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Impartiality in the blogging age

Blogs start with identity, not with audience. They are conversational, personal, opinionated - everything that public broadcasters, restricted by their commitment to impartiality, are not. Right? Yet, public broadcasters, as newspapers and the rest of the media industry, are forced to adapt to a new media reality where people have come to expect conversation, plurality of opinion and interaction on a scale previously unheard of. So how should they go about it? Peter Horrocks, BBC's head of TV news, recently attempted to answer this in a speech to the Reuters Journalism Institute at Oxford University. Here's Jeff Jarvis' take on it: "Horrocks is not adopting transparency as his answer; he is holding onto impartiality and trying to update it. He is responding to the internet age by trying to open the megaphone wider to more voices — to mimic, indeed, the internet itself."

In doing so, Horrocks almost echoes The Cluetrain Manifesto, which likened the internet to an ancient bazaar, a place where people would meet to exchange information, experiences and stories. But just almost, the catch here is 'spontaneously, unmediated'; I can't imagine the Cluetrain guys ever imagined a bazaar where everyone would have to line up to get their equal x amount of megaphone time, orchestrated by the country's public broadcaster. Jarvis notes: "Done one way — with many new targeted products, which he also proposes — this potentially only makes more echo chambers; done another way — with equal time for all — it becomes an unbearable cacaphony. What stands in the way of either definition of chaos is still editorial judgment." The Daily Mail (via Adrian Monck) has a rather less flattering take on Horrocks proposals:

"The BBC triggered outrage yesterday by calling for the views of extremists and fundamentalists to be given the same weight as those of mainstream politicians. The corporation's head of television news, Peter Horrocks, said groups such as the Taliban and the far-Right BNP need more airtime - at the expense of moderate opinion. He said all views need to be treated with the same respect, describing his proposals as 'radical impartiality'. But his comments prompted furious reaction, critics labelling them 'political correctness gone insane'"

A more sober approach to adapting to the brave new media world, brought about by new technology and social media, comes from looking at BBC's actual network of blogs. As Robin Hamman, the senior broadcast journalist heading up BBC Blogs trial, notes:

"Bloggers outside the BBC often thrive upon, and many blog readers expect, the expression of strong opinions. The biggest challenge for the BBC has been to enter a world where, in some respects, our name and our values, as well as audience (and regulators) expectations of us actually make it difficult for us to fully engage. I think that our biggest successes, so far, have been:

• Making it more possible for audiences to scrutinise our editorial processes
• Engaging with our audiences in new ways
• Finding, in some instances, a more personal voice
• Inviting audiences to contribute to the blogs and to BBC programmes via the blogs
• To experiment more freely with editorial ideas and technical innovations

These successes, and our failures, don't show up in the technorati rankings, the number of inbound links, or in the number of users or posts or comments... We're in this space to open up, engage with our audiences, find the appropriate voice, encourage participation and experiment with ideas and tools. Even if there was no technorati we'd still be here, mucking about, trying to figure out why media companies and news organisations blog."

Robin Hamman again:
"I think the best way to experiment with opening up like this is for news and media organisations, whether their business is in print or broadcasting, to start blogging. Afterall, how can we possible understand this world without being a part of it?"


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