Striking the right tone

Like many of my compatriots across the digital news industry over the last few years I have been preoccupied by the battle against mis and dis-information.

We have all concentrated our energy on building audience trust through fact-checking initiatives, algorithmic adjustments and tackling the economic incentives for the dissemination of falsehoods across digital platforms.

Trust in news journalism has plunged across a number of countries recently. The BBC has worked hard to retain the trust of audiences, is contributing towards a pan-industry trust initiative aimed at restoring confidence in quality news sources and has collaborated on fact-checking initiatives with a number of other organisations.

Accuracy, attribution and an overall literacy in news are undeniably important to us all. But in this era of hyper-partisan noise where news has become an on-demand experience delivered to us through a filter to reinforce our world view, striking the right tone is critical.

Clearly, audiences are drawn to journalism that best reflects, touches upon or reinforces their life experiences. Quality journalism aspires to inform and educate, and not simply to entertain. But can we say, with complete honesty and transparency, that all the stories we produce coincide with what interests our audiences? And, to stretch the point a little further, when we are clear of an ‘audience appetite’ how do we ensure these stories are told in language and tone that resonates with those same audiences?

The BBC is one of many news organisations to have placed an audience engagement team at the heart of our newsroom. We have adopted tools and dashboards to help staff with social listening, real-time discovery of viral and trending news and to track and measure the success of our journalism with readers, viewers and listeners. Central to the success of all of these initiatives, however, is a transformation of how we approach the news agenda in the first instance, the value and prominence we choose to apply to a range of stories we’d previously have overlooked or under-covered and the headlines and language used in these same stories.

In this age of digital distribution where anyone with a smartphone and a social media account is a ‘citizen journalist’ and can quickly see their content elevated to a trending topic thanks to algorithms, publishers are no longer masters of their own destiny. We can — and absolutely should, continue to work in partnership with tech companies to cut through the noise and fakery and provide greater news literacy and awareness. However, we also need to be realistic. The success of our journalism depends on the loyalty of our audiences and this commitment relies to a great extent on how much people feel (yes “feel” not “know”) the stories they’re being served chime with them and their life experience.

Juliet contacted the BBC first via our Family and Education Facebook page. Her story is a good example of how listening to and reaching out to online communities can lead to powerful, relatable newsworthy stories.

We cannot and should not distort the truth by chasing a reader, viewer or listener. This is not a defence of click-bait or stories that are emotionally powerful but factually vacuous. Rather, I believe strongly that the success of news journalism in our noisy, atomised, attention-limited digital and social media age depends largely on our ability to learn from the connections our audiences are making and the conversations they’re prioritising with each other in digital and social communities. We need to become smarter at seeking out these communities and building relationships with them — be this in Facebook groups, sub-reddit threads or other online chat forums. We must try a LOT harder to understand their concerns, priorities and aspirations and find ways to make them a focus for our journalism. Crucially too, we need to find ways of reflecting these stories in terms and a tone that sits naturally with these same communities. We need to imagine how these stories will be shared and discussed and not seek to place ourselves in a role of arbiter of worthiness.

If we can get this right — and harness the talent and tools at our disposal to capture this new authentic, audience narrative I’m confident loyalty and trust will grow. This is not a panacea for mis and disinformation in news. It is, at least, part of an answer to the question of trust.