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October 20, 2022updated 17 Nov 2022 2:21pm

Meet the Facts Man: BBC’s Ros Atkins on the rise of explainer journalism

By William Turvill

Over the past 11 months, Ros Atkins has been transformed from a semi-recognisable BBC presenter into a Twitter sensation.

His explanatory, fact-heavy videos, delivered drily and with little emotion, are an unlikely social media success story – containing no live dispatches from warzones, scoops or controversial hot-takes.

His most successful video to date – covering Boris Johnson’s Peppa Pig-themed speech at the CBI conference last November – has been watched more than five million times on Twitter alone.

So, I ask Atkins in a phone interview, how does it feel to be a man in his late 40s who has shot to fame on social media?

“I’m not sure I recognise the phrase ‘shot to fame’,” says Atkins, who makes a living out of meticulously choosing his words and phrases.

After I say I’ve read that he has been recognised at Park Run a few times, Atkins concedes that “people do come up to me more than they used to a couple of years ago.

“I think that is to do with the videos. And it’s always, as you would imagine, very rewarding when people are sufficiently motivated to come and tell you they’ve enjoyed the work you’re doing.

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“That’s why we’re making this journalism – to be helpful to people. So, if it has been helpful, that’s always rewarding.”

‘I’m not sure I’d say people are overwhelmed by news’

Atkins, an occasional drum ‘n’ bass DJ from Cornwall, has been a BBC journalist for more than 20 years.

After graduating from Cambridge, he started his career in South Africa as a researcher, journalist and DJ.

He worked as Time Out’s digital editor after moving back to the UK, and then joined the BBC as a 5 Live producer in 2001. In 2014, he started as a presenter of Outside Source on BBC World News.

In 2017, Atkins, who has two daughters, founded the 50:50 Project at the BBC, which seeks to improve female representation in journalism.

Today Atkins, who has been dubbed “The Facts Man”, remains a presenter of Outside Source, as well as The Media Show, and was named analysis editor of BBC News in June.

As of tonight, he is also the host of Ros Atkins on the Week, which will aim to guide “viewers through the key stories of the week, weaving together their common themes”.

With his new 30-minute show, Atkins hopes to build on the success of his Twitter videos to help viewers cope with the “vast amount of information coming at us”.

So, does Atkins think people are being overwhelmed by news? “I’m not sure I’d say people are overwhelmed by news,” he says. “I think we’re all potentially overwhelmed by information – and not just journalistic information, but all information.

“The volume of information coming at us – whether that’s via work email, the news or different streaming services that we can watch news on, or 101 different examples – there is information swarming all around us.”

Atkins believes the “digital revolution” has caused this information overload and that media outlets, while not to be blamed, do need to adapt.

“In the context of news, people have always wanted help from journalists in understanding what’s happened in their world – in understanding the latest developments of whatever aspects of their world they’re interested in. They’ve always wanted journalists to hold people in power to account. All of those are constants, ever since journalism has happened.

“I think, though, what is changing, because of the digital revolution around us, is the way that we manifest that fundamental journalistic work inevitably does have to evolve and change. And in my own very small way, that’s what I’m wrestling with.”

I ask Atkins if he believes the UK media, in general, is bad at contextualising news. “No,” he says, “I don’t think the media is, as a whole, bad at explaining context.”

But he adds: “Increasingly I sense that there is an appetite for that context. And an appetite for further detail that runs contrary to some perceptions that all of us can’t take in too much information in one go anymore and that we’ve all got short attention spans.

“I’ve always been interested in the fact that if you tell stories effectively, and if you find ways of making information feel relevant to people’s lives, actually I’m convinced there is an appetite for detail, there is an appetite for length, and there is an appetite for context.

“And I guess, again, in my own small way, my explainer videos were an experiment in would people watch for longer if I did it differently.”

‘We’re here to help people understand the world they live in’

Atkins says he developed his passion for explanation through his work on Outside Source and BBC discussion show World Have Your Say, which seeks to explain complex international stories to global audiences.

“That became the most important thing for me journalistically – how could I explain with clarity? And I realised that the more I did it, the more we were getting messages from people who were watching, going: ‘This is really helping me – this is helping me in a way that other news isn’t as much.’

“And so I thought, well, this is exciting. Journalism is lots of things, but one of the things it is is a utility – we’re here to help people understand the world they live in. And I realised that connection between explanations and the help that I could, along with my brilliant colleagues, offer our audience in understanding the world that’s around them was profound.

“And as such, I got more and more and more interested in techniques around explanation.”

Atkins adds: “It makes my day when someone shares one of their videos and they say: ‘I wasn’t quite sure about this story, but this has helped me understand. That’s pretty much why I come to work.’”

Atkins’ explanatory videos of the past few years have spanned many subjects, covering Ukraine, Formula One and Novak Djokovic.

But it is his clips on Boris Johnson and Partygate that stick out in my mind. I ask Atkins if he’s aware of any criticism from Downing Street about these videos. “No. None.”

Is he ever accused of political bias? “One of the really pleasing parts of the response to our videos, even the ones about UK politics, is that they’re being shared by people from across the political spectrum,” says Atkins.

“Our videos are not political. We’re reporting and analysing to help people understand what’s happening. I’ve got no interest in trying to influence what’s happening at all. The only outcome I’m interested in is helping people understand what’s happening.

“And I think and hope that people involved in politics, both politicians and journalists and others, have taken our videos for what they are, which is an effort to help the audience understand an event.”

Quickfire questions with Ros Atkins

Favourite film? “I watched Man on Wire years ago and still think about it often.”

Book? Joni Mitchell: Reckless Daughter by David Yaffe

TV show? “I loved watching The Trip and it also gave me lots to think about in terms of how to tell stories. (Also I’m watching quite a lot of Dengineers on CBBC with my younger daughter at the moment – I’d quite like a den myself.)”

Podcast? “’I’m Not a Monster’ was an incredible piece of work.”

Newspaper? “All of the ones for adults! And also First News which my daughters get and which I learn plenty from. I’m routinely in awe of how well they explain stories.”

Magazine? “The Week. And I always enjoy Mojo when I see it.”

Musician or band? “I’m going to see Phoenix in a couple of weeks. Can’t wait.”

Track for your DJ set? “Toast by Koffee (Clipz remix)”

Career low point? “There have been a few! I once went to New York for a big set-piece TV show. There was a mix-up with the locations and I ended up standing on a pavement by the Charging Bull sculpture in Manhattan not long before I was supposed to be on air. We didn’t get the show out which didn’t feel great.”

Your career high point? “Getting my first BBC job at 5 Live in 2001. I was an avid listener of 5 Live in my 20s so to get a job as a producer was a huge moment for me. It also meant I joined BBC News so everything I’ve done as a journalist has come from that.”

Picture: Jamie Simonds /BBC

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