By Dan Robinson
The Voice of America on Thursday took down and later reposted an edited version of video that had prematurely described the wife of presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden as “the future first lady.”
The description of Jill Biden had remained online on the website of VOA’s French service for Africa since July 29th even while managers were warning employees of the need to exercise caution in how broadcast material was handled during the U.S. political campaign.
The action to remove the video followed a BBG-USAGM Watch report, which noted that viewers overseas and in the United States of VOA’s French programs brought it to the attention of journalists.
The video appeared in a program on July 29th, part of a translation of a report that originated in VOA’s central newsroom, where writers produce material that is sent throughout VOA for translation by numerous language services for their broadcasts and websites.
It’s unclear whether the inaccurate reference to Jill Biden was a mistake or deliberate. A copy of the original script obtained from VOA’s central newsroom did not contain the description of Biden’s wife as “future first lady”.
Three days after the program first aired, an email from the head of VOA’s French to Africa service reminded staff to “be very careful [e]specially when covering elections in the USA or elsewhere. Our charter and journalistic code don’t allow us to take sides…”
That caution came after the new CEO of the U.S. Agency for Global Media, VOA’s parent agency, launched an investigation into a video aired on VOA’s Urdu language service that contained pro-Biden content and which could have been seen as election interference.
The VOA Urdu incident has resulted in the suspension of four contractdors while the head of that service was placed on leave.
In most situations involving live or recorded content, inaccuracies such as that seen in the French program would have been corrected immediately during a broadcast or afterwards with a note to viewers about the original error. But this one remained online on VOA’s French language website for more than two weeks.
As the inaccurate introduction to the Jill Biden profile remained online, viewers outside the agency raised questions and knowledge of the issue spread within VOA.
Sources reported that a meeting took place involving Africa division managers in which one official cautioned participants to ensure that employees “ . . .translate Central News pieces word for word, especially when it comes to US politics.”
Before Thursday, a senior USAGM official told BBG-USAGM Watch top agency managers had not been made aware of the problem.
In the absence of further clarifications, this suggested that lower-ranking officials viewed the error as something that didn’t rise to the same level of seriousness as the separate incident involving VOA’s Urdu service.
In one email to employees, acting VOA director Elez Biberaj said “Any breach of our journalistic standards has a lasting adverse impact and it endangers the entire VOA and its mission.”
It’s not known at press time whether Biberaj was aware of the incident in VOA’s French service or if he was, whether he asked why the inaccuracy in describing Jill Biden was allowed to remain up and visible to VOA global audiences for more than two weeks.
Some longtime observers of VOA say language broadcast services have often been over-worked and under-resourced, creating situations where errors more likely.
This still did not explain why the inaccuracy was allowed to remain uncorrected since the end of July.
“The place is a media organization after all, though also a federal agency,” one observer noted. “These are the kind of mistakes that can come back to damage not only VOA, but the agency as a whole.”