PART TWO: Voice of America Journalistic Standards – Struggles to Detect Violations, Enforce Guidelines
Voice of America journalistic standards editor is seen as a paper tiger under the current leadership of the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM).
USAGM Watch Commentary
All of this goes to a larger issue hiding in plain sight, namely the ineffectiveness of mechanisms within the Voice of America and USAGM for enforcing standards. In short Steve Springer, Voice of America News Standards and Best Practices Editor, is seen by many as a paper tiger.
In one recent online session, Springer stressed that he is not a “social media cop” and lacks the time to police thousands of social media accounts, which he said would not be “rational” [realistic].
So, presumably the main way the chief enforcer of VOA standards finds out about violations is if someone inside or outside the agency notices them first, in which case he may be, sooner or later, notified and then launches an investigation. Since biased social media posts and reports, which violate the requirements of the VOA Charter, are rarely removed, it shows that the ultimate problem is the failure of Voice of America and U.S. Agency for Global Media senior managers to do an even basic monitoring of VOA output for violations of journalistic standards.
In its response, VOA’s PR office confirmed that it waits to be made aware of questionable posts. Again, on any given day, across hundreds if not thousands of social media channels of agency reporters, violations could be occurring, but the “cop” in charge may be clueless.
Earlier in 2021, Springer sent out an email noting that while there had been a change in administration all staff needed to “remember that we still have to follow our published social media guidelines” adding: “Remember that on social media and other public spaces, you are a journalist. It is critical that you are fair, impartial and objective at all times.”
“This not only includes individual remarks in social media, but also posting your political affiliation or causes in your social media profile. Privacy policies change and people can take screenshots. Assume nothing is private in social media, even if your account is visible only to your online circle of friends. Assume nothing is private in social media.”
Note that this was just 24 hours after the Voice of America management was alerted by an outside source to Facebook posts by one of VOA’s key Central English Newsroom correspondents that, to many observers – both those who are pro-Biden administration and those who oppose it – had the appearance of blatant pandering to President Joe Biden.
It’s instructive to look at social media guidelines of The New York Times quoted here in a story about a Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reporter who resigned after posting an open letter to President Biden on Facebook and refusing a request from her bosses to remove it:
In social media posts, our journalists must not express partisan opinions, promote political views, endorse candidates, make offensive comments or do anything else that undercuts The Times’s journalistic reputation. Our journalists should be especially mindful of appearing to take sides on issues that The Times is seeking to cover objectively.
We consider all social media activity by our journalists to come under this policy. While you may think that your Facebook page, Twitter feed, Instagram, Snapchat or other social media accounts are private zones, separate from your role at The Times, in fact everything we post or “like” online is to some degree public. And everything we do in public is likely to be associated with The Times.
NO PUBLICIZED INSTANCES OF MAXIMUM PENALTIES FOR VOICE OF AMERICA JOURNALISTIC STANDARDS VIOLATIONS
VOA’s News Standards and Best Practices guidelines contain some serious warnings of severe penalties up to and including dismissal, for violations. But in the words of a source:
“These messages have been sent multiple times…[but] made zero difference. . . while VOA staff continued to repeatedly violate journalistic guidelines, especially on their social media feeds.”
One or two Voice of America employees, but certainly not dozens who have been seen posting highly partisan and sometimes abusive comments on social media, may have faced administrative disciplinary action for violations. But guess what? VOA isn’t saying.
We asked VOA if anyone has ever been disciplined, or counseled, for misusing social media. VOA Public Relations said only that “VOA does not comment on specific personnel matters.”
Which leaves it up to citizen journalists to continue holding VOA and the U.S. Agency for Global Media to account for such violations, using FOIA requests. But even these are often insufficient as long as an agency known for labeling such requests as “over-broad” leans on “personnel matters” as an excuse to avoid disclosure.
VOA attempts to conceal the identity of those involved, and above all to protect senior VOA and USAGM executives and managers from accepting responsibility for their failure to show leadership and effectively enforce journalistic standards to prevent repeated violations.
This was VOA’s response when we asked if any member of its reporting staff [has] ever been counseled for blocking access to his or her Twitter channel to members of the public who have been critical of the employee’s posts [or had to] apologize for, and delete, a social media post or posts because of inaccurate information they contained:
“While we cannot provide any details on specific cases, on rare occasions we have been made aware of other incidents involving VOA staff members who engaged in social media practices that did not adhere to the agency’s social media policy. In each case the Best Practices editor and agency leadership followed up with the individual, taking appropriate actions and requiring action by the involved staff members, in keeping with the VOA Best Practices Guide.“
VOA has a poor memory. In 2017, our commentary showed an attempt by a U.S. federal government employee to block access of certain journalists to his VOA work-related tweets. Clearly, management had been clueless about what amounts to an attempt by a federal worker to make it more difficult for independent free media to cover VOA issues:
“VOA was not aware that anyone had been blocked from any personal social media accounts. After you brought the issue to VOA management’s attention, it was discussed with the reporter who has since lifted the blocks from his account.”