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citizen journalism: what to publish? (or making transparent editorial decisions)

By on Dec 19, 2005 in BBC, citizen journalism, social software | 1 comment

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A few months ago, a colleague of mine let it slip that the BBC News website was moving it’s "Have Your Say" section to a new discussion platform. The main point of this was to ensure that there was transparency (and to deal with a healthy dose of service system overload and increasingly strained people resources) in how messages are dealt with by the team here at Television Centre.

The old process, which I’ve described as "curtains" went something like this:

User posts comment –> it goes behind a curtain where BBC staff members, perhaps wearing bizarre costumes and dancing around a hot cauldron, ensure that absolutely nothing contentious gets through checks the spelling, fixes the grammar, alters the meaning –> a few exceptionally well written comments appear

At least that’s what the public thought was going on and I don’t blame them. Up until recently, Have Your Say used a web based form to gather comments from users. Those comments were then sent, via email, to a journalist at Television Centre. The journalist would open the dozens or, sometimes, hundreds or even thousands of emails to see what the balance of opinion was. Then they’d set about finding a "representative sample of viewpoints expressed", editing those posts for spelling and grammar as well as length, then publishing those on the website. The posts that ended up appearing all looked like they’d been written by professional journalists, university professors and others with impeccable grammar, spelling and who made their points in a succint way. Those submitting and never seeing their own comments appear, myself amongst them, had no idea what the publishing criteria was, nor did we see any comments that looked or read like they were written by ordinary people. One of the things I always said to journalists attending my training courses is that "radio producers don’t use a synthesiser to strip away a regional accent or to move words around to improve the grammar of the interviewee, so why would we do the equivalent online?".

Having an editorial process that is clear to users builds trust and provides a defence against those who, despite the opposite being true, think that the BBC, as a publicly funded broadcaster, "toes the government line".

The new Have Your Say takes away the curtains to reveal a very simple and fair editorial process: if it doesn’t break one of the house rules, your post gets published.

Before BBC News Online moved to the new system, there were some fears that the quality of comments published might go down. However, what we’ve seen is that the quality has remained high whilst, at the same time, the small team has been able to publish thousands of comments on a busy day (in the past a couple hundred was almost unheard of).

Now it’s the turn of the BBC World Service which has, in the past few weeks, begun rolling out the same debate platform – but in Arabic, Spanish and Russian (with other languages coming soon).

BBC Debates
Have Your Say: in Arabic, English, and Russian

I’m hoping that for both BBC News Online and the BBC World Service the new platform, with a much more transparent and, I think, fair and honest decision making process, will help the BBC to create an even greater level of trust with it’s audiences. It has, certainly, already had the affect of giving a greater number of people than ever before the opportunity to express their views and see them published on the BBC website – which, afterall, is why people contribute in the first place.

(Please note: The post above are the views of the owner of cybersoc.com and are not in any way endorsed by the BBC or the BBC World Service.)