Independence, impartiality, trustworthiness. These may sound like buzzwords for the nebulous job titles of BBC functionaries (see the “Director of Better” and “Head of Values” in the parody W1A), but they have long been held as core principles of news journalism.
And rightly so. People who read and watch the news care about this sort of thing. British newspapers’ reputations suffer if they are seen as being in hock to their proprietors or advertisers. The BBC comes under fire from all sides when its reporting is seen as “biased”. The press watchdog Ipso has new powers to embarrass inaccurate coverage with corrections of equal prominence.
Perennial surveys that find journalism to be among the least-trusted professions – an attitude that had been around prior to the Leveson Inquiry – point to readers’ and viewers’ natural scepticism about the news they nevertheless consume.
But this is changing. With the proliferation of new online media, and the variety of ways in which news can now be communicated, audiences not only have far more choice but are developing different standards for news reporting.
The tendency when looking at the effect of digital media on news journalism is to decry how its pace has degraded accuracy and original reporting. My colleague, the NS sub-editor Yo Zushi, recently wrote an excellent piece about how fast errors can now spread, with fact-checking having fallen by the wayside.
But lack of trust in our news doesn’t seem to be deterring us from visiting news sites and watching news channels that have a different set of values at their heart.
The BBC has given the New Statesman sight of a survey, compiled in January this year, of public perceptions of its impartiality and trustworthiness. The pollster Ipsos MORI interviewed 2,084 UK adults aged 15+ face-to-face about their perceptions of the BBC and other news outlets, and weighted the data to reflect a nationally representative profile of the UK.
It is telling that the BBC regularly collects data specifically about how news providers are perceived in terms of trust and impartiality. The broadcaster prides itself on both measures, and has an interest (particularly now, with hostile voices in the new government) in shielding itself from accusations of bias or shoddy output.
The BBC comes top in terms of trustworthiness and impartiality:
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Most striking, however, is how news aggregators, online news and social networks are perceived.
Google News, a news aggregator, is trusted above tabloid newspapers, the Mail, and online news sites like Huffington Post, BuzzFeed and Vice. BuzzFeed, in turn, is swimming near the bottom among social networks in terms of trust, and Vice only comes marginally higher.
This survey is of a small sample, and is primarily to illustrate the BBC’s success for the BBC’s own purposes, but it throws up the interesting question about trust: are readers of popular online news sites and channels that bothered about it?
Nick North, BBC Director of Audiences, reflects on what the survey’s findings show about trust in new media. “There is a recognition that there is such a variety of different sources of information available digitally that perhaps with some of these emerging digital media brands – there is some movement of growth in trust in some of them – I think that’s where the change in the landscape lies.”
He suggests that readers are aware that there are “algorithms of social media news feeds” and aggregators that are different from news sites curated by editors. “That’s quite an interesting thing to think about: why is this piece of news being brought to me? Is it editorial curation of something that is important information that I should know about? Or is it being powered by perhaps my expressed interest in some topic that will be driving some algorithm?” he asks.
“So perhaps there is a certain amount of awareness among the population that what is presented to me on my social media pages might be driven by algorithms rather than editorial.”
Vice News, a news channel launched online in March last year by Vice, which specialises in documentaries and dispatches from the frontline, sees “authenticity” as its core value, rather than focusing on trust.
Head of Programming for Vice Europe, Kevin Sutcliffe, speaking at a Reuters Institute seminar in May, said: “You can cling to the notion of trust, but trust is not enough now. It is about being there. It is about being authentic.”
Having worked as editor of Channel 4’s Dispatches, and as a senior producer of BBC’s Panorama, before moving to Vice in 2013, Sutcliffe is in a good position to compare the values of establishment news channels with new media.
“What is the gold standard of journalism and who says it? Who thinks they’re policing it? I’d like somebody to one day explain to me what that is,” Sutcliffe tells me, over Skype. “What we’re striving for is to tell you a story that we think is an honest representation of what we’re finding . . . trust is important, but it is one component of a number of elements of how you might be a storyteller.”
He calls the “new battleground” in journalism “authenticity” – and it’s an attitude that appears to be working. Vice News is already wildly popular, with 1.4m YouTube subscribers, 1.4m Facebook likes, and over 270m video views and counting making it the fastest-growing online news channel. It has this week been nominated for four news and documentary Emmy awards, for its dispatches from the conflict in Ukraine among other global stories. And its documentary The Islamic State – an extraordinary film of a reporter who spent three weeks in Iraq and Syria with the terrorist group – has scooped multiple journalism awards.
Sutcliffe says the appetite for news and current affairs reports among Vice’s main demographic – 18-35-year-olds – is out there, but it takes a different approach from the “legacy media” to engage it.
“I’m not a huge critic of the BBC, don’t get me wrong, but I am very alert to this idea that somehow there’s a priesthood in journalism and there’s only one way to do it, and it involves these words like ‘impartiality’ and all the rest of it,” says Sutcliffe. “Well, no, that’s not the case. Good storytelling is what people want; they can trust good storytelling and they can sniff out fakery. We feel fresh, because the actual news environment on terrestrial television has not really changed in a very long time.”
He draws a comparison between the 15- or 20-minute “immersive” dispatches from Vice News journalists and “packaging the news in bitesize pieces”, as the larger channels do. He is also keen to point out that modern audiences have a lot to choose from in terms of consuming news, meaning it’s in Vice’s interest to offer something different:
“The audience is very sophisticated and their news sources are many. And they’re informed. So they’re picking and choosing. You can’t bullshit them,” he laughs. “They’ll sniff a construct. They’ll sniff a ‘so we went and spoke to every possible politician for an answer, so that we could do a what’s notionally called a balanced piece’, which is also ‘we talked to every politician so that none of them complained and wrote letters to us tying us up in bureaucracy forever and ever’ – so you can see that as you wish.”
BuzzFeed, despite its colossal success and its articles being some of the most-shared on the internet, comes only one above the social media network Twitter, where anyone can post news and views, in the BBC’s trust survey. And it has suffered in trust-based polls before. The US think tank Pew published a report in October last year, which suggested that BuzzFeed was “more distrusted than trusted”. (BuzzFeed rejects the poll, saying it is not an accurate representation.)
BuzzFeed is actively pursuing hard, long-form journalism in order to beef up its reputation as a trustworthy news source. Executive Editor of BuzzFeed News in the US, Shani Hilton, tells me: “Trust is a deeply important thing. It’s why we’ve dived into important – and expensive! – types of journalism, like investigations and foreign coverage.
“We’ve long known that our readers find us entertaining and that they look to us when they need a laugh or an adorable kitten to look at. But we also wanted to give them a reason to trust us to tell them the truth and uncover wrongdoing.”
It’s clear from BuzzFeed’s most recent hire of Janine Gibson – the former Guardian deputy editor who steered the paper’s Pulitzer-winning NSA leaks story – as editor-in-chief of its UK site that it is going some way to buy trust in talent and investigative reporting.
Vice is . . . increasingly throwing its weight behind hard news . . . [it] is no longer the edgy digital outsider, but a slick global empire lubricated with millions in investment and ad dollars that, coupled with a brash attitude, make the company a ray of light among the decaying temples of legacy journalism.
Sutcliffe rejects the premise that pursuing “serious” journalism is a break from Vice’s past coverage, or an attempt to boost trust in the brand. “My impression is they [the public] see it as a natural extension or growth of what Vice in lots of ways has [always] been doing,” he says. “In parts, it’s storytelling and journalism. It seems to be a natural growth, rather than a ‘oh you seemed to do that and now you do this’.”
Either way, new media – whether it’s rejecting or chasing the central tenets of old media – is now encroaching on media organisations like the BBC’s turf. How does BBC News respond to this, and does it need to?
North believes the BBC can learn from online news network’s variety of new styles, but asserts that a news source’s trustworthiness will always be key.
“Clearly services like that [BuzzFeed, etc] are engaging and fun and they’re very shareable . . . That does not mean that in news provision there is a diminishing appetite for impartial, accurate and trustworthy news provision,” he says. “I think the provision of BBC News and the emergence of the popularity of BuzzFeed; those are meeting very different needs, and they are complementary and not in any way competitive. So I think that we don’t see a decline in any appetite for trustworthiness or impartiality. . .
“[But] there are some nuances that we can learn from, some insight we can learn from, in how we present the news. So not to change the content of the editorial, but, for example, what photos are selected? What headlines are used? Which may introduce a perhaps more emotional dimension to the news story, which may be more appealing for bringing in an audience, perhaps a younger audience, which is more familiar with the tone of voice of something like, say, BuzzFeed,” reflects North.
He reveals that research into audience perceptions of the BBC’s news and sports coverage in the middle of last year has led the corporation to, “move towards a more, dare I say it, human tone of the voice some of the time, without undermining the core values that we deliver to the audience, which are obviously of impartiality and accuracy”.
I contacted Google News HQ in the UK, Twitter UK, and BuzzFeed UK’s equivalent editorial directors for this story, but they didn’t wish to comment.