'The art of the viral news explainer' | RISJ Global Journalism Seminar with the BBC's Ros Atkins
12:30PM Jan 26, 2022
Hello, and welcome to the global journalism seminars at the Reuters Institute for the Study of journalism. I'm Caitlin Mercer, Associate Director for the fellowship program, filling in for Meera Selva this week and today we're joined by a man described as the BBC explainer in chief. Ros Atkins. Roz has been the host of outside source on BBC News since 2014, and spoke at a previous Institute seminar about how he started the 5050 project for gender equality and news, but it's not what he's here to talk about today. Today, he's going to discuss his explainer videos in 2019, Roz started off with a short explainer of the Australian bushfires. And he's gone on to provide short form background and context current affairs stories like The Valerie's migrant crisis, Novak Djokovic chairs visa wise and perhaps most famously, what has turned into a series of explainers about the parties of number 10 Downing Street, the first of which was viewed almost 6 million times on Twitter. Roz, thank you so much for joining us. Welcome.
Caithlin, thank you very much for the invite. Appreciate it.
Great before we discuss the art of the viral explainer, shall we kick off by watching your most recent video, in case anyone on this call hasn't seen one
week later, the prime minister in December Boris Johnson addressed the first reports of a Christmas party in number 10.
Oh guidance was followed completely during number 10.
Then a week later, the prime minister said this
I have been repeatedly assured since these allegations emerged, that there was no party and that and that no COVID rules were broken.
That same day the Metropolitan Police put out a statement it read based on the absence of evidence and in line with our policy not to investigate retrospective breaches of such regulations. The Met will not commence an investigation at this time. That was then this is now
I can confirm that the mat is now investigating a number of events that took place at Downing Street and Whitehall in the last two years in relation to potential breaches of COVID-19 regulations. So why the shift? Here's the explanation as a result, firstly of the information provided by the Cabinet Office inquiry team. And secondly, my officers own assessment
that's right. The police first decided not to investigate but after receiving information from an investigation by the civil servants Sue Gray, the police now will investigate and this is the prime minister's reaction.
I welcome the MCS decision to conduct its own investigation because I believe this will help to give the public the clarity it needs and help to draw a line under matters.
Also on Tuesday when Mr. Johnson spokesperson was asked if he thinks he's broken the law. The reply was I think that's fair to say that he does not. It's also fair to say the opposition has already drawn some conclusions
potential criminal criminality has been found in Downing Street. What a truly damning reflection on our nation's very highest office
and wall Mr. Johnson's under sustained political attack. His supporters have rallied round
the leadership of Boris Johnson this country has heard has been so brilliant that he has got us through this incredibly difficult period and he's got all the big decisions, right?
That opinion is hotly contested, but the police are not concerned with leadership, brilliant or otherwise, they're concerned with where the crimes occurred in number 10. And while we digested their intervention, the fallout continued from ITV News his report on Monday, Paul brand reported there had been a birthday event for Boris Johnson in number 10. During the first lockdown telling us up to 30 staff celebrated in the Cabinet Room where Carrie Johnson surprised him with a cake. We were also told there was a chorus of Happy birthday, and that those assembled are understood to have eaten picnic food from m&s. This was at a time when most indoor gatherings involving more than two people were banned. To which number 10 says Mr. Johnson was there for less than 10 minutes and this is the transport Secretary grant Shapps. This isn't a workplace with a bunch of people are working together all of the time, who decided to give the Prime Minister a birthday cake on his his birthday. ITV News also quotes Mr. Sharp saying a cake being introduced is wrong. All of which raises lots of questions a number of which I'm not sure any of us ever expected to be asking. Here's Paul Brown who broke the story tweeting does a cake make a party to singing Happy Birthday qualify as a party? in isolation? These questions seem absurd, but they're relevant because of the rules at the time. This man broke them and was punished
all those needs to be named and ashamed, as we were ashamed of its accept our responsibilities, and it's time to get this done once and for all. No more cover up.
Number 10. denies there's any cover up. It denies rules were broken. And one Conservative MP has raised this concern
when Europe stands on the brink of war and there is a cost of living crisis. Can we please have a sense of proportion over the Prime Minister being given being given a piece of cake in his own office by his own staff?
That's a reference to the buildup of Russian troops on Ukraine's border to which the Prime Minister turned earlier.
We will not reopen that divide by agreeing to overturn the European security order because Russia has placed a gun to Ukraine's hair.
And so while Mr. Johnson and other Western leaders face down Russia, the Prime Minister and his colleagues also faced questions about what happened in number 10 questions from the press questions from Sue gray. And now questions from the police.
Ross I'm not sure that Marks and Spencers picnic food has ever been described in that tone before. Piers Morgan said of that first number 10 explainer, Ross has once again brilliantly illustrated that the best journalism is often the simplest just damn people with cool, calm, collected and utterly irrefutable facts. Is that a fair description of what you set out to do with these videos.
I'm definitely not setting out to dam anyone but I am setting out to work out what the facts of the story are to distill them into the simplest and most understandable and consumable form and then present them in a way that allows you to see those facts and also understand the context in which they've happened. So you can judge the importance or otherwise of them. And so here's his right to highlight the fact that we put a huge amount of work into assembling what we believe is the most vital information on whatever story or issue we're turning to. But the explanation of that issue or story is my goal. There's no other outcome that I'm working to. I'm certainly not working to dam or pass judgment or praise any particular individual or any story that I'm covering. That's not in my mind at all. Our only goal here is to say to the audience, here's something of consequence. Let me explain it to you as best I can.
Mm hmm. And you've spoken about looking into the art of storytelling. When you when you began developing these explainers and how friends do it in the pub. How comedians are podcasters documentary makers tell stories. What did you find and and what are they doing differently to what we're normally doing? Well, there
was one conclusion which I took above all else, which was sometimes when I would approach a report going back a few years I would take an issue or a story and I'd break it up into themes, I would say okay, I want to explore Section X have this issue, then section wide and section Zed. And of course, there's a very good logic to that. In fact, if you look at some of the early explainers that we did we used to put slates between the different sections. So as I move between those different themes, you would visually be seeing something to say this is the section on this part of the story. That to me seemed logical, but then several people whose opinions I definitely read came to me and said, I don't think that's helping the flow of the story. I don't think that's particularly helpful. And so I went away and looked at how some of the most successful storytellers go about their work. One example is a recent podcast by Gabriel gatehouse for the BBC about called the coming storm where he does this brilliantly, where their primary goal is not structures, although there are structures hiding beneath. The primary goal is just telling a story that you want to hear more of. And so when I'm starting to write our explainers with the help of the brilliant producers who helped me make it, what we essentially do is assemble what we think are the most essential elements of a story. We just have them in a big Google Doc, and not in any particular order sometimes or sometimes grouped according to sections of the story. And then it's my job to look at those and think well, how can I use all of these elements to tell a story that gets you thinking from the very beginning and takes you all the way through until the end? And when we get comments back from our explainers, which, you know, which we're delighted to do when they're positive, of course, and we'll take constructive criticism as well. Often people say, it was seven minutes long, but it felt like a short seven minutes. And for me, that gets to the heart of it. When someone's telling you a story. You stop looking at the clock, you just want to know what's happening next. And so when I'm scripting these, I'm not scripting them just to work my way through the facts of the matter. Of course, we're 100% focused on that. I'm also thinking, How can I tell you a story here and really that is a guiding principle through the way I write all of these explainers and I hope it helps to keep people watching as we go through often some pretty gnarly and complicated stories where people could be forgiven for tuning out. Hopefully the way we tell it gives us a chance of saying to them, no, please stay with us. There's more you want to hear here.
What are some of those systems and structures underneath that you mentioned?
Right, what it perhaps is useful if we go back to 2019, which is when I started thinking about all of these issues, because really, I was faced with a problem or a challenge. If you like outside source, I'm talking to you from the outside. So set now, that source was a very successful TV format that we'd launched in 2014. We were delighted with how it was going we were delighted with the ratings and delighted with the audience response to it. But our digital content, the things we were taking out of the program really weren't achieving very much at all. We had occasionally gone viral, but it would be for a one off moment, like, for example, was once doing a story, I think about Spotify, during an England penalty shootout with the World Cup and as each goal went and all my colleagues in the newsroom were cheering and I had to stop, stop the story because it was too distracting. And I bizarrely described a penalty shootout that our viewers couldn't see, with only the BBC newsroom as the soundtrack in the background. Now, the thing about those kinds of viral moments or a particularly extraordinary interview is you can't plan them. You can't systematically go viral. If you're just waiting for one off moments. You just have to wait and see if they show up. And frankly, they don't show up that often. So I wanted to think about what how can we be more systematic about this? And then there were a couple of other challenges we were looking at one for the BBC was we could see that opinion led journalism was becoming more and more popular. So how did impartiality fit into that? You had politicians like Donald Trump who are really challenging what how we approached politicians and politics and how we describe the language and the information that they were using. And then the last thing I realized, and this isn't really a criticism, I think of any of us was that TV was our priority. We were making a TV show, and that was understandably our number one priority. But it seemed to me in 2019, all of those things needed to be reappraised and so to give you a short list, we started making things specifically for digital so it wasn't we're going to make a TV program and see if there's anything to clip we go into outside source each evening knowing the bit that we're going to clip so the the clip you've just shown. We all knew several hours before we went on air that that section of the program would be the section we would clear. The second thing was we had observed that digital content needed to be exceptional. We and lots of TV news programs had been putting stuff online that certainly wasn't bad. It was good, perfectly good broadcast journalism, but it wasn't exceptional. And my observation was if something is pretty good or terrible, and anywhere in between, it doesn't really perform on digital to perform on digital. It's got to be exceptional. Exceptional is difficult. So we started to put more resources into that section of the program we knew would be clipped because we knew if we didn't, we wouldn't be able to make it exceptional enough to give it a chance. There were a couple of other things we were experimenting with much more direct sparse language to describe whether something is true and whether it isn't true. We we knew the audience wanted us to be clearer as we were introducing the words and actions particularly a politicians on what they said which was true and what they said wasn't true. And then there were a couple of other things, crucial things. One is an issue of grammar on TV, if I were presenting TVG now, and I was talking about say the tensions in Russia, tensions between Ukraine and Russia would go well tensions are escalating on the border. between Ukraine and Russia. Let's speak to my colleague now. And I would turn away from you. And I would speak to one of our esteemed colleagues to get further expertise on that. It was my observation that on digital, you want people to be talking directly to you. And so I thought, Okay, I think it's time for us to own the analysis. Rather than to outsource it. And that doesn't mean I don't want my esteemed colleagues involved. We consult them extensively on these pieces. It's just I think people want the presenter of these videos to be looking them in the eye. And then the final thing I'd mention is we involved our digital colleagues from the very start. So we used to use a touchscreen. I can show that to you here just on the outside. So I said there's the touchscreen, but we don't use it anymore, not because we weren't very fond of it. We like the way it helped us collate the best information. It just didn't look very good on mobile because all of the the design features on it were quite rightly designed for TV. And so we tore that up. We said okay, with that's been successful, but for this to have an impact digitally, we need to redesign the entire program with digital in mind, and we spent over a year doing that. And a crucial part of that was we went to see our digital colleagues at the beginning and said, would you treat this as a joint enterprise? We're no longer just making a TV program, though we are and it's hugely important Of equal importance is the digital product that comes with that. And having TV and digital working hand in hand meant that by the time we relaunched quite a few months later because of COVID we had a product which two sides of the BBC newsroom digital and TV both are invested in now a much better chance of success as well.
That's, there's something I noticed while watching your explainers back to back in preparation for this and
I'm sorry has washed out much of me in one go
better mattress. But I noticed that if I had started keeping time, and I noticed that at around 100 beats per minute every eight seconds something new is happening. So a graphic is changing or new voices coming in. And it's it's almost like a song. And is there is that conscious is that consciously done in the editing room or do you think it's just a sort of subconscious hangover from perhaps your DJing days?
No, it's definitely conscious. So we work very, very hard on the rhythm of the story. And this point I was mentioning about not offering the audience breaks not offering the moments where they go that's the end of that section for me. I want to say, come with me from the start and let me take you all the way through it. And so we edit all of the clips, so that they only contain the information you need and nothing else and we'll spend hours poring over whether the 12 second version or the eight second version is right. Just one example of the video you've just played there was a clip of Boris Johnson It wasn't very long. I think it was 13 seconds but the last three seconds repeated something he had said and also affected the rhythm. So we went back and edited it and re recorded the piece. So it might seem like a small thing. But when we're rehearsing these videos, and I would emphasize we rehearse them an awful lot. One of the things I'm feeling for is rhythm. And the rhythm is partly to do with the way that the elements are edited. But it's also to do with a technique of scripting where you're constantly hooking off the back of something and throwing on to the next thing. So you don't just come off a clip and move on to whatever you want to say you're constantly looking back and then taking the audience forward. So if you watch our clips you'll hear me Mac reffing or back referencing or Mac no and depending on the use of jargon you use all of the time, and quite often I will repeat a word or a phrase. So in that last video. There was a quote from the number 10 spokesperson saying it's fair to say that the prime minister doesn't feel he's broken the law and I came off it and when it's also fair to say the opposition is drawing some conclusions. The point of that is to give the whole piece of rhythm and take you from that number 10 statement through my link and into the opposition statement. That might but when you're assembling this many pieces of information in a very small space, if you can do that repeatedly and effectively. Really you hopefully just take the audience through and there is a rhythm and the underpinning that are techniques and conscious techniques that the brilliant producers and me are working on all day long. But there's also something about instinct and that we all know we can all feel whether we're playing a song or listening to some music or watching a speech or watching a video we can feel whether there's a rhythm when it's flowing when it's right. And we can also feel where it feels like it's juddering a bit difficult to put your finger on exactly why that is but we can often feel it. And when we're when I'm rehearsing these videos, that's another thing I'm looking out for of course, we're looking out for factual accuracy. We're looking out for fairness, we're looking out for all the things that you would expect from a BCPS but I'm also looking out for rhythm and quite often right up to the moment we do it. I'll be tinkering with the smallest word here or there not because there's anything factually wrong with it. The scripts already been signed. off, but because for me, it's not quite flowing. And if it doesn't flow, it undermines the quality of the whole piece. And just to give you an idea of the degree of priority, we give this I was sitting down there at about quarter past 620 past six last night. We know we knew we needed to record it within an hour. So we're right up right up against it. I was about to go on to set and Michael Cox who was the producer on that video that you've just shown, highlighted one Mac ref that I've made off one element in that piece that he didn't feel flowed. It wasn't factually incorrect, but he felt that it wasn't quite right. And me and Andrew the editor on the day and Michael were there for I don't know 10 1215 minutes 15 minutes we didn't really have just rewriting one sentence until we were happy. And I think it's it's the bit off the pool brand. What is the when does a cake make a party and we wanted to get across that on one level. This was absurd. But on another level, it matters to a great number of people. And I'm watching the piece back I was really happy with how that flowed through that point. But it didn't happen by accident. We're poring over the finer points of this, you know at at length and I can't give you many examples. Where I've just sat down and written it and we've gone great, let's do it. It goes through lots of lots of different iterations.
How many how many rehearsals are we talking ballpark? I mean, how long is a piece of string but
well, so it'll it'll depend on what else needs to be rehearse because of course this is one section of a longer program. And I would say I probably read it at my desk a couple of times, sometimes more, sometimes less. Sometimes I'll just read one section again and again, but read it all the way through a couple of times and then we'll come up here and I'd probably rehearse it twice before going on air. And the way that we have it is that the producers can listen across the line. So as I'm rehearsing it, and I'm going I think that bit just needs tweaking, they can hear me they make the changes as we go so we're kind of rehearsing and editing as we go. And we can do that right up till you know one or two minutes before the program starts. So whenever the director who's Director is very patient with us, but at some point they quite reasonably go. Right we've actually got to do the live program. And and then I think the thing that people don't often realize is not all of them. So for example, last night's we pre recorded but the vast majority alive. So we're where we need to be confident of what we've made, not just editorially but in terms of how it hangs together in production because it requires me in the director to do this quite complicated dance and to get the graphics all in sync. And when it goes well the producers can top and tail it and then off we go.
On behalf of the journalists who are working in multimedia newsrooms are expected to produce this kind of viral content. In case their editors are watching and we know that editors often don't understand how much goes into producing something like this that they think oh, it's a three minute video. 15 minutes. How long would you need? Could you outline for those who maybe aren't familiar how long goes into researching, recording, cutting, pulling in the graphics and how many people are involved in the process?
Okay, so the first thing the bit of context to say is that the big idea of redesigning outside source was that instead of having a touchscreen we'd have a suite of graphics that the producers
helped develop grande which allows them to put in just about any type of content, they like themselves. They're not reliant on a separate department to create those graphics that producers can generate it themselves. So that gives us a huge advantage because that is within our control. In terms of the resources, most of the videos that you're referencing, or made on the day, we often don't decide to do them until late morning or lunchtime and they need to be pretty much done and dusted by six half past six. So it's pretty intense to put to put it mildly and normally it's one producer who was pulled off their duties for the rest of the program, and just works on the explainer. And I tend to not do too much else apart from work on the explainer. So it's the two of us working in tandem. We do make longer versions of our explainers for BBC iPlayer BBC sounds and for the BBC website on a Saturday they tend to be seven to 10 minutes, for example, we're working on one now on the cost of living that has to produce have two producers and they work through the week on them. So that's a slightly larger, one considerably larger editorial undertaking, but the vast majority of the highest ranking if you like were the most popular clips which people may have seen have been turned around on the day with one producer working in tandem with me. But it's a really big but the two of us are not the only two involved. So we will have the editor of the program on the day overseeing the script. We'll have our overall editor just parama overseeing the script. And we always a standard show the script to someone within the BBC who is an expert on whatever the given subject is and if it's a particularly complex subject with more than one dimension, we will show it to two or even three experts. And so the script goes through a huge amount of rigorous oversight before I go anywhere near recording it. But in terms of who's assembling it and who's scripting it. It's the two of us working in tandem. The other thing I would really like to emphasize because I think this sometimes gets lost is that understandably, there's a huge amount of interest from all of us who are journalists in the content that we're all making. I think collectively we don't spend anywhere near enough time thinking about how we distribute and market the content that we're making. And one of the reasons these videos have done very well is well hopefully we're making a good product. Obviously if you if we've not done that that's that's a problem. But let's let's assume you've made a good product. You also need to think really keenly about how are you going to distribute this because when you're making a TV program, you make a TV program, it goes out live people like it, they don't like it. It's a triumph. It's not you move on the ratings are good, the ratings are bad. There's only so much in the short term you can do to control that beyond trying to make a good program. The digital experience is far far more complicated. It's complicated for a few different reasons I'd I'd love to emphasize because I'm very passionate about this. One is the distribution. The digital distribution systems within any newsroom vary, but they don't vary in the fact that all complicated. Any sizable newsroom has a number of different ways of pushing out digital material, often controlled by different digital teams. One of the first things I did with this explainer project was I went and spoke to all my colleagues who controlled all of those different digital distribution points. And I said to them, what kind of content works for you? What do you think about what we're doing? How could we change it to make it better? When would you like to know about this content being made? What's your criteria for sharing it or not sharing it? We involve them in it because of course, their colleagues and, you know, I've seen in the past, you know, not just within the BBC but elsewhere as well. TV programs can sometimes rile digital colleagues by kind of making something and then wandering over and going. This is great. You've got to take it and digital colleagues go well hold on you didn't involve us in that. So I very, very carefully studied the way the BBC digital distribution systems worked. And that was a slow burn effort. And so it should have been it wasn't like I rang them up on day one and they said, Okay, let's put it on the front page of the website. It didn't happen like that at all. Over several months, working with colleagues in digital, we ended up evolving the product to a point that they felt that they could fit it into their content offer. So that was hugely important. And then the second thing is, and it's slightly difficult for me to talk about this because it involves me but I'll I'll dive in anyway because it's important. If you listen to Ben Smith's interviews, after he announced he was leaving the New York Times and he was creating a new media organization with the former head of Bloomberg media. He's talked about the shift from brands being the primary distributor to individuals being the primary distributor. Now, it's not black and white. We're in gray territory. But the role of individuals and distributing content via social media in particular, is more and more important. So if as a brand you just tweet out a video once and then wait to see if it's gonna go viral. The chances are, it probably won't. If I tweet out a video once and then just disappear the chances are, it probably won't. And so for the last 18 months, two years, I've worked incredibly hard to build a digital network. So if someone shares my video, I send them a message and say I'm glad you enjoyed the video. If someone shares my video and says there's a bunch of mistakes in this, I'll go back to them and say well, these are the reasons why we did it like this. I'll engage with people whether they are being positive or negative. I'm I'm present in the digital space where our video needs to perform. And I think that has helped to develop a relationship that people feel they have between me and the BBC is the source of the explainers. And them as the consumer. But that process is is ongoing. It's not a moment where you just click tweet and you know, lean back and go right let's go viral. It doesn't work like that at all. And I think perhaps that sometimes gets missed when people look at not just our videos but other videos that are doing well. Normally, if you look behind the scenes, not only is there an impressive process to create the content, there's also an impressive process to distribute it digitally in an effective way that doesn't just happen in a moment but is supported as an ongoing endeavor.
There are a number of questions coming in to let's frame it in this way. You've been praised very much for the omnis explainers for striking the right balance in terms of impartiality, I think the Sunday Times described it as assertive impartiality. Do you think this format that you've developed is particularly suited to impartiality? Or is Is there something else that you're consciously doing?
So the format as we've devised is certainly suited to impartiality because I've been at the BBC for 20 years. I don't know how to be anything other than an impartial journalist is the vast majority of my journalistic career and so it's front and center of every calculation that I make. But I think necessarily you couldn't do a version of what we're doing with opinion put into it, but I would just raise one concern about that. For me, one of the things that I've tried to do with these videos and my colleagues on the outside source team have tried to do as well is to release the potency of facts, to give facts and clear information, their greatest impact. And to do that you have to do a few different things. One is you need to distill that information down into its clearest and simplest and most consumable form. The second is you need to offer that in a way that places the fewest obstacles between the audience and the fact. And so if you listen to my scripts, short sentences, no adjectives, very sparse. I don't really add any trimmings at all. I just present you with the information and allow you hopefully to judge that information and take from it take from it what you will. And the third thing is that if you're doing that, and you're seen as being a fair and impartial person to provide that information, I would suggest the chance of people taking the information is higher. So I would like to thank the fact that these videos have been praised across the political spectrum in the UK mean that when people see a video of ours, they think we can trust this to be a fair assessment and a fair representation of what's happening. If you start putting in your own personal opinions into that mix. Well then potentially, you're going to undercut how you're seen as the messenger. Now, there are there are not familiar suggesting that opinion, lead journalism doesn't have a have a role, but particularly in this area of explanation. I think if you're seen as someone who's got a very strong view on it, but you're also wanting to be the person who's seen as a neutral presenter of all the relevant information, potentially there's going to be a tension there. I don't know I haven't explored it, but certainly for me, it is absolutely central to everything we're doing that this is seen as a fair and Representative distillation of the story. That is the thing that we pour over when we're looking at the scripts. We're not just looking at the scripts for factual accuracy. We're looking at the scripts to say Have we been fair to every single person and every single party or every single country that's represented in this story? Now, for me that goes to the very heart of what we're trying to do, if you could wrap opinion into that as well. I don't know. I've never tried but I think there are potentially some contradictions between those two missions.
Do you practice in those rehearsals, your expression and tone to ensure impartiality as well?
I think I practice my tone only because my tone doesn't really shift very much because I'm not looking to make this about me or about the program. I'm looking to say, you can come to me and you can come to our program for a fair representation. Of the facts and here they are. But for me the facts take center stage. Now I'll give you one example which which really taught me an important lesson. We'll all remember that. We'll all remember the four seasons total landscaping story when the Trump campaign turned up in the gardener's Yard in Philadelphia, the outskirts of Philadelphia, this extraordinary moment, all happening at the same time as CNN is projecting Joe Biden as the winner. So you know, a momentous moment and a farcical moment, all wrapped up in one and it happened on a Saturday and I came in on the Monday morning and I thought I think we could do a video on this. And we looked around at what other people had been doing on it. And everyone had been making fun of the Trump campaign in different ways. They had been reading out funny tweets or making jokes themselves or whatever it might be. We looked at them and we said, we don't need to do any of that. We just need to tell the story and people can take from the story, whatever they like. And so we produced a video not very long, three, three and a half minutes, where we simply assembled the facts. We didn't try insert ourselves into it with a funny tone or anything. I just read it completely straight, and we scripted it completely straight. And it did I don't know what it got to in the end 2.42 point 3 million views went everywhere. And that I took something really, really powerful from that, which is that if we can distill stories down, and we can place the facts and the information front and center, people can take from that what they choose. That's not really my business to tell you this been a bad day. For this politician or a good day for this politician. I'm not really interested in that. Frankly, I'm interested in presenting you with the information and then you can do with it, what you will and so strangely, four seasons total landscaping taught me an important lesson which is less is more so in terms of tone I suppose what I would say is I work very hard to not inject a tone. I'm not trying to I'm not trying to bring myself to what I'm sharing. I'm trying to give it to you in as consumable and efficient way as I possibly can. And I think there's one other thing I would add there, which connects to tone, and it's this word efficient. One of the things that inspired me to start these videos was I was covering the 2019 election here in the UK and I was being dispatched down to call where I'm from to do some reporting and one of the main TV bulletins I can't remember that was BBC One or one of our rivals had a report about a town in Cornwall so it's like brilliant to watch this. Who would have thought that this will be really helpful. And what's the report with my notepad in hand ready to clean lots of useful informations during my reporting the next day? It told me hardly anything. It showed me what it looked like. I heard from some people on the high street, but it didn't give me any hard facts. And what I've tried to do with these videos and what the whole team is, is working around is to say if you give me a minute of your time, I'm going to give you an awful lot back. I'd like to think we're good value per minute. And so the reason that connects back to your tone point is if I'm busy trying to pass comment on something or busy trying to be funny about something that's time that I'm not spending, giving you more useful information. And so that's a very long way of saying now I don't practice my tone very much we practice how the the piece flows, and we practice the the, the the feel of it and the editorial quality of it, of course and all the things you would expect but no, I'm not kind of I'm not. I'm not practicing again, again, how I say certain words, not at all.
While we're on the topic of impartiality I imagine it must be difficult to be impartial about impartiality at the BBC when you're in the BBC, but the criticisms that you've seen what would you say to those critics? Because it sounds to me like you're you, you and your team are working very hard to to uphold this as sort of a central tenet of your work.
So do you mean what do I think about broader criticisms of the BBC,
broader criticisms of impartiality of BBC News, it seems to come from both the left and the right, which is encouraging but
I mean, I think I think you'd want to be getting you know, the head of BBC News on to ask me about that rather than now. I'm not going to start passing judgment on the the efforts of the whole of BBC News. All I would say is that I've been here for 20 years. I've never, ever heard anyone in the newsroom ever express a personal opinion on any story and then try and impose it on a story. So by all means, it's reasonable for anyone in the world to critique our output and say how they feel we're doing and I welcome that criticism directly on the work that we're doing and engage with it on a regular basis on social media. But in terms of is the overall goal accepted is the overall idea of impartiality accepted? I mean, it runs through the entire organization to a degree that I don't think people who haven't worked here really understand if I was to offer up an opinion in an editorial meeting. I mean, the air would chill. I've never seen anyone do it. So from that side of things, it feels as deeply embedded in what the BBC is has ever before. But in terms of the overall output of the BBC, I'm not the man to ask about that.
Fair answer. Has there. Has there ever been an explainer that you weren't that happy with but learned lessons from if you would choose.
I'll give you I'll give you I'll give you one example. It's not a least favorites. It's a story with a with a good ending, which is that when the situation in Afghanistan was unfolding in August, or July and into August, of course, there was a huge amount of attention on what what why is this happening? And understandably, there was a lot of attention on Joe Biden and the decisions that he had taken and the fact that he unilaterally decided to do this, despite the reservations of his European allies. I was, though interested to unpack the history of this going back to the Trump administration's meetings with the Taliban in Doha, the year before it seemed to me that you couldn't, which is not to say Joe Biden didn't have a role in the story, but you couldn't understand the story unless you had first understood the dynamics that have played out in those negotiations, both in terms of who was invited and who wasn't invited and in terms of, of what was agreed, and there was a lot to put in because it's a complicated story, and we wanted to get it right. And I think we made an eight minute explainer. All of the information had been signed off. So it'd been through the BBC experts had been through the process that I was that I've already described to you. But it didn't keep us there were there was one section in particular in the middle where there was, I was talking for too long a time without break where the sentences had lost their rhythm and would become flabby. Factually, it was correct, but in terms of a high quality explainer video to consume, it wasn't quite there. And the output editor on the time was one of my closest colleagues, Andrew Bryson. And he came over to me, and the producer, I think, was Michael Cox off the top of my head, but I might be doing another colleague, a disservice. And Andrew is like, there's this section in the middle that's got to go. And I was like, we can't take that out. We can't take it out. Like that's part of the story. And so we stood huddled around this you know, for I don't know how long we to and fro and in the end after about 15 minutes, Andrew said, I've got to go make my gun to go get my train. And and he went to get his train. And I watched it back again, the long version from the start. And he was right. I could feel my attention drifting, even though I'd written the thing. So if I wasn't interested to watch it, my goodness, no one else would stick with it, of course. And so we went back and we re edited the script, and we found ways of taking slack out of the script elsewhere. To shorten it. We dropped some elements that we managed to navigate the story without, and we've got it down to about five and a half, six minutes. And I haven't checked recently, but it was on something like 1.4 million views. Last time I checked, it went completely viral and was very effective. And if Andrew hadn't insisted that we revisit the efficiency of our information delivery, it definitely wouldn't have done and so that comes to a really important point that I would emphasize, which is we have no fixed length, but we have a fixed rule about efficiency. So maybe a video needs to be two minutes, maybe it needs to be nine minutes, whatever it needs to be. It needs to be ruthlessly efficient. It needs to be ruthlessly fair and it needs to take you through the story with a rhythm that makes you want to start at the beginning and stick with it all the way and if you can feel it's wrong, even though you've been working on it all day and even though the last thing you want to do is change it as you need to because if you don't, it's not going to work.
I'm going to try taking a question from one of our fellows so that they can pose it to your life. This is Robin Vinter. And Robin Forgive me, let's see how this works. Are you with us?
Yes, sorry. Well, then he rejoined to. And yes, so my question, which I've now forgotten what it was. And because obviously a lot of the time when when these explainers are going viral on social media, you kind of lose I guess you lose a thread of like, where they're going and who's sharing them. And you know, I'm sure there are cases where people have like, downloaded the video and sharing them on their own platforms and sharing them on WhatsApp and things like that. And do you have do you have any idea who the audience's and do you have anyone in mind, you know, a fictional character in your head in you know, in mind when you when you produce them and when you write the scripts.
So we do have an idea of where the audience is, but the audience fluctuates enormously. So when I bushfire videos, we're going viral the primary audience for them was in Australia, when we were doing some Trump coverage. Obviously the primary audience was in America when we're doing the stories about the number 10 parties while they are getting shipped while they are getting shared abroad. They're primarily being shared in the UK. So the the geographical whereabouts of the consumers varies enormously. There's a second variable which is really important, which is and Caitlin and I were talking about this just before it started. Different videos will perform well on different platforms. So to put simply, Twitter is primarily driven by people sharing an either liking or not liking something that's a more emotional platform, while as YouTube is driven by search, so we can do a distillation of say the conflict in Ethiopia, which is a reasonably straight this is just what's going on. We could put that on Twitter, and it may not do huge numbers. We can put that on YouTube if the story is heavily in the news, and it will do very big numbers, or, for example, Briony Saudi who's one of our top producers did a distillation of all the latest news on Tang or after the volcanic eruption. That's on 2 million views on YouTube. We didn't even post that on Twitter because we were sure it wouldn't perform well as something which is say the Owen Paterson lobbying route back a couple of months ago now when the UK government sought to change the rules around parliamentary standards and then change their mind that was a story where there was a lot of heat around it. And we were coming into the story and saying, Well, this is this is the situation we'll just lay out the situation. We're not going to take sides, but this is what's happened. That performed very, very well on the BBC website and on Twitter, but not so well on YouTube. And so these things vary. And as you do more of them, you get a feel for where they perform in terms of the person I have in mind. So the person I have in mind, well, there's there's a couple of people. One is someone who is really interested in the news but feeling overwhelmed with how much information is coming at them. So one of the most complimentary things we've had said about our videos is it can save you reading five long reads and listening to four podcasts. spend five minutes with us and you can kind of shortcut yourself to feeling very well informed it can hopefully make you feel clever or better informed on a subject so that's one person I have in mind someone who doesn't have the space in their lives or perhaps just doesn't have the inclination to be a heavy heavy news consumer but would like to be informed and so this is very much a product for them. It's also a product for people who are interested in the news and who do watch TV and listen to radio but perhaps have turned away from more traditional TV and radio news formats and feel that well. The digital experience is simply following things on Twitter or reading a text article on a news website. This was our effort to put a new genre a new format into the mix and say well, even if you don't want to watch a more classic half an hour bulletin or listen to a more classic hour long radio program. Perhaps this longer form video could work for you. And so that was an experiment and it's purely anecdotal, but based on all the comments coming back, we're very much hitting that type of person who is who is saying, excellent. I was looking for something like this and and now I've got it. And the the third person I've got in mind, and this is not a particular person, I suppose, but it's more a perspective is the person who is curious about the world, and he's wanting more detail. So there was a fashion in the last 1015 years to move away from detail in the digital sphere that perhaps if we made things long and too detailed, people wouldn't consume it and videos for a while got shorter and shorter. I think Vox in America did a very good job at pushing back at that idea and saying is a long high production, deep dive on a subject and they were racking up lots of views. I guess what I'm doing is a slight twist on that is that often Vox delivers its videos quite a long time after the event while as we're delivering our videos on the day or very, very soon afterwards. But this is definitely for someone who maybe reads and this isn't a criticism, by the way. Maybe reads the front page 800 word story on an on an article not just for the BBC, but from lots of news organizations and things Okay, that's a good start, but I'd like more and and this is an effort to say well, here is more, but we put a lot of work to distilling it down. So it's more but it's still only going to take you five or six minutes. So I always have those kinds of people in mind. And one of the nicest surprises as well has just been the number of students who come to us and teachers so yesterday I spoke at a secondary school in Edinburgh whose teacher had been using one of our videos to teach critical thinking to their 1617 year olds. And we hear from quite a few students and quite a few teachers who say they find our videos useful because they're aware of stories, but haven't managed to keep on top of every last twist and turn and and why would they they're busy doing lots of other things. And they find our videos useful for that. So whenever I hear from getting messages from Denmark and from the UK and from Spain, I think last week, the teacher saying we're using the videos and that's a good sign for me that we're into an interesting space.
Hi, Ross. I would definitely agree that you're into an interesting space here. One thing that I'm an editor density routine. And one thing that we do struggle with when doing these explainers ourselves is how explicit should we be about the stories relevance? How, how basic should we be when we try to explain why the story is important? And I wonder if you could share some thoughts on that.
Well, I think you should be very explicit because news doesn't happen in a vacuum. Something is only a story if the context makes it. A story a tree falling over in one place is a big story, a tree falling over somewhere else isn't the story but and so the reason why something matters is hugely important. And in fact, if you watch my program often enough, you'll just hear me saying, I'll say this has happened. And the reason it matters is I'll literally say those words so that I am directly looking the audience in the eye and saying, This is the reason that you should care. And I think that's a massive challenge. For that let's take let's take the situation in Bella ruse, for example. So Bella ruse as a story, as a humanitarian story is of course hugely serious and hugely worth covering. It takes on an extra dimension though if you explain how batteries fits into that part of the world and the broader geopolitical dynamics and how that could potentially influence four other five could influence other stories that connect much more closely to someone watching in your country or someone watching in the in the UK and if you can help make those links the chances of an audience view engaging with that is is that much higher. So for example, what's the so for example, Burkina Faso has been happening in the last few days. Now, this isn't a criticism but a lot of our viewers around the world won't know a huge amount about Burkina Faso. But it is a really important story, particularly how it connects with the fight against Islam is terrorism. You've got to take time in the telling of you've got to take time in the telling of the story about Burkina Faso to place that in context to explain what the history of the country is to explain what the political history isn't the last 1015 years the fact that there have been multiple coup since independence in the 60s, you've got to explain how it fits into the broader West African fight against Islam is terrorism. You've got to explain all of those things for the audience to care about the fact that there has been a coup and a president has been ousted, or at least it helps the audience to care. Some viewers will care anyway. But I think you can't assume that they'll care and it's not to pass judgment on anyone to say they perhaps aren't tuning into that story. So for me, I wouldn't I would always be as explicit as I could be, and make time in the piece. So this is the other thing is that that's the kind of thing that always gets caught on TV. We haven't got time for that. I always like something else has got to go if you haven't got the reason it matters in there. And you're just reporting the facts without the reason it matters. Then I think you're taking a chance if you know if God forbid, a bomb went off in London, we don't need to explain why that matters. We know it's a serious story, but actually lots and lots of stories. We do need to explain why that matters, and it's always worth making space.
Whereas we had a question from Nick in Indonesia. Earlier she said have you ever had to cut an explainer that you had planned because of breaking news and what did you do with
it? Yes, we've had I mean it's it's it's something that we wrestle with a lot. So this is fresh in my mind. So the joke a bit story, because of the time difference between Melbourne and London. was often developing just after we came off there. So we're making an explainer an outside source, and we're wanting to push it out and we know that the story is likely to move but we also know the audience has got a huge appetite for the story. And so if you look at the way that we scripted all three of those, we did three in a row that all went through the million mark and each one the tense and the language we were using about jock virtue status was deliberately cautious so that the explainers didn't go out of date so that a good example would be when he went into detention. So I was on the train going home I often post the videos on the train going home, and I'm about to press send on the first jock explainer. And then I see on my phone, it flashes up. You know Jovovich into detention. I'm like, man, like, but I put the fact that he'd been put into detention in the tweet. And the way we'd written the video meant that we've simply done the story up to that point, so it didn't go out of date. But there have been others the most painful one was we did a really detailed and I thought, excellent unpacking of Australia's approach to COVID and it's the tensions around zero COVID policy. We'd spent a whole week working on it, and it had been through any number of checks, and we were really quite pleased with the end outcome. No one was suggesting the story could move. We'd finished it on the Thursday night. And when we got up on the Friday, Scott Morrison had made a surprise announcement that his policy had massively shifted, and it just went in the bin. So so we are live to the possibilities that explainers could get taken out, and they are deliberately written in a way. Let's take our Ukraine explainer, which we posted on Monday, even if that story moves a little bit this week. It won't go out of date. It's been it's been written in a way that we're not a hostage to Fortune, but of course, sometimes. Or the one we did the one you played at the beginning of the session, we wrote it in a way that if Sue Grey's report did come out, it would still work. But of course, sometimes a story moves so much, you just have to. We've all been there in newsrooms where you put loads of time into something and and it and it bites the bullet. I would make one other point Katie, which is which is related though, which is sometimes we just don't go through with it. One of the biggest lessons we've learned with digital as well as with TV, you have to go on the TV every night with digital you don't. I had a couple of health things last year, which meant that I was off for a few weeks. Everyone coped, it wasn't like we were being daily to the people going where are the explainers? They weren't really missing them. But when I popped back up, they were, I think glad to see them. So it comes back to my point about being exceptional. Only post something when you've really got something good to share. And if you're not so sure about it, maybe don't bother because you don't want to dilute that relationship you have with your audience. And so the the advice that I would share and the advice I've been given by all the bosses here at the BBC have been massively supportive is this is going really well but you don't need to crank up the volume. It's absolutely fine. Just do it. Do it on merit. And so we sometimes have weeks we don't do any. We sometimes have weeks like this week, we've already done three, but Evan flows according to the stories not because we feel any obligation to make them
that goes to something that we were discussing off air that I'm sure other people might be wondering, this is primo tic toc content that you're creating. Why aren't you there?
It's a reasonable it's a reasonable question. I think. The reason I'm not there is that I think you want to get these things right. And I think the thing that I learned the hard way, frankly, with launching outside source was I thought we'd created a great TV program that would generate digital content. I think we did create a great TV program but it wasn't generating successful digital content. And we had to revisit that. And the explainers. We're talking about now are the consequence of many, many, many hours of talking and reading and watching and thinking and finessing the idea and then committing to it, not just me, I hasten to add but many colleagues. And so it's a completely reasonable question, and I'm looking at it and I'm sure we'll do it sooner rather than later. But I want to make sure we're doing it's about finding there's some it's become a bit of a cliche in politics, but for us anyway, it's about finding your voice. I remember when I first started tweeting, I wasn't quite sure what tone to use or how to use it. And of course all these years on you feel comfortable. When I first went on the radio I was thinking, well how do I be as a news presenter on the radio, how much of it is me how much of it is me being the BBC and you find a point? I found a point with these explainer videos, but it didn't come overnight. It's something that's worked up. And I think the best performing journalists in any genre of journalism are people who feel authentic and people who feel comfortable with where they are. And so I'm not avoiding the the the question which is a fair one, I shouldn't be on tick tock, and we want to get our explainers there. But I want to make sure I find the right tone and voice for that platform. And I want to make sure that we respect it and understand it rather than just plowing in because to come back to my earlier point, and this is mistake I've made so it's not aimed at anyone else. If you're a TV guy who's just wandering around to digital colleagues going, Hey, take my stuff and they look at you going but your stuff isn't what we want. Similarly, you can't just march onto a platform and go Hmm, I think I've worked this out. Here you go. I think you have to spend some time really working through what you do and don't want to do and I'm in the process of doing that. So hopefully it'll be there sooner rather than later.
We're running out of time Ross but I I think several people would kill me if I didn't ask you this question. You've you've been hotly tipped as a favorable candidate for the next politics editor at the BBC. Is it a job that you would be interested in, given the current wave that you're writing?
I think at the moment, this feels like the most exciting job I could be doing at the BBC, I couldn't have imagined that we would have created this space to be able to explore and express ourselves on a range of stories. And, you know, we've had videos on the front page of the BBC News website we've had a viral video on Twitter, and we've been on BBC Breakfast in the last 24 hours. That's a pretty fantastic range, and I'm not looking to change that at all. Well, we're
very lucky to have you in whatever role you are in. BBC, thank you so much for your time today
on auto. It's an absolute pleasure to work with the Reuters Institute always is
wonderful. Thank you, Ross. We'll be back mirror. We'll be back next week. And we hope you'll join us then to go well.