In 2018, Radio and TV Martí broadcast a video raising conspiracy theories about Jewish philanthropist George Soros and calling him a “non-practicing Jew of flexible morals.” Lawmakers and others criticized the network, asking why U.S. taxpayers were funding anti-Semitic broadcasts. Eight staffers were eventually fired, the Miami Herald reported in 2019.
The episode triggered investigations into Radio and TV Martí and four other federally-funded networks. John Lansing, then director of the U.S. Agency for Global Media, or USAGM, also ordered reforms aimed at retraining staff and keeping politics out of journalism.
In December, the State Department’s Inspector General reported that the Office of Cuba Broadcasting, which runs Radio and TV Martí, “had begun to implement some of the reforms recommended by USAGM, but the overall reform strategy and timeline had not been clearly communicated to its staff.”
The Inspector General also found that “OCB did not effectively communicate its applicable journalistic standards to external audiences or to its employees.” See the IG’s report.
The OCB was the only one of four U.S. government-funded network to fail in these areas, the report said. The other four networks are Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia and the Middle East Broadcasting Networks.
The five networks broadcast in 61 languages to more than 100 countries. The OCB has 100 employees and a budget of $20,898,000.
The Inspector General’s report is titled, “Targeted Inspection of the U.S. Agency for Global Media: Journalistic Standards and Principles.”
Excerpts are below:
The Office of Inspector General (OIG) conducted the fieldwork for this targeted inspection from April 30 to June 5, 2020, to assess how the United States Agency for Global Media (USAGM) and its five broadcasting entities complied with the statutory requirements of the U.S. International Broadcasting Act of 1994 that relate to journalistic professionalism, independence, and integrity. OIG focused its review on two core questions:
- Does USAGM and its five networks have in place effective policies and internal controls governing journalistic standards and ethics consistent with the requirements in the 1994 Act, including sufficient policies and procedures to monitor and address real or alleged content inaccuracies, bias, and ethics violations?
- Does USAGM and its five networks have established effective communication, training, and employee workplace practices and policies to ensure awareness of, and compliance with, journalistic standards and ethical principles?
The 1994 Act bars OIG from evaluating the philosophical or political perspectives of broadcasting content. Therefore, OIG did not assess network journalistic content. In addition, due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, OIG used Internet-based communication applications to conduct interviews and observe meetings. With respect to the first question, OIG found USAGM and its five networks developed guidance documents that turned the broad standards and principles of the 1994 Act into detailed, codified journalistic practices and ethical behaviors that could be communicated, trained, monitored, and enforced. All five networks conducted standards-guided reviews of journalistic content at multiple levels, from the basic daily editorial workflow to annual program reviews and spot content checks. Most network content received at least two levels of editorial oversight before being published or broadcast. USAGM’s former Chief Executive Officer (CEO) strengthened USAGM oversight of standards at the networks through more consistent and well-documented processes for annual program reviews of network content quality. However, OIG found that the Voice of America (VOA) only conducted program reviews for approximately half of its language services. OIG found that prior to March 2020, USAGM lacked uniform policies and procedures across the five networks to improve its response to violations of journalistic standards. USAGM’s action to strengthen oversight was prompted by a violation of editorial standards at the Office of Cuba Broadcasting (OCB) in 2018. After commissioning an external review, USAGM pressed reforms on OCB to improve journalistic standards. Those reforms were progressing but needed to be better communicated to the staff. With respect to the second question, OIG found that USAGM and network leadership generally modeled journalistic standards and independence; they communicated the importance of such standards and independence and took their protection seriously. All networks except OCB clearly communicated the standards used to guide their journalistic work both internally and to the public. All networks conducted some training on journalistic standards and ethical conduct, but mostly on an ad hoc basis. The lack of professional development training plans made the initiatives more incident-driven than systematic. This report includes four recommendations to improve USAGM and network adherence to journalistic standards and principles. USAGM concurred with all four recommendations, and OIG considers the recommendations resolved.
USAGM’s overall mission is to inform, engage, and connect people around the world in support of freedom and democracy. Within that broad mission, however, the five broadcast entities have distinct mandates. VOA’s mission is to represent the United States, its people, and its policies, and to be a reliable and authoritative source of news. OCB, RFE/RL, and RFA have a more sharply focused primary mission: to serve as surrogate news sources in their respective regions and provide an example of free press and accurate and timely media reporting in countries where such sources of news are unavailable or limited. MBN serves as a hybrid of the two missions, by presenting accurate and objective news and information about the United States, the Middle East, and North Africa.
Journalistic standards: Internal control policies and processes
OIG reviewed the internal control policies and processes established by USAGM and the five networks to govern and monitor compliance with journalistic standards. Each network had guidance documents keyed to these standards and relied on three primary processes to monitor compliance: (1) daily editorial oversight of content on all media platforms; (2) procedures used to address possible violations of journalistic standards; and (3) annual program review and spot content review mechanisms designed to monitor editorial quality and mitigate or investigate violations of standards. OIG found that these three internal control processes generally were well-functioning at most networks, with the exceptions noted below. OIG also found that USAGM took steps to improve its protocols for responding to real or alleged editorial lapses and had strengthened the annual program review process by establishing uniform baseline standards, as discussed below.
Agency and its Networks Developed Written Journalistic Standards
OIG found that all five USAGM networks developed written guidance that codified the broad standards and principles of the 1994 Act into detailed journalistic practices and ethical behaviors that could be communicated, trained, monitored, and enforced. These standards parallel those promoted by professional journalist organizations, taught at schools of journalism, and practiced by major U.S. media companies. Examples of journalistic tradecraft standards include using identified, authoritative sources and double-sourcing stories for accuracy; avoiding stereotypes and slurs; denying terrorist or extremist groups a platform to promote violence; including opposing voices to provide fairness while avoiding false balance not supported by fact; and clearly delineating commentary and opinion from straight news coverage. Additionally, the five networks developed written ethics standards that prohibited plagiarism and copyright violations; staging or recreating events; giving and accepting payments; and avoiding actual or apparent conflict of interest through outside activities, including political activism. The grant agreements between USAGM and all three non-Federal networks required the grantee networks to adhere to the journalistic standards and principles of the 1994 Act. All five networks had disciplinary policies to address violations of journalistic standards and related ethical conduct.
Agency Lacked Formal Guidance on Response to Lapses in Journalistic Standards at Networks Prior to 2020
Prior to March 2020, USAGM lacked uniform policies and procedures across its five networks on how to respond to violations of journalistic standards. This occurred despite legislation that requires USAGM to notify its Congressional appropriations committees within 15 days of any determination that its broadcast entities violated the standards and principles set forth in the 1994 Act. Although all networks had clear policies for addressing verifiable, one-time inaccuracies of fact when they occurred, none had consistent guidelines governing how a network should manage its initial internal response to an alleged violation, when and how a network should supplement its internal review with outside experts, or when and how networks should notify USAGM.
Following a Major Lapse in Journalistic Standards, Agency Pressed Reforms on the Office of Cuba Broadcasting
Controversial content aired by OCB’s Radio Televisión Martí in 2018 prompted USAGM’s then-CEO to take a more active role in oversight of journalistic standards. OCB aired what USAGM and other observers described as an unfounded and blatantly anti-Semitic video segment. When he learned of the situation (months later, and only after it was picked up as a story by national media), the then-CEO took several steps to improve journalistic standards and workflow practices at OCB and to strengthen USAGM’s network oversight more broadly. Along with a human resources investigation that eventually led to separation proceedings for responsible OCB employees, USAGM commissioned internal and external reviews of OCB’s editorial policies and oversight procedures. The resulting report, issued in May 2019, concluded that the video, radio, and web content of Radio Televisión Martí fell far short of journalistic standards and OCB’s stated mission, noting that “well-established norms of objectivity in journalism are routinely disregarded.” The report also found no consensus among staff about the network’s core mission, with some seeing it as advocacy against the Cuban Government and others as supplying the Cuban people with independent, objective news. Drawing on the report’s conclusions, USAGM recommended the following reforms for OCB:
- Update journalistic standards to reflect industry best practices, reinforced through comprehensive staff training.
Establish clear, documented editorial processes across all platforms and programs.
- Establish annual program reviews to identify and correct any lapses in quality.
- Distinguish between news and commentary in programs and articles to make clear that opinions of commentators do not necessarily reflect the views of the network.
- Hire a Standards Editor to establish best-in-class editorial guidelines.
Reforms for the Office of Cuba Broadcasting Were Not Clearly Communicated to Staff
OIG found that OCB had begun to implement some of the reforms recommended by USAGM, but the overall reform strategy and timeline had not been clearly communicated to its staff. In September 2019, following the resignation of the OCB Director, the Deputy Director took over as acting director. He reinstituted daily editorial meetings and appointed a new Central News Director to reinforce editorial standards. During the inspection, OCB was in the process of filling newly created positions for Standards Editor, Chief Content Officer, and Digital Media Director to provide additional oversight for editorial and journalistic processes. Despite these initiatives, OIG found staff members remained uncertain about the responsibilities of the new positions and how they would fit into the organizational structure. The Government Accountability Office has identified several key steps for successful change management at Federal agencies. These steps include leadership’s responsibility to: establish a coherent mission and integrated strategic goals to guide the transformation; set implementation goals and a timeline to build momentum; and establish a communication strategy to create shared expectations and report progress. Without a clearly communicated reform strategy and timeline that includes annual program reviews (as discussed further below), the full package of mutually reinforcing reforms at OCB is less likely to gain staff buy-in and successful implementation.
Office of Cuba Broadcasting Did Not Effectively Communicate its Journalistic Code Internally or Externally
OIG found that OCB did not effectively communicate its applicable journalistic standards to external audiences or to its employees. OCB was alone among the USAGM networks in not posting a publicly visible statement of journalistic standards on the USAGM website (under “Entities”), nor was there any elaboration of journalistic standards on OCB’s own public internet site at the time of the inspection. OCB also lacked current guidance on journalistic standards for its employees. The most recent English language version of OCB standards was dated 1991, prior to the advent of OCB’s digital programming. The only version in Spanish, the working language of many network employees, was dated 1985. As noted earlier in the discussion of major lapses in journalistic standards at OCB, office staff were uncertain about what journalistic standards applied to OCB content, and previous directors had not prioritized updating the standards and clarifying unresolved questions about the network’s core mission. According to the Standards of Internal Control in the Federal Government, management should internally and externally communicate the necessary information to enable personnel and external parties to help the entity achieve objectives and address risks. Management should use appropriate methods in doing so, taking into consideration factors such as audience and availability. The lack of current and readily accessible standards guidance for employees heightened the risk of employee noncompliance. The absence of public statements about the organization’s journalistic standards also meant that OCB forfeited an opportunity to bolster its credibility and trustworthiness as a news organization and to model and promote journalistic standards to Cuban audiences whose national media lack these attributes.
Recommendation 1: The Office of Cuba Broadcasting, in coordination with the U.S. Agency for Global Media, should prepare and communicate with its staff a comprehensive plan for timely implementation of the editorial oversight reforms, including annual program reviews. (Action: OCB, in coordination with USAGM)
Management Response: The Office of Cuba Broadcasting concurred with this recommendation.
OIG Reply: OIG considers the recommendation resolved. The recommendation can be closed when OIG receives and accepts documentation that the Office of Cuba Broadcasting prepared and communicated with its staff a comprehensive plan for timely implementation of the editorial oversight reforms, including annual program reviews.
Recommendation 2: Voice of America, in coordination with the United States Agency for Global Media, should schedule and conduct a program review of each of its language services at least once per year. (Action: VOA, in coordination with USAGM)
Management Response: Voice of America concurred with this recommendation.
OIG Reply: OIG considers the recommendation resolved. The recommendation can be closed when OIG receives and accepts documentation that Voice of America scheduled and conducted a program review of each of its language services at least once per year.
Recommendation 3: The Office of Cuba Broadcasting should develop an updated version of its journalistic standards and communicate those standards in English and Spanish to its internal workforce and external audiences. (Action: OCB)
Management Response: The Office of Cuba Broadcasting concurred with this recommendation.
OIG Reply: OIG considers the recommendation resolved. The recommendation can be closed when OIG receives and accepts documentation that the Office of Cuba Broadcasting developed an updated version of its journalistic standards and communicated those standards in English and Spanish to its internal workforce and external audiences.
Recommendation 4: The United States Agency for Global Media should direct each network to develop systematic employee training on journalistic standards and related professional development plans. (Action: USAGM)
Management Response: USAGM concurred with this recommendation.
OIG Reply: OIG considers the recommendation resolved. The recommendation can be closed when OIG receives and accepts documentation that USAGM directed each network to develop systematic employee training on journalistic standards and related professional development plans.