Horrocks: Only 1 per cent of BBC audience contributes; UGC value apparent only when filtered

Head of BBC newsroom Peter Horrocks has argued that user generated has “brought a valuable additional aspect to our journalism”, but points out that only a tiny proportion of the audience contributes and the the real value of comments, user-generated content, and citizen journalism only becomes apparent when journalists can find the most valuable of these contributions.

On the BBC blog The Editors, Horrocks has posted the transcript of a speech that he gave to the Institute of Communication Studies in Leeds on the value of “citizen journalism”, a term which he uses interchangably with “user-generated content”.

“[T]he somewhat messianic and starry-eyed way in which public participation journalism is argued for needs some very careful consideration,” Horrocks argued. “And there are many different aspects of such journalism, with varying degrees of value.”

The BBC received between 10,000 to 20,000 e-mails or posts a day on its Have Your Say site — a figure that represents less than 1 per cent of users of the BBC News web site, Horrocks says. As a result, the BBC is having to carefully consider how to deal with this input from a relatively small minority.

Horrock’s long talk raises several very interesting and important points. A recurring theme, though, is that robust filtering — when journalists are able to sort the wheat from the chaff — is essential to maximising the editorial value of user contributions.

Following the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, Horrocks recounts, the BBC received many anti-Islamic messages on its Have Your Say forums. Horrocks says he believes these comments were far from representative of the overall audience views, that they had “very little” value and influenced the BBC’s coverage “hardly at all”.

“Buried amongst the comments however, rarely recommended by others, were insights from those who had met Benazir or knew her. And there were valuable eye witness comments from people who were at the scene in Rawalpindi,” he writes.

Searching for new filtering tools

The key is to extract editorial value from the huge volume of contributions, he says. The BBC is “exploring as many technological solutions as we can for filtering the content, looking for intelligent software that can help journalists find the nuggets and ways in which the audience itself can help us to cope with the volume and sift it.”

UGC hub centre-stage in multimedia newsroom

The desk charged with this filtering, the “UGC hub”, has allowed the BBC web site to break stories from “form the most obscure corners of the globe”. The hub will be close to centre-stage in the new integrated BBC newsroom, making it more useful for the Corporation’s broadcasting output and allowing additional journalists to be assigned to it when it is inundated with submissions during high-profile events.

High profile examples reveal little

Horrocks also argues that the high-profile examples of UGC contributing to BBC journalism of major news events – the 7 July bombings, Buncefied, and Virginia Tech — actually do not raise some of the more interesting editorial dilemnas UGC brings with it in cases where users spotntanious submissions prompt stories. He provides some more enlightening examples:

  • “[W]hen the contaminated fuel incident happened a little while ago the BBC’s question on its website asking people to tell us where they bought their fuel if they had had a problem engine was the most accurate data any organisation in the country had about the location of the problem.
  • “Last year our defence correspondent Paul Wood became aware of widespread concern within the army about the condition of barracks. By using army websites and obtaining material from soldiers’ families he obtained pictures and information that painted a devastating picture of sub-standard accommodation.”
  • “Contributors posting on Twitter provided an earlier picture of the Barack Obama victory in the Iowa caucuses than any professionally organised exit poll or data collection. The potential for this sort of journalistic enterprise is only just being realised.”

“Each of those stories would not have been possible, certainly with the speed with which they were produced, without the new technologies that allow intense interaction between journalist and audience,” he says.

However, Horrocks also warns that user engagement is no panacea for re-engaging news audiences: “There is no reason why passive news consumers or citizens will be drawn to any organisation’s journalism simply because it is palpably audience-driven. Of course this wider range of sources should improve our story-gathering and the quality of what we do, but that still needs to be assessed and delivered through an expert journalistic prism. I have seen no evidence that raw audience interaction or unvarnished news direct from the audience is more attractive than professional news.”

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