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Explainer journalism builds trust, audience at the BBC

By Peter Bale

INMA

New Zealand and the U.K.

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Explanatory journalism is, in a sense, a classic redundancy, as a grammarian might say. As a leading news executive once said to me about investigative journalism: “Surely, all journalism is investigative?” However, we all know that not all journalism is, in fact, explanatory.

Ros Atkins, the BBC news analysis editor, has redefined what explanatory journalism — I hesitate to call it storytelling, though his methods are certainly a model of how to tell factual stories — can be online and on television. Now he’s written a guide to how to explain anything.

“Explanation is an art,” he writes in the introduction to The Art of Explanation: How to Communicate with Clarity and Confidence. “My working life is spent seeing how I can take all the complexities of what’s happening in our world and give them shape, clarity, and relevance.”

I admit to long admiring the innovative short-form, self-contained video explanations Ros became known for on BBC television, BBC World Service, BBC online, and social media. They immediately struck me as small but perfectly formed and genuinely innovative journalism. They lost nothing in brevity and clarity, and they immediately struck me as a landmark new format.

Here’s such an explainer on the Ukraine war.

An explainer on the Ukraine war.
An explainer on the Ukraine war.

I strongly believe almost any journalism outfit or reporter could learn from them and apply the Ros methods to video or to writing.

To quote the old Bloomberg adage, which became the catchphrase of former Editor-in-Chief Matt Winkler, they are classic “show, don’t tell” reports. 

The elements of any good explanatory journalism from "The Art of Explanation: How to Communicate with Clarity and Confidence," by Ros Atkins.
The elements of any good explanatory journalism from "The Art of Explanation: How to Communicate with Clarity and Confidence," by Ros Atkins.

Handily, Ros has come up with a guide in which he gives tips on how to explain almost anything — whether it’s a news story or a plan you want your boss to back you on. Throughout the book Ros unfailingly credits colleagues — peers and bosses — for their contributions and support. Unlike some authors of “how to” books, Ros didn’t claim to have discovered the journalistic equivalent of penicillin. He explains the hard work, support, and trial and error that go into creating anything — especially in a big organisation.

“I suppose the thing I’m trying to get across in the book is the techniques that I use to hopefully explain the news and create journalistic content that is successful over a range of mediums are also techniques that you can apply to other aspects of being a journalist — such as how you sell ideas or how you try and shift your career or how you interact with colleagues or managers there or how you communicate on e-mail,” Ros told me. “I think journalists don’t realise that they’re sitting on a bunch of skills that they could apply outside of producing the story,” he added in a remark that almost encapsulates the aims of the INMA Newsroom Initiative.

Ros and his explanatory short videos — him addressing straight to camera but bringing in social media, news clips, graphics, and other devices — came to prominence over the past four years, initially with reports on a spate of Australian bushfires, and then during the COVID pandemic, where the mix of explanation, easily absorbed facts, and brevity found its apogee.

They were initially on niche BBC services and became viral hits on social media — evidently meeting a hunger for easily absorbed yet objective explanations — but his approach is now firmly embedded across the range of BBC news outlets, hence his new job as “analysis editor.” That, to me, is half the achievement: getting a new format adopted across a behemoth.

“To the credit of the BBC, they were spotting this as well,” Ros told me about the recognition his work was catching on with audiences and generating huge social media numbers. “I sat down with the BBC and I said, ‘Look, I think we’re onto something here. I think we’ve got something that is different and that people seem to want.’ They supported me to start doing it not just on the bushfires, but on whatever subjects came up.”

In an era when objectivity in journalism has often been sacrificed to strident opinion — especially on television — Ros found a way to offer highly informative and often quite spiky bursts of information that still complied with the BBC’s commitment to impartiality and objectivity. He credits a colleague with describing the approach as “assertive impartiality.”

“I thought, well, how can I make impartiality competitive in an opinion-dominated arena? It seemed to me that I needed to change my tone and change my language to make that impartiality more potent,” Ros told me, also stressing the need to make each video a standalone example of BBC content that can be trusted on its own.

“Clearly all the work we do at BBC News is about trust. And we’re the most trusted news brand in the world according to most surveys, which is a privileged position to be in, but we don’t take it for granted,” he said. “If you’re making journalism for television or radio or your own Web site, your journalism sits within the surrounds of your brand and your other journalism. And, as such, it has a support infrastructure around it, which makes it much more likely to be trusted because people are already there. If you’re making journalism that’s designed to both be on BBC platforms but also be shared here, there, and everywhere, there's a good chance that your piece of journalism will be consumed in isolation, surrounded by a bunch of content with nothing to do with BBC News and often something nothing to do with news. As such, the piece of work needs to stand on its own two feet without any support infrastructure.”

Anyone running an Instagram account, or a Thread, or an X stream may take note.

The explainers were not the first time Ros managed to get an idea embraced that changed BBC news output for the better. Until I read the book, I hadn’t realised Ros was an instigator of the BBC’s 50:50 programme to try to have an even male/female distribution of interviewees and experts on its news shows. As a listener, I heard it happening before I realised it was a plan.

“I think the lesson I’ve learned in trying to try to make the case for our explainer videos and trying to make the case for 50:50 and other ideas, too, is to take it slowly, put in the time, and to not assume that my idea is a good one,” Ros told me.

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About Peter Bale

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