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Information from Burma

Steve Herrmann Steve Herrmann | 12:23 UK time, Friday, 28 September 2007

With the Burmese authorities clamping down on information getting out of the country, we - like other news organisations - have been relying more than ever on what people caught up in the events are telling us.

A graphic of the BBC News websiteWe’ve been publishing text, pictures, audio and video from people who’ve contacted the BBC News website and the BBC’s Burmese service. We’ve also been looking at other sites and blogs which are tracking the events - though this has become harder in the past 24 hours.

But is this any different from the traditional role of a newsdesk – or an editor for that matter? I think there are some things which have changed. Here are a few to start with:

    • The newsgathering function suddenly has to broaden out to incorporate a lot more new potential sources.
    • Major time and effort gets channelled into following up emails we’ve been sent, checking them out, contacting people back and getting their accounts published and on air.
    • The relationship with these new sources needs handling with special care – they’ve got in touch to tell their story - we can’t put them at risk or expect them to be on permanent stand-by as interviewees.
    • Journalists have to learn where else online to look for new information as it surfaces, as well as what to make of it and how to use it.

Maybe the list could be longer. But on the other hand, some things don’t change much. We still want to set these accounts in context - verifying information where we can and checking it against other sources, qualifying and attributing it where we can’t - and for this we still rely on our correspondents, regional experts and basic editorial judgement.


  • 1.
  • At 01:19 PM on 28 Sep 2007,
  • Zaw win aung wrote:

Can I say that for an editor of a so-called international institution you and your news editing colleagues throughout the BBC display an incredible amount of geographic ignorance or stupidity or both.
To what do I refer: The country Myanmar which you and your bleating cronies keep calling Burma. It hasn't been Burma for the last 20 years - and it's absolutely insulting to keep using the British colonial name of Burma. Desist - even if your ignorant listeners don't know where Myanmar is: maybe they should learn. I hate that British colonial name of Burma and using Rangoon instead of Yangon.

"Journalists have to learn where else online to look for new information as it surfaces, as well as what to make of it and how to use it"

Steve, it's more a case of becoming familiar with ways of doing this that get you to what you want quickly. Technically, this is a piece of piss and the sifting process is really no different to going through wire reports.

It's more a case of getting into the culture of publishing online and then using the tools. Here's how I do things,

That is just the tip of the cyberg, but it's a start.

  • 3.
  • At 02:47 PM on 28 Sep 2007,
  • Anthony wrote:

Although I'm rather appalled at myself for thinking this - I find the current wave of Burma coverage very dull and uninteresting.

In particular - absent the nice juicy massacre the media seem to be poised for - it doesn't deserve to be top of news bulletins across the BBC for the umpteenth day running.

Days and days of something not quite happening is not news.

I wonder if, if the Burmese regime does react in a reckless way towards demonstrators, the news impact will be less because of the endless coverage beforehand?

How about having it appear halfway down the bulletin for now (or maybe one less interview per day on the Today programme)?

  • 4.
  • At 11:10 AM on 29 Sep 2007,
  • brian wrote:

Looking at some of the deleted/censored comments on the Burma and other HYSs (as you know one can these days, easily) - is it any wonder that the BBC is called Auntie? Your oh-so-delicate sensitivities are more reminiscent of the 1950s. I write quite a few, usually published, comments countering those who claim BBC bias, ineptitude etc., because I do think it's the world's least-worst broadcaster - though I spend increasing amounts of time watching Al Jazeera in English and France 24 - but sometimes I really do wonder. You really ARE, in many ways, the status quo. Is that good enough?

  • 5.
  • At 11:57 AM on 29 Sep 2007,
  • Andrew wrote:

Sadly the BBC is way behind unofficial news sources with information. There is so much more to be read from bloggers and other sources. If the BBC wants to wait for Gordon Brown or any official to confirm news before they run it then that's their choice, but im stumped as to why they can't at least run it with a disclaimer that it is not been confirmed.......


Kyaikkasan Road killing field

A letter sent from Rangoon, titled "Killings on September 27," said many protesters were killed on Kyaikkasan Road near State High School No. 3 at about 3 p.m. on Thursday.

"When the protesters were marching to the North, the army blocked the intersection near Super One Supermarket. When the protesters turned back to the South, then another group of soldiers blocked the road near Tarmway Junction. The troops hit and removed three leading protesters holding flags. Then they opened fire on the protesters from both sides," the letter added.


  • 6.
  • At 02:11 PM on 29 Sep 2007,
  • James George wrote:

What gets me about this is the way that the BBC is manufacturing this whole story using BBC radio to try and crank up the Burman population to get themselves hurt when if they had any guts or ethics they could take a crew into the Niger Delta and see much worse oppression any day this year.

Three journalists (2 German 1 American) are currently under arrest for trying to bring the truth out of the Niger Delta, not that you would know of this watching the slanted Beeb.

The BBC colonial service lives.

I wonder why? Could it be that the Niger oil is in the bag and the Myanmar oil is yet to be stolen?

If the neo-lib puppets are installed in Yangon, we won't hear a peep out of the Beeb on the restarted genocide of the tribal people in Burma, as long as the tap has been turned back on, of course.

As one with close personal ties to Burma, and decades-long admiration for Aung San Suu Kyi and the many brave others who have endured consequences far more brutal than house arrest, I have been closely watching these events unfold since the junta raised fuel prices on August 15.

I am writing now to applaud the BBC's detailed coverage, not only of the current events, but also including the detailed background stories and related links. No other site comes close to putting it all together so well.

In addition to the numerous nameless others who have risked their lives to get their images and reports to you, I want to thank Andrew Harding and Kate McGeown for their clarity and compassion.

Please keep this story where it belongs: in the lead. And please include some suggestions of what concerned world citizens might do to help the Burmese people.

News gathering this way is an extremely complicated and untried method.

First of all I see no reason why someone cannot tell as good a story as a journalist - indeed, I am sometimes horrified by the grammar, spelling and awkward sentences attempted by certain journalistic folk. (When did Gaol become Jail? For instance)

However, there other difficulties that are more to do with your knowledge of the source.

If you send, say, John Simpson to a trouble spot, you understand that his years of experience and commitment to telling stories will produce a fair, honest, and as far as possible, balanced report.

But many of the reports that are submitted now are from outside sources, sources with which you have limited contact, and are pretty much unknown to you.

Now, in the case of Burma I would say that the pictures are telling the story, but you only know what you are being sent. Double checking the story that the pictures imply is a near impossible task. Who do you check with?

In this particular case I would think you are fairly safe, but as more and more news gathering and compiling relies on a broader and broader range of sources, the test for accuracy will become more acute and pertinent than it is even now.

I am reminded of the film "All the Presidents Men." The frustration of Woodward and Bernstein as the understandably nervous editors pushed them to get substantiation from alternate sources was almost palpable.

You have to be that annoying editor.

  • 9.
  • At 10:24 AM on 30 Sep 2007,
  • Xie_Ming wrote:

When does "reporting" bcome editorializing?

As activist journalists beat the drums to rouse public opinion to their views, the WHYS "moderators" skip over this comment:

"Should "the World" react at all? Is it up to the UN or to activist journalists?

What is the rationale by which one country decides to interfere in the internal affairs of another? Who decides what are "internal" affairs?

Is there a standard national policy and criteria?

Should such matters be left to the United Nations?

If media activists activate public opion, Are the resulting public opinion polls to be the criterion for any national action?

Let our media drum-beaters seek cooler heads and different views, rather than fostering their own visions.

  • 10.
  • At 08:54 AM on 01 Oct 2007,
  • John wrote:

Well done for finding a way of getting the news out of Burma after the clamp down. I think you need to be cautious though. Presumably the people sending you this stuff are not exactly impartial? Don't forget the confusion caused after the Menezes shooting. The media tried to blame it on the police commmissioner for not setting the record straight, but the reality was that most of the inaccurate information originally came from interviewing people stood around outside the station. How are you ensuring that the Burmese intelligence services aren't sending some of this stuff?

  • 11.
  • At 10:31 AM on 01 Oct 2007,
  • Steven Ewell wrote:

consider also the pictures we see on our news daily from Burma, pictures and video taken on mobile phones and sent to foreign news agencies, most notably the BBC. We can see the horrifiuc thuggery and the crackdown being imposed on peaceful demonstrators.

If that was Britain today - the local party official would be able to find out not only who sent the pictures and video, but their location when they sent them, and before you know it they are spirited away, by jackbooted thugs to the same fate as the Buddhist monks

No more pictures to foreign press
No more truth leaking out about the state of Burma

All quiet on the Eastern front

So thats all right then.

  • 12.
  • At 10:46 AM on 01 Oct 2007,
  • H Baskerville wrote:

I myself am aware of the BBC's (and other bodies') reasons for using the name 'Burma' instead of the current regime's preferred name of 'Myanmar', but perhaps publishing an official explanation would help readers like Zaw Win Aung, above, understand?

  • 13.
  • At 12:53 PM on 01 Oct 2007,
  • Jools wrote:

This page explains the BBC's reasoning for calling the country Burma instead of Myanmar. It has been online since last Wednesday.

Even if we don't agree with their choice, they do at least attempt to explain it.

To Zaw win aung and H Baskerville - we recently went into the reasons for using Burma rather than Myanmar in our coverage here.

Graham - you're right about it being a question of journalists becoming familiar with seeking out the info in new places - but is it the same as going through wires? It doesn't feel the same to me yet because there are more sources in situations like this, and some will inevitably be unfamiliar/untested, but it's certainly true that the "sifting process" relies on the same basic journalistic judgements.

"As more and more news gathering and compiling relies on a broader and broader range of sources, the test for accuracy will become more acute and pertinent than it is even now" - Joss I think this hits the nail on the head.

An update from our stats team today suggests that whereas last week we were getting thousands of users to the site from Burma, today this has effectively dwindled to nothing. So whatever is being done in Burma to block access seems to be effective.

I agree with Joss's point wholheartedly which makes it all the more important for journalists to become aware of this culture, for it to become a part of their daily newsgathering process, not just when there's "a Burma" every once in a while.

On the accuracy of sources point, you could argue in this case that the fierceness of the junta's netcutting implies a uncomfortable accuracy of reporting from one side of the story.

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