Does our audience still need us? The TV news reporter in the age of social media

is the BBC's chief international correspondent and also presenter of BBC World News and World Service Newshour. Twitter: @bbclysedoucet

This is an edited transcript of Lyse Doucet’s Royal Television Society Huw Wheldon Lecture which will be shown on BBC2 at 11.20pm on 11 October.

It used to be so much simpler. Remember those good old golden days of newsgathering?

Thirty years ago when I started reporting for the BBC in West Africa, we typed our news copy on clattering telex machines, hand-carried TV tapes to London, and used a mutter box.

You’ve never heard of a mutter box? We’d hook it up to a telephone to boost the quality of the line. It was often held in place by two long nails hammered into the edge of our big desk. This was state-of-the-art technology back then.

And our audiences? Oh, they sent us letters, sometimes extremely long letters, by post. That gave us lots of time to think about our answers, and even collect the stamps.

Back in the day, news was a different kind of business.

When I covered my first war in North Africa, in Chad in 1987, I ended up being the only foreign journalist left in the capital, N'Djamena, when the big battle finally happened.

The news reached us around midnight on 13 March that French-backed Chadian troops had crushed Libya-backed rebel forces at the fabled desert outpost of Wadi Doum.

Breaking news! I sent it the quickest way possible - running as fast as I could to the one place that had a telex machine: the State Telecommunications Building.

But my speed - as it was then - to get the news out was slower than a pack of wild desert dogs lurking in the night. They chased me. One bit me. But that’s another story. 

I telexed my war story to London. The next day I was expelled by the government, which hadn’t realised I was still there. Or at least it tried to expel me. A sandstorm closed the airport. That gave the BBC more time to finally get through on a crackling telephone line from London. I was interviewed about the war, and my dog bite too.

Those days are gone.

Many other journalists and I, both foreign and local, are still reporting on wars in North Africa and the Middle East. But there’s now very little chance that there would only be one journalist in a country to report on a big battle, big news - anywhere.

And you don’t need much these days to get the story out. If you have to, you can do it all with a smartphone - a tiny piece of technology that can film, take photographs, tweet, access the internet, broadcast live on ISDN-quality lines; everything we need to do in the field.

And if we, the journalists, aren’t on the scene, there will - almost - always be someone else there with the same kind of smartphone who can tweet a thought, a picture, upload a video to YouTube or Facebook or whatever social media they use.

Of course amateur videos from people who happen to be at the right place at the right time have been part of our coverage for years. We used to say ‘Thanks so much for the footage - it really helps us to tell the story.’ You want some money for your scoop? Ahhhh… let me get back to you.

But what if these people with cameras don’t need us anymore to tell their story? A lot of news is now in the hands of the people - quite literally.

So… what is our future when so much has changed, and keeps changing?

Every newsroom is trying to keep up with this fast-changing news world and they’re struggling to establish ground rules for their own journalists posting their own messages.

So, have we broadcasters become no more than just a bunch of tweeters and bloggers, just like everybody else? Is it just a matter of time before this social media revolution topples us from the top of news?

Survival starts by recognising there is a new news order.

Now, we won’t always be first with the news. Twitter may get there first. Now, we won’t always get the first compelling videos. Facebook or YouTube may show them before we do.

But it doesn’t mean - as they chanted in the Middle East - the downfall of the regime - our regime, our way of broadcasting. Contrary to expectation, during strong social media stories - England’s riots, Japan’s earthquake, Norway’s massacre - viewing figures for BBC TV news spiked.

Strip away this new-fangled technology, this incessant stream of information, and what is it all about? Authority, journalism, storytelling.

Because, while everything has changed, nothing has changed. In our business, the story AND the storyteller matter. It’s the faces, of much followed, much appreciated correspondents, the best in this business, who have been on our screens and in our homes for as long as we can remember… and the new faces who keep emerging.

Perhaps there is something that’s reassuring, a reality check if you like, about putting aside the constantly shifting, and sometimes confusing, kaleidoscope of the internet, for something more solid and trusted; for correspondents and programmes that have stood the test of time.

Because speed is only one part of news. Above all, we need accuracy. Any broadcaster worth anything at all would rather be second with the news and right than first and wrong.

And that’s what the strong viewing figures for broadcast news are telling us. A social media revolution that could have signalled the end of broadcast news has instead become its biggest confirmation.

We now co-habit a much wider, more open space. We keep an eye on social media. They keep an eye on us. That’s not a bad thing at a time of ever greater scrutiny of media ethics and practices. The Leveson Inquiry into media ethics brought the dangers home to all of us.

This social media revolution also empowers audiences. We hear from you immediately; you expect to hear from us. We broadcast your comments and criticism. It’s now part of our coverage.

Some say news has come full circle, returning to those days of old when news could only be transmitted by word of mouth - an oral history by those who lived through it, or had the means to convey it; from person to person, house to house.

Our monopoly on delivering the news has been broken. There’s always been a saying in our business: you’re only as good as your next story. We have to keep confirming that we should be watched or listened to - for our editorial judgment, our talent to inform and entertain, and because you still trust us.

The history of TV news has been written on a canvas of ever changing technology; ever growing threats; ever greater opportunities. Now it’s confronting a challenge so great it seems to threaten an end to broadcast news. In this revolution of social media we can be on the right side of history - but only if we approach our own story the way we do the rest of our news: by trying to understand it and doing our best to get it right. 


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