News gathering has changed, news values haven’t: BBC editorial director on the last 25 years of international reporting

BBC's coverage of the Asian tsunami

BBC’s coverage of the Asian tsunami

The way news is recorded and distributed has changed fundamentally over the last 25 years, and while the values of news gathering haven’t, news providers are faced with a decline in press freedom and consumers exposed to a rise in propaganda, the editorial and digital director of BBC Global News Richard Porter has said.

Talking to Mumbrella from London as the British broadcaster marks a quarter of a century of international news operations, Porter highlighted 25 ways that news has changed since the launch of BBC World News – formerly the BBC World Service – including the transition from tape to digital, and the impact of social media, smartphones and citizen journalism.

On the key technical changes to impact news since 1991, Porter said: “Until relatively recently, we were recording everything on tape, which had to be taken to advanced facilities, and then pictures fed into our studios. These days everything is recorded on a digital device, which has completely changed news gathering in the field.”



“It used to take days to get pictures back. Now a news story can be covered almost instantly,” he said.

Porter recalled the time that donkeys were used to carry equipment over the mountains to Kabul to help the BBC’s correspondent to cover the US raids on Afghanistan after the terrorist attacks on the US in 2001.

“The story of news gathering has changed, but the values of news gathering haven’t. You still have to be there,” he said. “Everyone has a camera in their pocket, but a lot of what we do comes from talking to people on the ground and turning that into piece of television or content.”

The smartphone, particularly in the last five years, has had a “profound” impact on all levels of journalism and publishing, said Porter, who noted that the majority of BBC News’ web traffic now comes through mobile devices.

Mainstream media are increasingly using images and material sourced by the audience itself through mobile devices, he added. “You don’t hear citizen journalism as a phrase much now, because it’s so common place,” Porter observed.

The rise in mobile news media consumption has not necessarily meant a dent in TV viewing, he said – people will read about news first on their mobiles, and then go to TV for more detailed coverage.

After the Paris terrorist attacks story broke in November last year, Porter said he believes that the BBC’s TV audience was boosted by people who had first heard about the news on their mobile devices before turning to television for indepth coverage.

The news content that people consume is now shorter form, increasingly video as well as text, and relies more on graphics to tell the story, as people often consume it on the move and without sound, noted Porter, who added that the BBC intends to launch more mobile native news products.

The rise of digital native startups is also starting to make an impact on the news business, Porter noted. The likes of Buzzfeed and Mashable are now giving traditional news providers like BBC, CNN and Al Jazeera a run for their money both editorially and commercially, with Buzzfeed in particular showing the rest how to do produce compelling viral content for brands.

With the rise in accessibility to news content through technology and platforms such as social media, blogs and chat apps has come the risk that news sources are unreliable, Porter said.

“In the past few years, it has become increasingly easy for people, whether individuals, groups or organisations, to share their views and promote their agenda via platforms such as blogs, social media or video sharing sites. This has many benefits but not everyone is doing it with what most of us would consider to be good intentions. With so much information, and in some cases, misinformation, flooding our screens, feeds and inboxes, it’s increasingly difficult to know what’s real and what’s not,” he said.

“There are a lot of people who would love to see these agendas disseminated by the mainstream media and some will go to great lengths to try and trick us. In a news landscape where third party content is becoming increasingly commonplace, ensuring accuracy and impartiality is more important than ever,” said Porter, adding that the BBC has a User Generated Hub which verifies third party sources using picture recognition and geolocation software.

One part of the news business that has seen a notable slide in recent years, particularly in Asia, is freedom of the press.

Porter commented: “Unfortunately, one thing that hasn’t changed as much as we would have liked is press freedom. Whilst the situation in some countries has improved over the past 25 years, there is still a long way to go.”

“In many places, reporters are persecuted just for doing their job. According to Reporters Without Borders, last year, 64 journalists, six media assistants and 19 citizen journalists were killed because of their activities as journalists. Many others were imprisoned,” he noted.

BBC Thailand

BBC’s pop-up service in Thailand

“International news channels were blocked during the military coup in Thailand so we started a new Thai pop-up news service on Facebook to serve audiences there. The BBC’s broadcasts and websites are still jammed in a number of countries around the world. In many ways this shows why access to an independent news source is so important and must never be taken for granted,” Porter said.

Other themes to have changed the course of news over the last 25 years, Porter suggested, are media convergence, urbanisation, audience expectations and the pressure for news providers to break stories quickly.


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