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Getting it Right in Russia

Methods of verification that once seemed sufficient, even iron-clad, are now often outmoded.

Every week, about 141 million people around the world, many of them in countries with no access to independent media, get their news from the Voice of America. They count on us to get it right. That is why we must be open with them when we fall short.

On February 2nd, VOA’s Russian Service published an immediate apology for running a story that contained comments it attributed to well-known Russian opposition blogger Alexi Navalny, after he tweeted that the words were not his.

On its website, VOA Russian said, “Although we always stand by our efforts to source and verify information, we must be aware of the shifting landscape on these new frontiers of journalism. Methods of verification that once seemed sufficient, even iron-clad, are now often outmoded. As a result of this incident we will strengthen our editorial standards and enact additional safeguards.”

This kind of open and honest dialogue with our audience, though painful, should underscore that VOA will continue to serve as a consistently reliable and authoritative source of news. In the words of legendary wartime reporter and onetime U.S. Government broadcast official Edward R. Murrow: “To be persuasive we must be believable; to be believable we must be credible, and to be credible we must be truthful.”

The media landscape has changed, and not just in Russia. Last June, a French TV channel ran a telephone interview with a woman identified as Syria’s ambassador to France, Lamia Shakkour. She said she was resigning to protest attacks on civilians by President Bashar al-Assad’s forces. The station said it had called a telephone number on which it had spoken to Shakkour on previous occasions. After the broadcast, Reuters news agency said it had received an email that came via the website of the Syrian embassy in Paris, confirming the resignation. The ambassador later denied giving the interview, saying it was faked.

Just last weekend, Mr. Navalny, the Russian blogger and protest leader, was the subject of what the New York Times headlined as a “Smear in Russia,” one that backfired. The incident began with the publication of a photo of Navalny standing next to an exiled Russian financier who is wanted by police. The use of the doctored photo backfired when the original was produced by the photographer, touching off a series of parodies on the Internet, including a picture of Navalny standing next to a space alien.

Today, the United States faces a political and social landscape around the world that is evolving at breakneck speed. Regimes in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt disintegrated on live television. Information, disinformation, or misinformation, can be spread with the click of a mouse, a tweet, or a Facebook status update. Ferreting out the facts in the digital age is a new kind of challenge, but as Edward R. Murrow also said, “difficulty is the excuse history never accepts.” We may not know how an email sent to a blogger can land on the computer of someone else, who then fires off a response that appears genuine. Or how many doctored photos are out there. What we do know is that these photos or comments can spread like wildfire and it is more important than ever to verify the facts.

While some critics long for the days when shortwave radio broadcasts were pumped behind the Iron Curtain, the fact is, listening habits in Russia have changed and so have the methods we use to gather information. The Internet, blogging and social media tools like Twitter are here to stay.

Some years back, VOA radio and television programs were carried on a number of affiliate stations throughout Russia, but under government pressure almost all those broadcasts were stopped by the end of 2008. Since then we have developed a loyal audience on the Internet and on a wide variety of social media-based platforms. A new program, Podelis, which means ‘share’ in Russian, is a social media-based TV program that allows the audience to choose the topics, and discuss them with VOA hosts. VOA’s Russian audience has expanded rapidly because we engage them and offer a platform for views, including those not heard on state-controlled media.

As a correspondent for ABC News based in Warsaw and Moscow in the eighties and nineties, I saw firsthand the lengths to which the Soviet and Polish Communist authorities would go to try to prevent western journalists from communicating with regime critics. Covering dissident views in authoritarian countries is often extremely difficult work. It can require both journalists and dissidents themselves to accept risk. It is essential work that the Voice of America will never stop doing.

At VOA, we know that Edward R. Murrow was right. We must be truthful, and when there is reason to doubt our reporting, we must say so -- and we will. Our credibility depends on it.

David Ensor