After Nieman Reports published “An American Observes a Vietnamese Approach to Newsgathering” in our Fall 2010 issue, we received several letters raising concern about the context and content of the article. After reviewing this correspondence and speaking with the article’s author, we decided to remove this story from our website and we explained why in a message that we put in its place:
Sam Butterfield portrayed his summer internship [at VietNamNet] through personal observations. However, we now believe that his experience should have been placed in a broader context. Had this been done, this story would have more fairly represented for the reader the general practices of VietNamNet and provided a truer sense of the limited vantage point out of which he wrote.
Since he does not read or speak Vietnamese, he worked on VietNamNet Bridge, the news organization’s English-language website that is considerably smaller than the Vietnamese site. Due to this circumstance, he was not qualified to characterize the entire news organization in the way his story suggested.
Now we are sharing some of the words we received in response to the article.
To the Editor:
The VietNamNet described in Nieman Reports’s Fall 2010 issue bears no resemblance to the news organization that I have come to know over the past several years. VietNamNet is a pioneering news outlet. In 2006, the head of the Kennedy School’s Vietnam program urged the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy to grant a fellowship to the editor and CEO of VietNamNet, Tuan Anh Nguyen, who was described to us as a leading voice for change in Vietnam. During the time he spent with us at the Shorenstein Center, he demonstrated his commitment to improving the quality of Vietnam’s journalism.
Tuan has nurtured his staff of 300 journalists in a variety of ways. This year and last, for example, he took more than 50 of his journalists to Europe so that they would better understand Western culture and journalism. Next year, he will bring a similar-sized group to the United States. Two years ago, the Shorenstein Center hosted a smaller group of his journalists for a week, exposing them to top U.S. reporters and editors. In Vietnam, he has hosted a large number of visiting American journalists and scholars, asking in return that they conduct workshops for his reporters.
I have observed at length the operations of VietNamNet and have had dozens of conversations with Tuan. Everyone in this news organization recognizes that it has not yet achieved the standards to which it aspires, but it has come remarkably far in its dozen years of existence. And it is using its resources to bring those standards to the rest of the country, for example, with the construction of the country’s first stand-alone graduate school of journalism that has begun in Ho Chi Minh City. It will open in 2012 with a curriculum modeled on that of U.S. graduate programs. Tuan is also planning a first-of-its-kind media research and studies institute to be located in Nha Trang, where journalists, scholars, media specialists, and policymakers can meet to share ideas.
Vietnam lacks a tradition of journalism education and does not have a fully free press. The government licenses its news outlets and monitors their activities. Nevertheless, VietNamNet’s intrepid reporting on land use, environmental degradation, foreign affairs, and other subjects has won it a large public following. Published online, VietNamNet has about six million daily readers. Some officials have criticized its reporting while others have commended VietNamNet for bringing neglected problems to light. VietNamNet has also been a proponent for a new press law that can serve as the foundation for a more independent press.
None of this information was contained in the broadside attack on VietNamNet that appeared in the last issue of Nieman Reports. It was portrayed there as trafficking in sex and news stories that originate with other news organizations. The author of that article is a college student, who described himself as being a consultant to VietNamNet, but he did not actually work on its news content. He interned for several weeks with the English-language publication of VietNamNet that is produced as a service to foreign readers. Its content is a compilation of stories that have appeared in VietNamNet and other Vietnamese news outlets.
The Bradlee Professor of Government and the Press at Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy.
To the Editor:
First, it is necessary to make a clear distinction between VietNamNet and VietNamNet Bridge. Sam Butterfield’s comments were based solely on his subjective view of VietNamNet Bridge, an English-language site that is only a very small part of our news organization. VietNamNet Bridge is a portal that collects and filters information from VietNamNet and other newspapers in Vietnam—these are then translated into English for international readers and they are cited with clear sources.
VietNamNet is one of the most widely read online newspapers in Vietnam, and everyone who works here understands that the press serves the public interest and our content needs to be independent, accurate, objective and unbiased. All the products of VietNamNet—from news to investigative reports to the “hot topics” we raise in online discussions with legislators, researchers, business managers, and the public—must meet these standards.
Stories published on VietNamNet or VietNamNet Bridge have been double-checked, with their sources and origins clearly shown to readers. Any use of common nouns instead of specific names is a way of paraphrasing, and this practice, while certainly not encouraged, is limited on VietNamNet Bridge and does not happen on VietNamNet.
Butterfield cannot speak Vietnamese so he could not make judgments about VietNamNet. It is also clear that he misunderstood his role and duties during his internship at VietNamNet. He sought this internship and it was granted based on an introduction from a journalism professor; we did not invite him to act as a consultant or strategist. VietNamNet invites leading journalists and scholars to work as consultants and strategists—not university students.
Le Hai Yen and Bui Viet Lam
Le Hai Yen was Butterfield’s supervisor at VietNamNet, and Bui Viet Lam is a senior editor at the news organization.
To the Editor:
Sam Butterfield, author of “An American Observes a Vietnamese Approach to Newsgathering,” responds:
During this past summer I spent nearly two months living in Hanoi and working under contract at VietNamNet. The essay I wrote for Nieman Reports was based on my experiences; it was not meant to be a comprehensive story about journalism in Vietnam or about this news organization. Its intent was to illustrate the great disconnect that I witnessed between my American notions of journalism and what I observed in this newsroom, and I stand by my description of how content was borrowed from other publications.
Along with two other American students, who were also under contract there as summer interns, I worked with Tuan Anh Nguyen, a senior official at VietNamNet. He asked us to help the editorial staff learn from strategies related to social networking and online publications such as The Huffington Post. For example, we were asked to analyze Huffington Post’s model and present our findings to a board of editors, as well as research and explain how Twitter, Facebook and The New York Times’s “Times People” help to facilitate user interaction with content, enable readers to feel more in command of their viewing experience, and bolster traffic by spreading links to content around the Internet. Based on our research, we created templates for possible use on VietNamNet’s website using Adobe InDesign. We showed those templates as part of a two-hour presentation we gave to members of the editorial staff about how VietNamNet could use various social media strategies to increase traffic and enhance its visibility on the Web.
It is true that I neither speak nor read Vietnamese so my work was limited to VietNamNet Bridge, the organization’s English-language division. The documents I signed describing my work there—two contracts, one when I arrived, one in mid-July, were written in Vietnamese, so I do not know what my formal title was at VietNamNet. It was always my understanding that my role there was to work on multimedia and Web strategies and that is what I did, along with editing stories at VietNamNet Bridge.