voanews.com/content/protesters-give-turkish-government-list-of-demands/1676046.html

Turkey Seeks to Reassure Investors Over Protests - Reuters
http://www.voanews.com/content/turkey-seeks-to-reassure-investors-over-protests/1675783.html

Police, Protesters Clash as Turkey Protests Continue
http://www.voanews.com/content/police-protesters-clash-as-turkey-protests-continue/1675453.html

Property Investors Wary of Turkey Before Riots
http://www.voanews.com/content/property-investors-wary-of-turkey-before-riots/1675314.html

Turkish Deputy PM Apologizes to Protesters
http://www.voanews.com/content/turkey-protests-reach-5th-day/1674659.html

Turkey’s Deputy PM Apologizes for Police Crackdown  – CN Feed
http://www.voanews.com/content/turkeys-deputy-pm-apologizes-for-police-crackdown/1675297.html

Woman in Red Becomes Leitmotif for Istanbul’s Female Protesters - Reuters
http://www.voanews.com/content/woman-in-red-becomes-leitmotif-for-istanbuls-female-protesters/1675250.html

Turkey Protests Reveal Wider Political Struggle
http://www.voanews.com/content/turkey-protests-reveal-wider-political-struggle/1675034.html

Turkey’s Deputy PM Apologizes for Police Crackdown – CN Feed
http://www.voanews.com/content/turkeys-deputy-pm-apologizes-for-police-crackdown/1674918.html

Turkey’s Deputy PM Apologizes for Police Crackdown  – CN Feed
http://www.voanews.com/content/turkeys-deputy-pm-apologizes-for-police-crackdown/1674780.html

Turkish PM Blames Protests on Extremists
http://www.voanews.com/content/turkish-pm-blames-protests-on-extremists/1673869.html

Turkish PM Blames Protests on Extremists – CN Feed
http://www.voanews.com/content/turkish-pm-blames-protests-on-extremists/1674204.html

Turkish PM Blames Protests on Extremists  – CN Feed
http://www.voanews.com/content/turkish-pm-blames-protests-on-extremists/1674039.html

Turkish Anti-Government Activists Protest for 3rd Day 
http://www.voanews.com/content/turkish-antigovernment-activists-protest-for-3rd-day/1673636.html

Anti-Government Protests Subside in Turkey
http://www.voanews.com/content/anti-government-protests-subside-in-turkey/1673505.html

Turkish Anti-Government Activists Protest for 3rd Day  – CN Feed
http://www.voanews.com/content/turkish-antigovernment-activists-protest-for-3rd-day/1673634.html

Turkish Police Begin Withdrawal After Clashes With Protesters
http://www.voanews.com/content/turkish-protesters-clash-with-police-for-second-day/1673182.html

Turkish Police Tear Gas Anti-Government Protesters - Reuters
http://www.voanews.com/content/turkey-police-demonstration-protests/1672233.html

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