What Lessons For News?

A focus on speed rather then quality has become a subject for sustained debate within news production processes.

Being first with the news has taken precedence over being accurate for many outlets. Without quality and accuracy as principle drivers of news making we are justified in asking is there still a place for public service broadcasting? (Picard & Siciliani, 2013)

Digital transformation has altered irrevocably the landscape of the News media. The digital disruption to established playmakers (legacy journalism) has nevertheless lowered the threshold entry requirements (financial and editorial) for new providers. Technological innovation has transformed the capabilities of delivering news quickly and this is particularly relevant in the case of court cases or inquests. Yet, the drive towards a technologically dependent process and working at speed can inadvertently skew the priorities of journalists and public service broadcasting platforms.

I make the case in the material presented on this website that coverage of the Lakanal House Fire showed how a long running story can help develop a strong narrative arc and invite collaborations from the public through a networked journalism approach. Active citizens use social media and public sources of information to influence public debate. More work needs to be done on how this impacts broader public discourse and policy-making but in the case of Lakanal, attention to detail by residents made it far easier to identify the widespread nature of fire safety risks in the blocks where they lived. This led me to argue for the time and space in the BBC Newsroom to undertake a London-wide series of Freedom of Information requests with my colleague Ed Davey. As the coverage was sustained it encouraged other members of the public to help draw our attention to other significant fire risk concerns. If we felt they had a case we investigated the concerns. Not every concern led to a story. But some on timber frame buildings and homes for the elderly brought significant public interest stories to the various BBC platforms.

The success of this investigative effort invites editors to rethink their commissioning strategies and news flow processes and recommends that training in data handling, FOI requests and project management skills be prioritised so that reporters have the tools to challenge the authorised versions of reality. Truthfulness is not an absolute quality, it is one that requires scrutiny and adaptation. But it is worth saying that whilst digital technology facilitates new ways of working and this will only become more intense with the application of machine intelligence to information gathering, placing too much emphasis on technological solutions without changing the mindsets and cultures in Newsrooms is not enough.

Collaborative working and extended gestation time for stories is equally important. The BBC has made a symbolic rather than fundamental shift in embracing audience interaction as a way to influence editorial priorities. (Jones & Salter, 2012). As the digital spectrum facilitates more players coming into the news market, journalists must expect to be asked what value they add to reporting news events. Artificial Intelligence will increasingly make it possible to gather and disseminate news and information at great speeds using algorithms, but AI will never be able to completely replace sound human judgement and interpretation. What journalists are beginning to grapple with, is how the mountain of evidence – sometimes identified by active citizens on platforms like twitter – can be used as evidence to report on poor governance, incompetence or state and institutional dysfunction.

This collaborative approach which led to many of my Freedom of Information requests emphasises the gatekeeper role of disseminating privileged information is no longer the primary function of an investigative journalist. Increasingly the reporter has act like an information broker, managing information from official and citizen sources and sifting for verifiable facts, which should enable the citizen, if reported accurately, to make the most of their freedoms.  That is the holy grail of good journalism and the fourth estate.

There is plenty of evidence that the downward pressure on costs is making it more difficult to sustain high quality original journalism in news output. However, there is also evidence that, as an intellectual elite can no longer control news, a more refined collaborative approach with the public and peers may help sustain a public service ethic. The reporter is arguably, like an advocate in court, the primary mechanism for testing the truth presented by official sources.

In a digital age of plurality this role becomes a key way for Public Service Television to preserve quality and distinctiveness. There are many who have argued elsewhere that if the BBC, for example, cannot retain its distinctive voice it may well undermine the very rationale for its public funding.

“I am extremely grateful to be able to use the Lakanal Fire footage courtesy of Nigel Saunders and Paul Wood.

All the fire footage of the Lakanal House fire is their copyright.

All other material is BBC Copyright and available through public access online or through the 'box of broadcasts' portal.”

Professor Kurt Barling - 2017