The Voice of America (VOA) is an international broadcaster that is funded by the federal government and provides print, TV and radio content in dozens of languages all over the world. Overseen by the U.S. Agency for Global Media, the Voice of America has always been controversial, with many referring to it as propaganda though the VOA itself insists that it has editorial independence.
However, now the VOA has now found itself at the center of another controversy: Plagiarism.
According to a report in the Washington Post, at least two separate incidents of plagiarism at the VOA went unacted upon for many months even as the alleged plagiarists continued to work for the organization. Though the content at issue has been removed now, the VOA stands accused of not taking swift action when plagiarism was reported and even ignoring the issue until other media stepped in.
To understand this story, we first need to look at the scandal itself and then examine what the VOA did wrong and how they (and other institutions) can improve in the future.
One of the things that makes this story difficult to understand is that there are actually two separate plagiarism accusations.
The first story involves VOA freelancer Nicolas Pinault. His plagiarism was caught when staffer Jason Patinkin became suspicious about his flawless writing despite English being his second language. After doing some analysis, Patinkin found that Pinault’s stories used sentences and even whole paragraphs from other sources.
When Patinkin reported his findings his supervisors, he alleges nothing was done and that Pinault was allowed to continue to write for the organization.
Patinkin’s frustrations are closely mirrored by that of Ayen Bior, one of the co-hosts for the program Our Voices. She became suspicious of the show’s executive producer, Deirdre Murray-McIntosh, and discovered that some of the show’s scripts used passages from other websites without permission.
According to emails provided by Patinkin and Bior to the Washington Post, they both raised these issues with supervisors many months ago, 10 months in Patinkin’s case and 14 months in Bior’s, with little done. However, shortly after the newspaper got involved in the story, the VOA removed articles written by Pinault as well as episodes of Our Voices.
The Voice of America has also announced that is all of Pinault’s 82 articles are currently “under review” and that they are performing an internal review of how complaints of journalistic integrity are handled within the organization. Furthermore, they have revised their policies regarding plagiarism and sent all employees a copy of the new policy.
However, this doesn’t really address the core of the problem. The VOA is already an organization that struggles to be taken seriously as a source for news. Scandals like this only serve to hurt that reputation even farther and its handling of it simply compounds the issue.
Unfortunately, fixing the problem isn’t easy and it’s likely going to involve some significant changes.
One of the challenges facing the Voice of America is that it is not a monolithic organization. The VOA puts out content in 47 different languages, and includes written, radio and TV formats. Furthermore, it targets regions all over the world.
Though this is all under the VOA banner, these different services often act independently from one another out of necessity.
This is illustrated by the function of Steven Spring, the VOA’s editor for news standards and best practices. In the VOA’s response to the Washington Post article, he said that, in the case involving Murray-McIntosh, he responded quickly and confirmed after an investigation that plagiarism had taken place.
However, Springer can only make recommendations and cannot take direct action. So, even though his investigation found plagiarism existed in the scripts, he could only report it back to the supervisors involved. As such, no action was taken until the Washington Post got involved.
Though Springer says that these cases are rare, saying he’s handled less than 10 in his 11 years, the truth is that, due to the fractured nature of the VOA, he may not be aware of many of the cases. These are just the ones that were brought to his attention.
If teachers in universities are severely underreporting plagiarism issues in the classroom, is it not likely that supervisors and journalists at the VOA are underreporting as well. This is doubly so since the editor involved only has the power to make recommendations, giving the final authority to the supervisors anyway.
This is further supported by the fact that it does not appear he investigated the allegations against Pinault at all. This makes it likely that they were not brought to his attention.
Setting up new and improved policies is a wonderful thing to do, but without the infrastructure to enforce those policies, they are basically meaningless.
The VOA needs what nearly every other major news organization has, a dedicated person or team to handle issues of journalistic integrity that has both the ability to investigate allegations and the authority to take action on the findings of that investigation.
Furthermore, that entity should be transparent and not part of any editorial hierarchy within the organization. It should be as much of an outsider as possible.
The VOA doesn’t have that and that’s why at least one of the cases was allowed to continue even after it was investigated by the appropriate editor.
While this would mean giving up some of the autonomy that the various organizations within the VOA have, that is a requirement to present a unified front on plagiarism and other issues of journalistic integrity.
As we noted above, the VOA has enough challenges with its image, it cannot afford to be relaxed on lapses in ethics. However, its current system makes it impossible for it to be tough as there is no way to effectively enforce its policies.
If the VOA wants to correct these problems, it needs to make some fundamental changes. Sadly, they’re changes it may not be able to make.
Even if cases such as this are as rare as Springer says, they still represent a major problem for the VOA. The reason is simple: When you’re running an organization that is already treated suspiciously, stories like this become excuses and reasons to justify that mistrust.
The VOA must work harder than anyone else to be seen as a trustworthy and credible source. Even though it is currently rated 100/100 by NewsGuard and given a “High” for factual reporting by Media Bias / Fact Check, it is routinely treated with suspicion due to how it is funded and where it operates.
Whenever you are starting from such a precarious position, you can’t afford to let any lapse of ethics go unchecked. Unfortunately, that is what happened here.
The only way to prevent it from happening again is to improve the system, but that is easier said than done.