By Ted Lipien
Published January 14, 2014 by Digital Journal
Unlike some Voice of America (VOA) executives in the U.S. who seem to think that cultural differences can be ignored, (everybody wants to be like Americans after all), Radio France Internationale (RFI) reporters generally do an excellent job of explaining France to international audiences.
My congratulations today go to RFI’s Angela Diffley who gave RFI’s English-speaking web visitors short, witty and educational look at France and its latest sort-of political scandal over President Hollande’s apparently busy love life.
“Hollande, Trierweiler love life doesn’t matter say French but do they mean it?,” Angella Diffley, RFI, Jan. 13, 2014.
Not to be outdone, BBC offered “Francois Hollande’s ‘escapades’ – a glossary,” a funny look at French euphemisms for love affairs and other French expressions in connection with this news story. The Brits know how to make even French news culturally relevant.
But RFI’s Angella Diffley explained everything, and did it also without losing a sense of humor, which is a frequent American failing. Diffley wrote about the ambiguous position of Valérie Trierweiler; how this affair also feeds into France’s bubbling and increasingly bitter culture wars; questions about Hollande’s security; Sarkozy supporters being amused; and finally Hollande’s difficult situation and his political future.
All well and good, but as an international media outlet, RFI, which claims 35.6 million weekly worldwide audience from broadcasts and Internet, — not a bad number for a country much smaller than the U.S., with French spoken by far fewer people around the world than English — is also not without its problems. While RFI has good analyses, it appears not to have enough resources to quickly post and update news on its English language website, especially on weekends.
But neither does U.S. taxpayer-funded Voice of America — in 2013, VOA’s claimed weekly worldwide audience is only about 164.6 million. VOA executives seem to think, for example, that the job of explaining America to the world can be left to the British-based news agency Reuters.
I have nothing against Reuters, a fine news organization, but in that case, VOA might do even better re-posting BBC’s news reports and analyses from the U.S., which offer more in-depth explanations of American culture and politics for someone living in Africa or Asia than Reuters or even VOA itself provide these days.
VOA recently used a Reuters news report, instead of posting something original from its own journalists, on the U.S.-India diplomatic dispute over the arrest in New York of an Indian diplomat. The report was in English, as VOA no longer has a Hindi service to India — not even a VOA Hindi news website. The report’s title, as posted on the VOA website, was, “Court Papers Show Abuse of Maid in US-India Row.” It’s not clear who came up with this title, VOA or Reuters.
Marina, an Internet users from the U.S., who may or may not have been a recent immigrant, commented: “This is a misleading headline. It should say, ‘Court Papers Show Allegations of Abuse of Maid in US-India Row.’ Nothing has yet been proven.” Americans may be litigious, but they also strongly believe in “innocent until proven guilty” — a cultural point VOA might have made if it wrote its own news story and paid proper attention to such sensitivities.
A good number of news websites in India picked up this story from the VOA website, probably without realizing that it was not really a Voice of America news report, but a report from Reuters. Yet it was presented in India as a VOA news story. I and some others found it somewhat lacking balance in explaining the American legal system and social and cultural expectations, some of which may be even peculiar to the United States. If anything, the report tends to reinforce negative overseas stereotypes about Americans.
What smaller international broadcasters like RFI and DW (Deutsche Welle) do very well in their national languages, as well as in English, is not so much breaking news reporting, but providing culture-sensitive analysis of both domestic and international news. BBC reporters are also very good at it — probably the best in the world — whether a news story they report on is British-domestic or foreign.
One recent BBC report, “Suicide vest nine-year-old tells her story,” about a young girl who was detained at a checkpoint in southern Afghanistan and reportedly forced by her family to wear a suicide vest, is good example of excellent of international journalism, assuming most of the information in it turns out to be accurate.
BBC is a domestic and international media giant. Germany, France — not even Voice of America — can compete with BBC in general international news reporting. But each international media outlet has its national niche, and international specialization.
Like RFI, Germany’s Deutsche Welle is good in providing a cultural background in its news reports, not only about Germany, but also about countries the Germans may know more about than others.
One of many excellent international news analyses posted recently on the DW website is on Internet censorship in Turkey: “Erdogan pushing Internet censorship forward” by Sarah Steffen.
Where these smaller international media outlets sometimes fail — much larger and better endowed VOA fails regularly in this category — is in prompt reporting and updating world and sometimes even their own domestic news.
RFI was late Sunday in posting on its English website (the RFI French website was more frequently updated) on the latest twists in the Hollande-Trierweiler-Gayet saga, but Angella Diffley’s report in English compensated for it today. One lesson for RFI would be to try to respond faster with such news analysis. The same applies to DW.
When something interesting and newsworthy is happening in Great Britian, France, Germany or in the U.S., 27/7 international online audiences may go first to BBC RFI, DW and VOA to see how these public media outlets interpret these news stories and whether they can offer something faster than anybody else and with better explanations than anybody else — because they are the closest to a developing news story. If you miss the boat, Internet audience will go somewhere else. It may be BBC, but it may also be Al Jazeera, RT, or China’s CCTV.
Internet users should not be disappointed in such cases by late posted news or lack of unique analysis, as they are, mainly by VOA, but sometimes also by DW and RFI when it comes to speed in posting of news in English on their websites.
It is no doubt a resource issue for some of these news organizations still adjusting to 24/7 Internet news cycle. At VOA, it appears to be both management and resource issue. VOA was late yesterday in reporting online to the world, and particularly to Iran, on the White House statement about the start date for restrictions on the Iranian nuclear program. Even though the news originated in Washington and even within the U.S. government, BBC and its excellent Persian Service had it first. Even Iran’s Press TV beat VOA in in how fast it reported on this story.
Being both prompt with reporting news and providing culture-sensitive news analysis are very important for gaining 24/7 online audiences and attracting interest of social media users.
But giving foreign audiences a proper cultural context for a news story is something that BBC executives and journalists know very well how to do. England was after all a major imperial power for centuries, and so was, to a lesser degree, France. Germany was also, but not for as long as the others. They have learned some good and some bitter lessons on how to communicate with other cultures.
These nations now appear to understand something about the essence and the practice of international and inter-cultural communications. Contrary to what may be a common perception, the U.S. was not particularly imperialistic until recently and never particularly outward-looking toward the rest of the world, which may explain American difficulties in having a dialogue with foreign cultures and doing extremely badly for all concerned as amateur imperialists and amateur public diplomacy practitioners.
As an aside comment, during the Cold War, the most successful among international broadcasters targeting Eastern Europe were U.S.-funded Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty, which were staffed by foreign journalists and a lot of British and other European managers, as well as Americans who were well experienced in foreign cultures and international politics. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) is still a formidable surrogate international media outlet funded by U.S. taxpayers.
BBC, DW, RFI, and VOA, which communicate on behalf of their governments and nations, each have a built-in advantage of being able to offer a special perspective on their country’s culture, politics, and foreign policy. At least, that’s the idea.
Contrary to what one senior VOA executive was quoted recently as saying, it is not true that “your audience doesn’t know the difference between an AP story, and a VOA story.” If that were the case, then those reporting for BBC, DW, RFI, and VOA should have thrown their hands up “and ask what the hell are we doing here?,” as one former highly respected VOA editor, who is now deceased, observed.
While VOA often fails these days, both RFI and DW are generally doing a good job for their countries, as does BBC. RFE/RL and other surrogate media outlet, Radio Free Asia (RFA), are also very good at it, for both the U.S., which provides funding, and for the countries without free media, from which these journalists come.
Other U.S. publicly funded media organizations, Alhurra TV and Radio Sawa, have been trying for years to establish names for themselves in the Middle East, but they seem unable to come even close to Al Jazeera for a variety of reasons. They lack sufficient funding and, above all, a clear identity, as either American or surrogate media outlets.
This may come as a surprise to many, but VOA also no longer has an Arabic service. When, by the decision of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) in 2002, VOA had ceased its Arabic programs to make room for Radio Sawa and Alhurra TV, no U.S. publicly funded media outlet has had a specific mission of making America culturally understood in the Arab world. There may not be enough money, but that is truly a shame. Congress should provide extra funding for U.S. international media outreach while making sure that it is properly spent and not wasted.
By the way, Russia’s popular abroad and well-funded RT’s ( formerly called Russia Today) primary purpose does not seem to be explaining Russia to the world and making it better understood. Its mission appears to be more to make the U.S. look bad, although many RT journalists, some of them British, also offer some outstanding balanced reporting. RT can be much faster in posting news stories than some of its international competitors, but it still can’t compete with BBC in this regard.
It’s a mixed record for RT, but at least it is very good in doing what the Kremlin wants it to do.
VOA, on the other hand, may have ceased to be very good at what U.S. taxpayers expect it to do, although some VOA services still do or try to do a good job. It is not easy.
Apparently under pressure from the management looking for new ways to expand audiences with fluff journalism, Voice of America had posted dozens of news reports on the British royal family, while ignoring political news stories out of Washington and the rest of the U.S., as well as some major international news stories. Those VOA news stories on the British royalty got very few Facebook “Likes.” The largely renewed Broadcasting Board of Governors, under its new reform-minded, energetic and journalist-friendly chairman, Jeff Shell, should pay more attention to VOA.
Chacun à son goût in love and sex, but perhaps when it comes to taxpayers’ money, international broadcasters should concentrate on what they know best and let the world know about it. As an alternative to bloody and costly military and humanitarian interventions, it is the best and by far least expensive investment in building peace and understanding between different nations and cultures. It’s also a good way of helping those who want peaceful change toward more justice and freedom.
READ the Digital Journal op-ed in Internet Archive.