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Choosing the news

Dominic Ball | 16:30 UK time, Wednesday, 25 February 2009

"How do you choose what to put in the news?" is the question I'm most frequently asked about my job.

It's also the most difficult to answer. Letters on this subject received by Feedback on Radio 4 prompted the programme to dispatch one of its reporters to the BBC Newsroom at Television Centre in west London to find out more:

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My own view is that the choice of stories and the order in which they are presented is based on a number of factors, which inevitably, overlap: how significant does the story feel? How interested is our audience likely to be? How new is the story? What is the context? (Not just in terms of what else is going on but also, have we done variations on this story recently?)

These considerations are combined with something more difficult to define - a journalistic instinct perhaps - in the decision-making process.

On the Six O'Clock News on Radio 4 we aim, to mangle a phrase from the New York Times, to provide all the news you need to hear. By the end of the bulletin, we want listeners to feel they know about the important events that have happened that day in the UK and around the world, and why they happened.

Fortunately, our audience is rarely shy in letting us know if that is what we have achieved.


  • Comment number 1.


    It is very hard to make a wide selection of news reports to covered in a relatively small selection of time....

    ~Dennis Junior~

  • Comment number 2.

    Do you think the decision is influenced by the politics of the staff?

    Eg. on BBC I have heard lots about the Binyam Mohamed torture issue. Fine. But what about the Binyam Mohamed, why is he in England issue?

    No to open that debate here, but does the politics of the people making the decisions have an effect?

    Could you have a wider spread on this? Independent (newspaper) perspective for one story, telegraph approach for another?

  • Comment number 3.


    On what basis do you consider that the Radio 4 audience wishes to know anything about Ms Jade Goody?

    Have you asked us?

  • Comment number 4.

    Between Al Jazeera English and BBC World News, I feel adequately informed about world news. There is very little overlap between the two channels (unlike say BBC and CNN which pretty much cover the same stories). Then there's FOX which I also watch to get the right-wing perspective on US politics (they are also excellent at breaking US news stories).


    Why did the BBC World News Channel have a Bafta (I think that's what it was) awards ceremony special? That was strange and unnecessary. Surely there was world news that could have been reported on during that time.

  • Comment number 5.

    I find your explanation hard to believe. Most decisions in journalism appear to be part of a contest to be "best", "first", or "exclusive". That means they are competitive something the BBC does not need to be and should not be. Unfortunately news output on the BBC has declined from what it once was and can now be compared with (rather than contrasted to) some tabloids.

    I also agree with comments that your news output follows the political affiliations of your editorial staff which discounts it from being objective in any shape or form. In my opinion news delivery has become too short, too glossy and too empty of serious content. In other words instead of BBC we now have EEF.

  • Comment number 6.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 7.

    Yes, it is difficult, but as you've alluded to, you can get plenty of help by posting blogs here. Plenty of folks like me will be more than happy to tell you what we think of your decisions.

    Of course, we've already done so many times in the past. Question is, to what extent do the views expressed by contributors here get taken into account when you have to make the decision next time?

    The point quite rightly raised by bradgate2 (#3) suggests that the answer is "not very much".

  • Comment number 8.

    news is decided by the editors of the station who take their lead from the owners who work hand in glove with what ever political party it sides with Murdoch owns most of the media in this country along with Conrad Black who kissed up to Thatcher well Murdoch is Browns mate and plays what ever this man wants it was Blair before that as this is not a Labour Party in the true sense of the word its more Tory. The news is not to inform us of what is happening but what those in power want us to believe, which is usual lies and propaganda we are being taught to not ask questions or say anything that my upset chosen parties like Israel we can how ever rant against the Muslims no matter were they come from no one is allowed to question this so people turn off or go and seek answers somewhere else controlling the masses can not be done so the New World Order will never be sorry BBC.

  • Comment number 9.

    You can take the mystery out of how plan the running order by having a points-based system using such criteria as human impact, threat to human lives, financial impact, proximity in time and space etc etc. News stories could be prioritized and time allocated according to the total points for each story.

    This weighting could be set by a committee of viewers and listeners or even through a public vote with a regular review.

    I know many journalists will be horrified by this prospect, but professionals usually are when confronted by the banality that many decisions boil down to when light is shone onto them. They will often use phrases like "instinct" and "common sense" in an attempt to keep up the mystery and alchemy behind their dark art.

    With so many accusations of bias, I think the BBC should try this idea out. There is a gap in the market for an organisation to be a beacon of truthful, unbiased, non-judgemental news. If the state broadcaster can’t manage it – and, right now it clearly cannot – then who will?

  • Comment number 10.

    Some of the cynics taking part in this discussion really do not appreciate how fortunate they are. With access to a news service like Radio Four's Six O'Clock News, you could not be better informed.

    This is a bulletin that provides the most comprehensive round-up of the day's events, at home and abroad, that you will find anywhere. No other broadcaster can touch it for its range, authority or integrity.

    The Six O'Clock News demonstrates a sure touch in identifying not necessarily the most popular or entertaining news, but the most significant. This is what marks it out from most other news output, including the equivalent bulletin at the same time on BBC One.

    We should value Radio Four's Six O'Clock News as a brilliant showcase for public service broadcasting.

  • Comment number 11.

    Dear Dominic "mangle a phrase from the New York Times" for the BBC news?!! Your comment was not ironic.
    Therefore, customers of the BBC are entitled to, and expect more from you, Dominic Ball and even more from the huge resource that license payers contribute to?

  • Comment number 12.

    I will agree with Post 10. Plus advocate the World Service too. My education relied heavily on the BBC Radio output and would defend it.
    However, I am very annoyed at the lame and fatuous blog of Dominic Ball. Very disappointing.

  • Comment number 13.

    On a related topic: how is it decsided what is Local News and what is National News. I remember growing up in Yorkshire when on Bank Holidays we would get a short Look North bulletin on BBC One whilst Londoners would get a Tom and Jerry cartoonto watch, the implcation being that London was already covered in the main bulletin.

    And to this day, sometimes a page from Entertainment News say or Local News is duplicated on Ceefax pages 103 onwards.

  • Comment number 14.


    I assume I am one of the cynics you mention (at least if I'm not, then I should be, as I like being cynical!), but I have to agree with you that Radio 4's 6 o'clock news is undoubtedly a very fine show and one of the best news programmes on the planet, if not the best.

    I just think it could be better still if it had a more zero-tolerance attitude to pointless celebrity gossip stories and accepted that Radio 4 listeners probably don't care about Jade Goody.

  • Comment number 15.

    DisgustedofMitcham2 (#7) the problem is that they're actually not all that interested in what the generally well-informed, media literate folk who find their way to these blogs think. We're not generally C/D/E social class, most aren't the sort of skinny-jeaned yoof being chased by the likes of BBC Three and R1, in fact given that the alternatives are ITV News, Sky and the increasingly 'tabloid' press, the BBC could decline even further into the gutter of dumbing-down and still retain some of its traditional audience just by virtue of still being better than the competition.

    It doesn't say much for the media landscape in this country really.

    As for 'making the news' I'd quite like to see a lot less of the sort of 'scare science by press release', you know, the latest 'obesity causes XXX cancers a year' or 'women who drink are X times more likely to die' rubbish which usually, on closer exmaination (itself difficult given that the Beeb rarely publishes sources) turns out to have involved data-dredging a 1970s study of about 80 people and whose purpose is not to further the pool of scientific knowledge but to secure a research grant or an afternoon of fearmongering notoriety.

    The type of politicised scientists involved in this type of 'research' are busy squandering centuries of public faith in the value of medical research with their soundbite-driven crap and calls for illiberal measures which the BBC more often than not seems to tacitly support. You're not 'This Morning' or the Daily Mail's 'Health' section; please (re)learn to discriminate.

  • Comment number 16.

    I am not so sure that Radio4's News At Six deserves anymore accolades than anything else on the BBC. Delivering news in a sober and professional manner should be practiced by the BBC across the board on all its radio and TV channels - it should never be necessary to dumb down matters and encourage audiences to become increasingly lazy.

    Isn't the problem with the presenters? Instead of dedicated news readers we now have a plethora of largely mediocre presenters across a wide range of BBC output. Was this a conscious decision by senior management to state that the messenger is more important than the message?

    The BBC seems engrossed in the "celebrity" culture unable to distinguish between "talent" and "safety first". Those who do not rock the boat (unless they are already "big" names - we know who they are) seem quickly promoted whilst others just get the fill in slots. Often these "subs" are a welcome relief.

    Please can the BBC start listening to its audience and not just take them for granted?

  • Comment number 17.

    Health rather than Wealth my mother would always say; pretty much when discussing anything. So, over used perhaps but still valid.

    I am disappointed that the failure of Jane Goody's medics to control the pain she is in has not drawn more attention to this consistent and continuing failure of public health, and particularly palliative cancer care, in this country.

    If someone in the public eye like Jane cannot get effective pain management there is little hope for the average sufferer.

    The terror of knowing one is dying from cancer should not be made worse by having to do so in agony.

  • Comment number 18.

    It's a little early for me, I'm afraid. Can you please correct my early posting and change "Jane" to "Jade"? Many thanks.

    PS I meant to try and make the point that while Radio 4 listeners might not be interested in Ms Goody from a faux-celebrity point of view, we are interested in public health issues and, specifically in this case, pain management for those unwell with cancer.

  • Comment number 19.

    @ jon112UK
    "But what about the Binyam Mohamed, why is he in England issue?"

    There is no "issue" he came hear from Sudan as a 15yr old child and lived here for about seven years as a law-abiding citizen.

    He then went on holiday to Pakistan.

    There is no need to kick him out or lock him up as there is no evidence that he has done anything wrong other than the claims of the people who tortured him and the people who brought us "Iraq's WMDs".

  • Comment number 20.

    There are other factors to weigh up of course.


    Is it a negative story about an official enemy?

    If so, then it is very likely to make it to the front page. For example, every time Hugo Chavez sneezes, it make it to the front page.

    Negative stories about official allies are far less likely to make it in the news and if they do they tend to be buried. e.g. The story about Colombian President Alvaro Uribe being investigated for involvement in the planning of a massacre by right-wing paramilitaries.

    Then we have the case of White Phosphorus use on Gaza. For about a whole week the BBC refused to even use the term White Phosphorus despite having blatant pictures of its use all over the website.

  • Comment number 21.


    Jade Goody continues to be 'newsworthy', for what reason?

    She has achieved nothing more than make money from gullible media corporations.

    She showed the world her true, racist colours during a run of 'celebrity' (?) big brother, being quick to apologise when the cash started to dry up.

    She now appears to be suffering terminal cancer. Regrettably, thousands of far more decent people whom have given much more to our world suffer serious ailments. I, personally, would rather hear of some other's triumphs over adversity. The others, however, are far more dignified.

    I am sure I echo the sentiments of others when I ask, does the licence fee I pay have to be wasted on air time for this woman?


  • Comment number 22.

    BBC World News broadcast over PBS tonight March 2 was an unabashed exercise in America bashing and Israel bashing. It also tried to pry a wedge between the US and Israel by suggesting that if Natanyahu becomes prime minister of Israel, he'd thwart America's plans for the Palestinians. Dividing America from Israel that way is an impossiblity but it could help divide America from Britain.

    Tonight's broadcast was an utter disgrace to journalism. It presented legitimate methods retail auto dealers use to lure prospective customers into dealerships by advertising a low priced used car and then trying to sell them a new one or realtors' techniques used to lure homebuyers was some sort of unscrupulous fraud. In fact, unless the technique falls under the category of "bait and switch" it isn't even unethical, just good business. BBC gives the American consumer far less credit for being market savvy than he or she deserves. As usual, BBC used one of its frequent techniques, the mixing of selective facts with its own opinions presented ostensibly as news. What a horrible bunch of people you are BBC but we see right through you. Even al Jazerra is often more truthful than you are. Now how about your thieving nation returning those stolen statues to China where they belong?

  • Comment number 23.

    It seems that the BBC News story selection algorithm is: Which PR agency has supplied us with the easiest to re-use Press Release? Especially in Science, Technology and Medicine.

    If the BBC continue to simply regurigitate releases without research or questioning the sources, then we may as well just get rid of the editorial teams. They do cost a fortune after all...

  • Comment number 24.

    BBC World Service used to be the only source of unbiased news from the BBC. That was up until about 1992. It is now even more left wing than the rest of the BBC (or at least on a par with Radio 4).

    The output from the BBC World Service is embarrassment to our country.

  • Comment number 25.

    I don't expect this to be published but I will say this anyway because you need to hear this.
    I used to brag about the BBC how available world wide it simply and without prejudice reported the news.
    We can no longer say this. I see on this channel deliberate debates designed to bring out the people who wish to insult Christianity. At this minute your debate on the miners strike has 8 published comments 7 of which are against the miners strike. We will no doubt find later these are not in received order. Comments are held back if they do not agree with the view BBC does not want published.
    Debates on hybrid embryos were disallowed even in comments on other issues.
    Debates highlighting the failure to discuss the amendment to the HFAE Bill not allowed.
    A great disappointment from a once great channel.

  • Comment number 26.

    It's not just what you choose to show as the news but how you show it...

    big example, today 25 years on from the miner's strike, the BBC (again) chooses to concentrate on the violent images and clashes, rather than what the strike was about. Very little is reported about the aftermath, the pits replaced by the dole queues or at best by Tescos and B&Q. Domestic coal replaced with imports.

    Public opinion was very much polarised by how it was reported. And it still is.

  • Comment number 27.

    letusbefair #26

    One of BBC's many methods of biased reporting is the selectivity of what it chooses to report and emphasize and what it chooses to briefly mention or omit altogether. Another is to take a story out of context presenting only those aspects which amplify its point of view while ignoring the larger picture that would give the audience greater understanding. The BBC's purpose is not to inform anymore but to form opinions that match its own. It is the most dangerous propaganda machine in the English language.

    Americans are relatively immune to BBC for at least two reasons. Most Americans never listen to it or watch it preferring domestic sources of news. The other is that Americans have been accostomed to being conned by Madison Avenue for decades by propaganda in service of commercial advertising and can usually smell a rat when there's one around.

  • Comment number 28.

    This week there was a five minute discussion on ground coffee for goodness' sake, yet the day before a really worthwhile article on ghetto life was abruptly cut short at 9.00am at the end of the Today programme. Really poor programming.
    Tuesday the Mayor of london announced four or five new housing initiatives. Last week in the construction press two national housebuilders stated that they may well start building again in the summer. Such items are facts, not opinions and the BBC has a duty to report facts especially at this time when all agree that the economy needs confidence in order to get it going again. The above facts are good news items that will with others demonstrate that there is some movement in the construction industry. Confidence is about building bit by bit on news here and news there.
    Every item of doom and gloom is reported. I sometime feel that the journalists desire for sensational stories extends to ignoring the good news and concentrating on the misery in order to see if there is enough gloom and doom to sink the economy. Think of the terrific stories to follow from that. I suspect that it might be the Today's programme journalists' dream to report the death of bankers and financiers throwing themselves under trains and buses as finally the economy fails completely. They are seeking the 'big one' and to start to say things are perhaps a little better or for the moment they are not so bad, might relieve the mood of misery and detract from the ever deepening gloom. Go out a find a balance to the news in the real world of this country, unless of course we need to check up on the ground coffee drinkers, now was it one or two cups they drank with their breakfast-rivetting!!!!!!

  • Comment number 29.

    Dear BBC what does it take to acknowledge a news item?

    Over the past weeks I’ve given you the biggest, sensational story and you’ve just seemed to dismiss it like it never exist.

    It is the story of a natural sculptured head of a man, a rock from space believed to be a merchison: 14 billion years old.

  • Comment number 30.

    I'm afraid MarcusAureliusII must be correct. A case in point is fellow Canadian Bill Law's biased, anti mining fear mongering story 'Mayan vs Mine'. Including the statement that the mine disputes the charges that the poor child's condition is not caused by the mine does not make the report 'fair'. It reads like so many other anti mining articles where the author has clearly already decided the miner is at fault. It is shameful that BBC would allow such unsubstantiated, unscientific rubbish to be aired or viewed on its website. No mention of the 1,400 full time jobs or the 100's of millions of dollars collected in taxes and royalties. It certainly reminds me of the way the CBC operates.

  • Comment number 31.

    #28 " this time when all agree that the economy needs confidence..."

    Firstly "we" don't "all agree".

    (Over) Confidence lead us into this bust by creating a vacuous state of believing our own good fortune (or deceits), and, even your own contributions are based, not on fact, but on possibility ("may start building in the summer").

    The economy needs reality and we are still lying to ourselves about what actually happened. The financial sector is still in denial. It created a "fantasy world" which will cripple countless numbers of blameless people. The promulgation of "stock market lead economics" has failed as clearly as any that went before it. The notions of out sourcing, of sub-sub-sub contracting, etc, of little people doing deals in a smoky club etc, have all failed us. Sure some people appeared to get rich, but it won't do them any good when the value of money is meaningless will it?

    Money has to be based on the honest sweat and labour in manufacturing and production and if that does not return to the countries who wish to have strong economies then we will not have learned anything from this crash. The moment someone is brave enough to bring a factory back to the US or the UK (or anywhere else in the west) then that WILL be GOOD news.

    India, China and elsewhere in Asia must look after themselves, just as we must look after ourselves. The experiment failed miserably - get over that and we may see a recovery starting.

  • Comment number 32.

    In context to the torture news making the headlines, I consider this to be big news... At the University of Minnesota the other night, legendary investigative reporter, Seymour Hersh, talked about new alleged instances of domestic spying by the CIA, and about a covert military operation that he called an "executive assassination ring". As far as big news go, it doesn't get much bigger. Somebody at the BBC could at least picked a phone and ask him what he really meant.

  • Comment number 33.

    The news should be written freely, without any restriction. Firstly if you do so, it insult the intelligent of the society. It is not what you write is concerns. It is more incline as how the readers arrive to their conclusion the news as you reported. They may choose to interpret it other way - no matter how you put it.

    For instance, if too many restrictions are imposed to the society, then the reader would then adopt the attitude of reading between the lines. For instance, you reported as unbiased, but the reader choose to interpret it otherwise. I have seem a number of readers from countries are doing in the manner they choose to be - MORE REALISTIC AND MAKE SENSE based on the surrounding evidence disclosed.

    Therefore, the writer should not worry the unnecessary, but report as what he think appropriate. Otherwise, it will not only hinder their job, but unable to produce a master piece, which reflect the writer's talent and skills.

    Therefore, anything we do has a limit. The good writer must have that in mind. Never cross the line or overdoing it. It will reflect back on the writer, whether the rests dare to say out or not.

    Ultimately, it will affect the rating and reliability of the newspapers.

    It is not surprising that reporter like to create excitement so as to attract the crowds, and the crowds want that excitement as well. take both hand to clap.

    The next question we should ask ourselves honestly is that are they really concerns about the welfare of the society or the truth. Most of times than not, we are hiding our hidden agenda under such a noble label of caring and loves.

    But we have the job to do as well. We are not pay to report the truth, that's why most of the time creating the excitement is more important than the truth. Despite it may construe as deceiving the people to certain extent. But who cares.

  • Comment number 34.

    When we had real freedom of speech, there were plenty of writers, broadcasters and journalists prepared to be themselves and stand out from the crowd. They meant what they said and even if you disagreed with them you still had to respect the view. Now it seems we must "dress everything down" in case it offends. And so it is left to the red tops to provide the shocks by highlighting the stupid things that are done in the name of "correctness", political or otherwise. But on our public service broadcaster, instead of heartfelt opinion, we have a tedious parade of bland propaganda which has been put through the purifier so many times it no longer means what it was supposed to mean. Even blatant bias seems okay provided it doesn't break the PC rules....

    Is any of this this really news?

  • Comment number 35.

    Mysteriously and preposterously the self-described alleged 'mastermind' of 9/11 attacks Khalid Sheikh Mohammed admitted that his admission was product of torture.

    'I just make up stories,' he reportedly says.

    Other tortured detainees are saying it.., more vividly.

    'After months of suffering and torture, physically and mentally, they did not care about my injuries, which they had inflicted to my eye, stomach, bladder, my left thigh and my reproductive organs. The doctors told me I had nearly died four times,' Zubaydah said.

    Detainee claims to have lied under CIA torture

    'The documents released today provide further evidence of brutal torture and abuse in the CIA's interrogation program and demonstrate beyond doubt that this information has been suppressed solely to avoid embarrassment and growing demands for accountability,' said Wizner.

  • Comment number 36.

    How significant, how interesting, how new the story of 'apotheosis' really is?

  • Comment number 37.

    Wonder what would Lord Adonis say about these sharp-dressed people who are helping would be terorristas with explosive undies to board the planes... wonder what would broader audience say if BBC would 'choose' to investigate the claims.

    Well, I'm sure that citizen Obama will do his best to fight and hunt leisure suit al qida fundamentalists who have nothing better to do but hate our freedoms and bomb our Christmases.

  • Comment number 38.

    Does anybody monitor the contributions to the BBC News Front Page and associated links?
    I quote the article on York Minster's recent fire: "Our first concern, after being ensured that no people were in danger, was for the precious things in store there."
    Surely the speaker said "assured"?
    Please, BBC, help us to retain some semblance of the English language intact.
    If the speaker didn't say 'assured'then, maybe, this is evidence of what happens when linguistic standards are allowed to slide in the media.


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