This post was originally published on the BBC Academy website at the following link.
By Charles Miller, editor of the College of Journalism blog
Is there something special about the BBC’s relationship to social media? That was the question at the heart of the conversation between James Harding, the BBC’s director of news and current affairs, and Charlie Beckett, director of Polis at the LSE, which launched last week’s Social Media Summit #smsldn (run by the BBC College of Journalism and the New York Times).
Their discussion was put in context by the BBC’s Pooneh Ghoddoosi. In her introduction she remembered how far things have changed from the days when she worked as a stringer for the New York Times in Iran, having to persuade travellers to take rolls of undeveloped film out of the country and hope that one day she’d spot the results in a newspaper.
For the BBC, the first glimmerings of that change came in 1997, said Beckett, when the then director general of the BBC, John Birt, went out on a limb by insisting that the BBC should have a web presence.
In its complicated way, the BBC has made the untraditional part of its tradition. As Harding boasted, the corporation has been “the most innovative force in news in this country”. Today, more people follow @BBCBreaking on Twitter than watch the News at Ten.
And the tradition of innovation is alive and well. On the day Harding spoke the BBC was using WhatsApp as part of its coverage of the Indian election. Why? Well, it helps change the nature of coverage, offering “a much greater flavour”, said Harding.
On the domestic front, the licence fee brings its own imperatives: “we’re committed to universality” and that means staying with the audience. The BBC needs to be “innovative from the get-go” – and today “social media is THE way of getting to everyone”.
But does the BBC have to on everything, asked Beckett?
“There is a danger of spreading ourselves too thin,” Harding admitted, but “the resources question is overstated.” That’s because of changes in how content is distributed. The trend is away from the old, expensive industrial model in which the BBC broadcast its output in a single direction. Today the news business is “less like a concert and more like a music festival”. One consequence: “It’s not clear all the time who’s in charge.”
Of course that means the BBC is making use of commercial organisations – the social media businesses – that it doesn’t control, Beckett pointed out.
Nothing is more important to the BBC than the audience’s trust in its output, said Harding. And there are choices among social media: if one platform decided it wasn’t interested in news it wouldn’t matter. Overall, with so many new opportunities for different kinds of story-telling, “it’s the most exciting time to be a journalist since the advent of television.”
New services like BuzzFeed and Vice do stories differently from the BBC, said Beckett.
Yes, and we take them “extremely seriously”, said Harding: “We have a great deal to learn from our competitors.” The BBC is experimenting with its own new formats, such as Instafax on Instagram, while BBC Trending taps into social media as a source of news.
Using social media as a source of information raises the issue of verification. Harding said it’s not a question he takes lightly: “We should tip our hats to people who kill things that are wrong.” But there is a kind of self-correcting mechanism at work too: “The world has turned into a giant fact-checking machine.” That’s healthy for journalism.
What’s more, social media allows journalists to lift the curtain a little, and give a greater sense of what goes on in the making of news output. In that sense it “debunks the ‘voice of god’” in BBC content.
But even with all the new tones of voice that are now possible on new platforms, Harding has a simple rule: “Don’t say anything on social media that you wouldn’t be happy to say on air.”
Videos of the sessions at #smsldn will appear on our YouTube channel in the near future.
Photos and article: BBC Academy, Charles Miller