Hours after the death of Benazir Bhutto, we considered turning off the comment recommendation facility on that story on the BBC News website.
The vehemence and the unanimity of opinion against the Muslim religion was striking. But our real question concerned the editorial value of the comments, and how far they should influence our coverage more widely. And the answers to that were: Very little and hardly at all.
The top 20 or 30 recommended posts all had variations on the theme, attacking Islam in comprehensive terms. Buried among the comments, however, were insights from those who had met Benazir or knew her. And there were valuable eyewitness comments from people who were at the scene in Rawalpindi. Our team that deals with user content sifted through the chaff to find some excellent wheat. And, of course, in the end we didn’t cut off that Have Your Say forum.
I begin with this salutary tale because I want to argue that the somewhat messianic and starry-eyed way in which public-participation journalism is argued for needs some very careful consideration. And there are many different aspects of such journalism, with varying degrees of value.
In terms of audience debate about the subjects we cover in the news, I believe we will need to be more relaxed about letting a wide range of views proliferate. The balance between premoderated and postmoderated debate may need to shift. And we may simply sometimes point audiences to other places, outside the BBC, where informed debate about topical subjects is happening.
Where the BBC is hosting debates, we will want the information generated to be editorially valuable. Having sufficient resource to be able to moderate the volume of debate we now receive is an issue in itself. And the fact that we have to apply significant resources to a facility contributed to regularly by only a small percentage of our audiences is something we have to bear in mind; although, of course, a higher proportion read forums or benefit indirectly from how it feeds into our journalism.
So we may have to loosen our grip and be less worried about the range of views expressed, with very clear labelling about the BBC’s editorial non-endorsement of such content.
We need to be able to extract real editorial value from such contributions more easily. We are exploring as many technological solutions as we can for filtering the content, looking for intelligent software that can help journalists find the nuggets, and ways in which the audience itself can help us to cope with the volume and sift it.
If we can free up effort from simply processing large volumes of opinion and obtain extra investment, our intention will be to enhance our efforts in getting real journalistic value out of this material. It can clearly widen our agenda and our knowledge of what is happening. It can also enhance the level of expertise from members of the public that is present in our journalism and on our airwaves. Members of the audience who really know what they are talking about play a vital role in keeping our journalism up to the mark.
And the extra effort we intend to put into this level of added-value journalism will also involve going out proactively to look for such material. Just waiting for audiences to contact the BBC is in itself distorting. Not everyone uses BBC News and those who take the trouble to contact us may not be representative. Our interactive journalists already have a very involved relationship with the blogosphere in their relevant area of expertise, through imaginative interactive initiatives on programmes like Newsnight and PM. A deep understanding of, and involvement in, the blog world should now be a requirement for all of our journalists.