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February 26, 2024

BBC’s Ros Atkins on AI, switching off (or not), and staying curious

The BBC News analysis editor says data and OSINT "are only going to become more important".

By Emma Vowles

After our interview, Ros Atkins goes viral on X (formerly known as Twitter) with a thread about his journey back to London from Penzance. It chronicles his will-he-won’t-he make it trip home on a rail replacement bus that made a wrong turn, and has over half a million views.

Quite an achievement on a busy November news day. It’s even got a headline – ‘The bus that turned west’. It’s a lesson in the art of story-telling – a technique he talks about in his book The Art of Explanation. It’s impressive to see it unfold in real time.

Atkins is analysis editor for BBC News, and an occasional drum and bass DJ. He’s well-known for his clean, factual explainers on BBC news programmes. He’s in Penzance to promote the book and says it’s been “frantic”. We sit in the empty ticket office at Penzance train station with 20 minutes until his bus leaves.

He’s said that explanation is an art not a science, so I’m feeling the pressure early into our conversation. He wears the trademark navy blue shirt and jacket that he always wears on TV.

One piece of advice he gives is to always have a hands plan, saying: “The first question I ask myself is whether one hand or another is likely to go rogue.”

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I realise that I don’t have a hands plan, and I’m waving at least one around as we start talking. His journalistic style has been described as assertively impartial and he wants to know if I’m going to ask him about current events – “Because otherwise I’d have to get permission from work.”

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I notice he carefully avoids giving opinions of current events on social media (unless they involve buses) and there aren’t any clues when I ask what piqued his interest in journalism as a teenager:

“We used to listen to the R4 Today programme in the car on the way to school. I watched the Six O’Clock News after Neighbours when I got home from school. News was always around. I’d love that thing – I still do – opening up a newspaper or turning on a programme and learning about one really important or interesting thing.

“I’ve always been a curious person and news seems to me like the ultimate job for people who are curious.’’

[Read more: Seven ways to fix the news from the BBC’s Ros Atkins]

‘I’m not particularly good at switching off’

Does he ever have a day off from following news stories and switch off his phone?

“I’m not particularly good at switching off. I’m not switching off to a great degree because if the stories that I’m doing move between when I walk out the door from work and come back in I need to know about that. Also I’m really interested in it, so I’d be looking at it anyway. It’s very, very, very rare that I wouldn’t know what the main stories of the day are. I think that might happen one or two days a year maybe – probably not even that.”

They’re locking up the train station for the night, so we go and stand outside the closed tourist information office in the November wind. He’s said that explainers evolved because he loved the idea of constructing a story or an issue in front of the viewer.

Does he see artificial intelligence playing a future part in that process?

“I think one of the things we’re going to have to work hard on is if AI has generated an article, how is it going to be stamped that it’s been produced by AI as opposed to a journalist. Or if a journalist and AI have been involved – how do we mark that? It is going to become a big thing.

“We’re not quite sure what that means in practical terms. Just like using spell check on a word processor – things have evolved and now they start suggesting phrases don’t they? Now, I don’t take those suggestions I write my stuff myself, but you can see ways that AI is going to be able to evaluate what you’re doing and give you information and options.’’

Atkins writes about an era of fake news and wild online rumours, and says that asking what the source is of information we’re given is essential. If an information source is stating something with certainty but does not show you where that ‘fact’ comes from we should immediately be sceptical.

Open-source intelligence (OSINT) is becoming more widely used by journalists to help solve this issue. It’s produced by collecting and analysing publicly available and online information and data to answer questions surrounding news stories. 

“There’s a huge emphasis now on BBC journalists sharing more of what goes into us telling you that this is the case about something or offering you a certain analysis,” Atkins says, for example through BBC Verify of which he is a part.

“So there’s an appetite to show more of our workings. Data and OSINT are only going to become more important. You can see in the coverage of the Israel-Gaza war all big news organisations are using OSINT specialists to inform their coverage.

“It’s able to give us informed analysis of situations, particularly in conflicts at the moment. There have been a number of reports I’ve done recently where without the support of the OSINT specialists I work with I wouldn’t have been able to be as confident saying this happened or this didn’t happen or to describe an event in a certain way.

“If we don’t really understand stories, data gives us extra detail and reveals things that without it we couldn’t have seen.’’

‘Remain curious about everything’

We don’t have much time before his bus leaves so I ask what advice would he give to journalists starting out.

“Consume as much journalism as you can from as broad a range of sources and as broad a range of formats as possible. Seeing all the different ways journalism can manifest itself can creatively be very influential on what you do. Watch out for journalists when they do something that you think works. Stop and go back and think – what was it they did that worked for me?

“Sometimes when we consume, not just journalism, but lots of different types of content, we’ll know that we like it, and it was helpful, but not what was done to make us feel that way. Make journalism – it doesn’t really matter at the start, whether it’s been consumed by one person or a million people, the act of making it will make you better at it.

“The more we do it, the better we get, so don’t stay stuck in the theory all the time. Make as much as you can, whether it’s video or audio or written. experiment. Not all of it’s going to be great, but the process of making it will make you better.  Remain curious about everything. If there’s a story you’re given and you can’t get interested in it, make that your challenge, not the story’s challenge. Find ways of looking into subjects that initially you’re not taken by but are important to others – get your curiosity running.

“Every time you’re asked to do something, do it as well as you can and do it on time. Editors like reliable journalists for obvious reasons because we’re operating to very tight deadlines. If you get a reputation for being reliable, and for excellence, you’re going to be fine.”

With the word ‘reliable’ ringing in my ears, I direct him to where the replacement bus service is leaving from. What happened next is another story – I’m just sorry I didn’t buy him a pasty for his long long journey home.

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Select and enter your email address Weekly insight into the big strategic issues affecting the future of the news industry. Essential reading for media leaders every Thursday. Your morning brew of news about the world of news from Press Gazette and elsewhere in the media. Sent at around 10am UK time. Our weekly does of strategic insight about the future of news media aimed at US readers. A fortnightly update from the front-line of news and advertising. Aimed at marketers and those involved in the advertising industry.
  • Business owner/co-owner
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  • CFO
  • CTO
  • Chairperson
  • Non-Exec Director
  • Other C-Suite
  • Managing Director
  • President/Partner
  • Senior Executive/SVP or Corporate VP or equivalent
  • Director or equivalent
  • Group or Senior Manager
  • Head of Department/Function
  • Manager
  • Non-manager
  • Retired
  • Other
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how Progressive Media Investments may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.
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