BBC falls short in flagging up online news coverage

BBC News television and radio editors seem to have a perennial blind spot when it comes to the web.  A review of the BBC’s  coverage of the Arab Spring in 2011 by the BBC Trust found that broadcast outlets would rarely reference the BBC News website.

The study (PDF) found that “the BBC news website provides a significant amount of background material, yet no cross reference was made to BBC online in over 97% of BBC news items.”

The failing is significant given that the report by former UN director of communications and Middle East expert Edward Mortimer questions whether the BBC adequately explained the background and context to the uprisings.

“For these more sophisticated analyses, with ifs and buts and subordinate clauses, one probably needs to look to radio – and to the website,” wrote Mortimer.

“And the website almost invariably provides greater depth of background information, with a wealth of question-and-answer features, analysis from correspondents and other aggregated material – special reports which are either country specific or more general, information graphics, maps, and slide shows of “how we got here”.”

Yet the study found that BBC TV and radio rarely mentioned the wealth of online resources.

Television news referenced the BBC News website in just 35 out of 985 items related to the Arab Spring.

Radio news comes out worse, with only nine out of 916 Arab Spring items including references to the website. The report does add that “it is of course harder to provide such links on radio, where there is no visual option.”

Stephen Mitchell, Deputy Director and Head of Multimedia Programmes, BBC News, acknowledged that “viewers and listeners are often made aware of web content, but often they are not. This is one thing that really annoys me.”

“The website is not “new media”. It’s the third leg on the stool. Yet I have to remind people from time to time.”

Perhaps I am biased as a former daily news editor at the BBC News website, but it is shocking that broadcast journalists should need to be reminded that the BBC has an international renowned and award-winning digital news operation.

In my nine years at the BBC News website, from its launch in 1997 to 2006, it was consistently an uphill struggle to convince colleagues in radio and television to flag in-depth material on the site that would help audiences understand complex issues.

I can understand the challenge of convincing radio and TV shows to mention the website in its early days.  But the BBC’s digital news services are now 15 years old and integrated into the organisation.

Culture is a hard thing to change. Journalists who have spent their careers in a world of broadcast need to lose the blinkers that blind them to the web.

Their audiences do not just rely on the morning breakfast show on radio or the evening TV news but mix and match media sources throughout the day. Journalists at the BBC and beyond must do the same.