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Ros Atkins: how digital has changed the BBC’s approach to news

The best news presenters are their authentic selves, no matter which platform they’re working on. That was the message from BBC presenter Ros Atkins, who on Thursday addressed the IAB Digital Summit in Johannesburg about the impact digital is having on TV programming, news gathering and reporting.

Atkins began his talk with the truism that “we are all digital” now. He suggests that ignoring the influence of digital on news gathering and reporting is a recipe for failure. Acknowledging digital, he said, goes further than simply having digital presence but responding to it and allowing it to redefine the way you work.

Atkins illustrated this by taking the audience through a story he covered on a purported shooting in San Diego, California. Atkins saw the story on social media and immediately reported on it. The details were sketchy but people in digital were talking about it and for the BBC to ignore the story would have been a mistake.

Atkins’s approach was therefore not to report that there had been a shooting, but rather that reports of a shooting were coming through on multiple digital channels. In the end, there hadn’t been a shooting and the BBC was able to walk away with its reputation intact.

He pointed out that this illustrates why a focus on digital does not mean that news publications should not still verify stories. Instead, he says, they need to bring a nuanced response to the way they report on news. Often digital has been blamed for sloppy journalism but Atkins argues that this should not be the case. He argues that the old research methodology of verifying a story should still be employed in the digital era.

“Combine the old resources of confirming the story before rushing to publish first,” the BBC presenter said.

Given his background, it should hardly be surprising that he believes TV and digital work much better together than they do apart. “If TV ignores digital, people start looking for news on their phones and they’ll switch their TVs off,” he said.

This integrated approach doesn’t just mean doing what you’ve always done on TV on a digital platform. People simply don’t respond to that. You also have to respond to viewers that are interacting with you, on whatever platform, in real time.

Interacting with audiences isn’t just about responding to their questions and comments, but doing so in the same tone that they use to interact with you.

Get all of that right, he concluded, and you can achieve the authenticity that’s so vital to being an authentic news broadcaster in the digital era.

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