We at the BBC must listen more to gain trust

In a 'post-truth' world, the BBC has to better understand and respond to audience needs to retain credibility.

The BBC must listen more to retain the trust of its audience, argues John Shields
The BBC must listen more to retain the trust of its audience, argues John Shields

At some point during last year’s referendum campaign, my BBC colleague and Today presenter, Nick Robinson, began to be accused on social media of making some extraordinary comments.

Extreme views from both ends of the political spectrum were all directly attributed to him. Supporters on both sides of the debate seized on them, and they spread rapidly online.

It was only months later that Nick managed to track down these claims to a satirical BuzzFeed piece written in the run-up to the 2015 General Election. It predicted the most unlikely and outrageous things that would be said or done during the campaign, on all political sides, including the fabricated quotes.

Satire had somehow become ‘fact’.

By the end of the year, Oxford Dictionaries had named "post-truth" as the word of 2016, leaving "hygge" in the dust, while "mainstream media" was practically an expletive for some.

At the BBC, we recognise the challenge. In a world of infinite online information, where the most spurious assertion can pass into the public consciousness in the time it takes to type 140 characters, it has never been more important to separate fact from opinion, prediction from certainty.

As a public-service broadcaster, that’s what we’re for. We know that members of the public are five times more likely to come to our news site to check something is true than to go anywhere else. But for us, and for all public-sector communicators, presenting ‘true facts’ is not enough. We also have to earn the right to get them heard.

During the US election campaign, the commentator Salena Zito observed in The Atlantic that, when Donald Trump made his big, controversial claims, the press took him literally, but not seriously; his supporters seriously, but not literally.

This is a distinction that highlights our major challenge for 2017: not only to prove ourselves as a source of trusted information, but also as a trusted messenger.

At the BBC, trust is our biggest asset. Our status as an impartial, independent organisation is why we are by far the most-trusted news source in the country, and one of the most-trusted in the world.

But it is also our biggest responsibility, and we are acutely aware that we will be credible with our audiences only if we can prove that we are listening to them and allowing them to help make decisions about what we do.

To be clear: this is not about a BBC that tells audiences what they want to hear. It’s about a BBC that better understands and responds to their needs.

That’s why, in the run-up to the referendum, we asked audience councils to advise us on how to cover the campaign and to feed back perceptions from their communities. It allowed them to shape our coverage and help make it better.

It is only a start. We are working hard to forge a new, genuinely two-way relationship with our audiences across every part of the corporation, and we have further to go.

But in the ‘post-truth’ era, all of us have to recognise that, however reliable our information, if we cannot respond to the challenge of listening to and understanding the public, they will not take us seriously. Literally.

If we don’t listen to our audiences, we should not be surprised if they don’t listen back.

John Shield is director of communications at the BBC

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