12 October 2023

News for All: Delivering value in journalism

BBC News Labs is dedicated to change. Often that’s technological, but we also want to help fuel conversations that prompt cultural change too.

We’re doing this through a collaboration with Media Cymru, an innovation hub, and journalist researcher Shirish Kulkarni. Together we want to give our audiences more value by changing the way we produce our journalism.

In this guest post, Shirish sets out the scale of the challenge and how, together, we’re setting about tackling it.

It may seem obvious to say that we’re in the midst of huge changes in the ways journalism is both produced and consumed. But it’s worth restating, because understanding the scale of the challenge helps us understand the scale of innovation needed to respond to the polycrisis the news industry is facing.

People seeking out news can find it in many more places now, though not all of them fact-based or trustworthy. At the same time, more and more people are choosing to actively avoid news. Many of those come from marginalised communities and/or identities, and are often avoiding the news because they feel like journalism doesn’t accurately reflect their stories.

When we add in the rise of generative AI — and its associated risks and opportunities — it’s clear that carrying on with ‘business as usual’ is unlikely to be a sustainable option. Big problems require radical solutions. That is why BBC News has partnered with the Welsh R&D consortium, Media Cymru, on a project aimed at uncovering some of those radical solutions.

I’m Media Cymru’s News Innovation Research Fellow. I’ve had a 25-year career in journalism in all the UK’s major broadcast newsrooms, as well as at the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. And I’ve spent the last four years exploring new forms of journalistic storytelling, modular journalism and community engagement — which all align with strands of work already going on within News Labs.

So with News Labs, BBC newsrooms in Wales and across the country, and the BBC’s extensive research and development team, together we’ve framed the initial challenge in this statement:

How might we tell different stories, in different ways, to meet the information needs of people and communities who don’t currently see or get a value from journalism, to enhance the capacity of citizens to understand and orientate themselves in the world, and take action on behalf of themselves and their communities, because healthy societies rely on an informed public.

To unpack some of that, the starting point is “telling different stories, in different ways” because all the evidence suggests that many of the people who choose not to engage with journalism do so because they feel like mainstream journalism doesn’t accurately reflect their experiences, or doesn’t tell stories in a way which feels useful or valuable to them.

That’s also one of the reasons why we’ve chosen the term ‘information needs’ rather than 'news’, because it’s arguable that quite a lot of ‘news’ doesn’t have huge intrinsic value. As an example, the top story on every Welsh news website a couple of months ago was a crash on the M4 motorway in which one person died. It’s a tragic incident, and what we’re used to generally regarding as 'news’. But if we ask “what value does that have to a reader, viewer, or listener?”, the answer is not all that clear.

Of course, if there had been five accidents at the same place in the last week, there’s clearly a systemic problem that merits reporting, analysis and action by the relevant authorities. It’s those kinds of stories that citizens tell us they want more of — where an understanding of the context and analysis over time helps drive positive change.

In contrast, it’s the volume of stories about isolated or individual events, which don’t have any direct relevance to their lives, that audiences tell us are key reasons for disengagement. That’s why understanding their fundamental ‘information needs’ — the journalism which helps them understand the world, their place in it, and how they can take action to improve it — is so important.

On that, the journalism industry has often felt squeamish about inspiring or encouraging any kind of action, for fear that it somehow impinges on the notion of journalistic objectivity. In recent years, the idea that journalists can ever be truly objective has been widely challenged, but what is the alternative to giving people information to help them take action? Would we prefer that the information we give our readers, viewers and listeners is consumed entirely passively, or that their response to even the worst wrongdoing or injustice is to simply accept that nothing can be changed? Perhaps we can be proactive about providing citizens with the tools they need to respond constructively to events, engage actively in their communities and contribute to healthy societies.

For these reasons, the project will start with a period of participatory research with some of Wales’ most marginalised communities. This work will also form a part of BBC R&D’s Insights Labs’ project, developing new ways to engage with audiences and better understand their needs.

The aim is to work with Design Justice principles, centring on the people and communities who are often most adversely impacted by design decisions. By producing solutions that work for them, we hope to also inspire products and services which will work for everyone.

As an example of how we hope to develop the participatory R&D, we began the process by listing all the things that would normally happen in user research: who would be invited, who would facilitate the sessions, where they would be held, who would get paid etc. Once we saw that list, the next steps elegantly revealed themselves — we’d simply do the exact opposite! So that work will happen in community-owned spaces, be facilitated by members of the community, and will start with understanding what we can learn from them, rather than the other way around.

We’ll share more about the Insights Labs process and learnings here in the coming months, but the starting point won’t be journalism — it will be understanding the participants’ fundamental human needs, the kinds of information they need to get through the next day, next week, next month. Only then will we move on to collaboratively figuring out how we can produce journalism that helps satisfy those essential needs.

The project will also aim to draw together threads of other innovation work going on in the BBC, both in the innovation labs and elsewhere. For example, research and development on translation for BBC World Service could also be incredibly valuable for diaspora communities in the UK. And there is natural alignment with the rollout of Optimo, the BBC’s new content management system. It was designed from the ground up to be a modular publishing system, providing the opportunity for more flexible storytelling, and my previous work has already demonstrated how it might help us meet the increasingly diverse needs of users to provide genuine ‘Value for All’.

There’s also, of course, the possibility that some modular content could be produced using generative AI, another area that News Labs is leading on, prioritising ethical, responsible, and trustworthy innovation in this area.

This is why engaging directly with citizens to understand their needs, and understanding the scale of the innovation required, is so important. The major players in online search are already rolling out their experiments in generative AI-driven search results. It’s likely that these responses could end up “crowding out” a lot of journalism and so, as journalists, we’ll inevitably have to reassess the services we provide, and the roles we play. Some of that will involveleaning into what makes us uniquely human — things like connection, collaboration and care; things that could never be done by a machine. This means making journalism a genuinely two-way relationship, where we’re deeply connected with audiences, in order to better meet their needs in an increasingly complex, fractured, and polarised environment.

None of this is easy, and we’ll need to find new ways of thinking and working to unlock those rewards. However, the innovative partnership between Media Cymru and the BBC gives us some of the tools to help us do that. The journey itself will be a fascinating one, and we’ll be sharing regular updates here on the News Labs blog, at journalism.co.uk and on my website.

Do get in touch if you would like to find out more or get involved.


Love data and code?

We're looking for talented developers to join our team.