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March 30, 2022updated 30 Sep 2022 11:11am

Channel 4 News reaches record social media audience with Ukraine war explainers

By Charlotte Tobitt

Channel 4 News explainer videos about the war in Ukraine aimed at the “intelligent non expert” have been breaking records for traffic at the channel.

A video titled “Russia has invaded Ukraine – this is why” produced in the first week of the war became Channel 4 News’ most-watched on Snapchat, drawing in 120,000 new followers on the platform. It received about 15 million views across all platforms, according to Georgina Lee (pictured, left), who leads Channel 4’s Fact Check output

“All our explainers are just breaking records now,” she said, “and it’s that line between not being patronising but also not expecting the viewer to know every little twist and turn – and just kind of helping people learn something but in a way that doesn’t feel like we’re talking down to them.”

As the war enters its second month the team is beginning to evolve its approach.

Lee said: “Viewers, listeners and readers are building up a greater knowledge of what’s happening day by day, and so bringing new insight means taking the time to tell more complex stories.

“Whereas our early successes came in the ‘back to basics’ approach, introducing viewers to what we assume for most is a relatively new topic, our latest Fact Check explainer takes a longer view across Putin’s history as a war leader and tracks the patterns of his tactics over his decades in office.”

‘Getting things wrong is life or death’

Before the invasion, Lee worked on combating misinformation and disinformation, often by unpicking data in the news or testing claims from politicians, public figures and sometimes other media outlets.

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Now, her job is more about verifying footage from Ukraine and using it within stories and videos to explain what is going on and why.

Asked how she found that change in tone, Lee said: “It’s obviously much more upsetting and it’s much more distressing and the general tenor of the newsroom is very different. And so, because in some cases getting things wrong is literally a life or death situation – to accidentally say that something’s fake news and it’s not or vice versa, you can genuinely endanger people.

“So, I suppose, compared to the otherwise quite important but still not life or death matters that go on, say, in Parliament it is a higher-stakes operation.”

The Fact Check mantra of “it’s better to be right than first” still, however, holds true.

Lee added: “We would prefer to take a little longer to verify something, to keep going back and forth with experts or giving people a chance to comment and make sure that we’ve hammered out the detail rather than rush something out… in that sense it’s what we would normally be doing but, obviously, against the backdrop of a human tragedy.”

On Monday, the Channel 4 News Youtube account passed two million subscribers. It has also added around 200,000 new Facebook followers since the war began, tripled its Tiktok audience and added thousands of subscribers to its Snapchat series. The brand now has a total social following of about 5.3m.

Lee said older audiences on Facebook and Youtube had “sprung up into life a bit more”.

“I think it’s well known across the industry that Facebook has been slightly less favourable to newsrooms in the last few years, but we’ve seen almost a reversal of that trend,” she said, with “astonishing figures” on explainer videos in particular. A 160-second video published the day after the invasion explaining “how we got here” has been viewed 9.5 million times.

On TikTok, Lee said interest in news – both from Channel 4 News and other providers – is “defying another previously held bit of conventional wisdom that young people don’t necessarily get involved in politics”.

[Read more: Why Sky News, unlike the BBC, is embracing TikTok and Snapchat]

What works best on Ukraine, she said, is “trying to kind of give it that hook on to someone’s everyday life” and “convey a bit more of a relatable line” – giving the example of a video explaining why McDonald’s leaving Russia country was significant to people living there which received 1.8 million views.

“We’re engaging with people who might be 13, 14, 15, they’re only just becoming kind of politically and globally aware,” Lee added. “So giving them that sort of in, and then once they’re on our site they seem to want to hear more about the history and the politics and economics and the ‘more serious’ end of it.”

Experienced war correspondents ‘a real asset’

On Saturday and Sunday there were two million Youtube views to packages from the weekend bulletins, far above the norm for “normal times”.

This could be because, Lee said, some of their “most successful output on digital has been cut downs and edits of the amazing reporting that we’re getting on the ground” from the likes of  Lindsey Hilsum (pictured, top right), Matt Frei and Krishnan Guru-Murthy (bottom right), all of whom have reported from war zones before.

The journalists often contribute to the podcast The Fourcast, which received 250,000 downloads in the first four weeks since the invasion including the most it has had in a day since its December 2020 launch. The podcast has ramped up production from its usual three episodes per week to add two shorter episodes.

Lee added: “This is just a beautiful, sort of, marriage of the two parts of the newsroom… I think people are flocking to see and hear people who have seen stuff like this before.

“What I think a lot of people want to know is like, is this unprecedented? Is this a game-changing war? And hearing from people who have been to Syria, they’ve been to Kosovo, they’ve been to all these quite war-torn areas and I think that’s been a real asset.”

Read more: Unprecedented reader interest in Ukraine as publishers shift to covering longer war

Pictures: Channel 4 News

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