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November 11, 2022updated 17 Nov 2022 1:34pm

How the BBC plans to crack US news (without getting sucked into the culture wars)

By Bron Maher

BBC News believes it can be “an antidote” to disinformation and polarisation in the US news landscape.

The corporation has ramped up investment in its North American operation in recent months, doubling its journalist headcount there and hiring two new editorial executives – even as the broadcaster has faced cuts at home.

The digital director of BBC News, Naja Nielsen (pictured), told Press Gazette the broadcaster saw North America as a major growth opportunity, both journalistically and financially.

And she said she thought a BBC culture of impartiality would put it in good stead to attract audiences in the US, where across its platforms it reaches 50 million people weekly.

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‘The most important source of trustworthy information’

The BBC said in February that it planned to grow its US and Canada digital news team from 18 to 38. In late October it announced the appointment of a new US head of digital journalism and a senior vice president of global programming and content strategy.

“BBC News has been a global player almost for decades”, Nielsen told Press Gazette last week.

“I’m from Denmark, and in my own country, we all grew up with this history lesson where we hear BBC London telling us about the liberation of Denmark after the Second World War.

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“And that’s kind of the role that BBC News and the BBC has always played. And we see that in Ukraine and Russia, Afghanistan, Iran, you know – we are the most important source of trustworthy information.”

Nielsen said the BBC had identified a lack trustworthy information in North America. “North America, and the US in particular, is of course a completely different market that has great and exciting and very innovative journalism. However, we also see… distrust in a lot of information.”

The BBC formula, Nielsen suggested, was well suited to address that distrust. “We believe that what is at the core of BBC News – to always strive to be impartial, to be accurate, us being transparent, reporting without fear or favour – all of those things that are put into our almost constitution, we can see there is a real appetite for it.”

More than that, Nielsen suggested there was a “need” for BBC journalism in North America. “Because we have no dog in the fight, because we’re not fearful of anyone… It would almost be an antidote to the disinformation that is really kind of free flowing in the American market.”

[Read more: Misinformation and the US midterms – Reuters on the frontline of US democracy]

In successive Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism Digital News Reports, the BBC has come out as the most trusted newsbrand in both the UK and the US (although its UK score has dropped in recent years).

BBC News’ North America expansion: the business case

“The growth opportunity is actually really big right now”, Nielsen said.

The North America expansion is in the publicly funded part of the BBC, rather than the commercial BBC Studios. How does the corporation sell doubling a newsroom across the ocean to increasingly money-conscious licence fee payers?

“In terms of how that is benefiting the UK licence fee payers… what we do outside Britain in English is something we monetise and then we drive on commercial terms”, Nielsen said.

“And that means that if we grow in America, we can also grow our commercial return that we then can reinvest back into journalism.”

Nielsen was speaking to Press Gazette the day after BBC England announced 179 local radio and television roles were to be cut (offset by 131 new jobs across local news). Was it uncomfortable for her to lead an expansion overseas while journalists at home were losing their jobs?

“You know what, it is. Of course it is. Because cuts are never nice and also I think we all know that change is never easy…

“I think it is important to understand that this is not a fixed pool of resources – that one of the reasons, the main reason, for us to expand in the world is because we have a really important role to play in terms of fighting disinformation and making sure that there is good, independent journalism for everyone.

“But another reason… is that we think we can grow our revenue, and by growing our revenue in America, we will have more money that we can invest in journalism. It’s that simple.”

The journalistic case

In the wake of Donald Trump’s election, numerous American news outlets – among them The New York Times, Washington Post and CNN – declared an intention to cover the new president scrupulously but impartially. Six years on, however, established US media are less trusted than ever, particularly among right-leaning Americans.

Can the BBC really double down on the US without getting pulled into the polarisation that dogs American public life?  “I believe we can,” Nielsen said. “And the reason why I believe we can is because I know when I visit all of our newsrooms, or go down in[to] our big newsroom in London on any given day, I see how colleagues are helping each other with making sure that what we do is always impartial, is always accurate. 

“I know, of course, a lot of journalists have this ideal, but personally I’ve never been in a news organisation where it is so ingrained in the DNA.

“I mean, even if I wanted to, even with all my power and my executive title, I couldn’t force people to put up with something that was slightly incorrect or not vetted.”

Nielsen contrasted that against newsrooms, for example, “in a country where there’s no real freedom of speech, or… in a company where the commercial demands make compromise on the editorial line”.

Even at well-regarded outlets, “during the Trump era of course, there were a lot of American media that you could see really struggled with keeping the balance and figuring out how you covered that impartially.

“Maybe a little self-congratulatory, [but] I think maybe we held the line.”

Nielsen attributed that line-holding to a culture inculcated into BBC employees.

“That is one of the things that we care most about when we on-board people. What we talk about, and talk with our new colleagues a lot about, is how impartiality is not a point of view, it’s actually a method.

“It’s not claiming that you always have found the objective truth, because things are developing, there are things you don’t know yet, sometimes there are limitations to the research you can do. 

“And this is why we want to be transparent about that – because we believe that to be trustworthy nowadays you need to be more transparent than ever.”

Was it going to be possible to reach the right-leaning Americans most likely to be avoiding established news outlets?

“What we are very pleased to see is that people across the political divides, class divides, where they live divides, that we are, by and large, the most trusted.”

What if those right-leaning Americans are put off by the UK reporting, for example, that Joe Biden won the 2020 presidential election fair and square?

“That is important, that. Because being impartial is not the same as letting blow in the wind what is up and down. For instance, in this example, we always make sure that we state that the claims about the elections being rigged are false and not substantiated.”

And might that mean there’s a group of Americans who will always be inaccessible to BBC News? “I think there are people that sometimes have found that news media are not ready for them, or are not there when they need them.”

Nielsen said the BBC had tried to address this by investing in its digital operations – in particular in its live blog offering, its explanation journalism, and its investigations work.

When the licence fee payer is away, will the BBC play?

Press Gazette asked Nielsen what it would be like broadcasting to an audience who don’t have a personal stake in the BBC through the licence fee.

“There is no place where we have a more privileged [position], but also bigger responsibility, than in Britain. Because it’s stated in the charter: we’re here to inform everyone.

“And actually I think the debate and also sometimes the criticism that we’ve received, for me, is proof that we are a part of this society and that we’re really important to people. 

“Our thing for all of us working here – we know the public are our owners and we are working for the public and they are completely welcome to have any opinion about what we do.”

Nielsen said the BBC now reaches 50 million people weekly in the US. “That is a lot, but there are of course nearly 400 million people in America. So I would think, as we grow, the criticism of us might grow as well. And I would welcome that debate about what we’re doing – for me, it’s a sign of our success, if I dare say so.”

[Read more: Interview – Katty Kay returns to the BBC to help British news giant conquer North America]

Picture: BBC

Note: This article originally said the BBC gets 50 million US users weekly on its website; in fact, that is the number of people who in the US that the BBC reaches across all platforms.

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