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A review of the BBC's coverage of the Arab Spring in 2011 has led the BBC Trust to call on the broadcaster to consider how to "more effectively" communicate to the audience its "rigorous vetting process" for user-generated content (UGC).

The Trust carried out a review "to examine the impartiality of the BBC's coverage" of the uprisings. Overall it found the BBC's coverage "was remarkable given the challenges involved and was generally impartial", but there were also some lessons along the way.

The impartiality review, which was launched in October, included a report by former UN director of communications and Middle East expert Edward Mortimer, as well as content analysis and audience research. One of the findings of the content analysis was that "only a small minority of reports used UGC and this was mainly mobile phone footage".

But in such cases, "it was not clear who the authors were and there were no caveats about authenticity or representativeness in 74 per cent of the sample," the review adds.

It is stressed that in these cases it is still possible authentication took place, as the BBC has a unit dedicated to verifying UGC and the broadcaster was praised for its "great efforts to handle this material responsibly".

The authors of the content analysis were said to "assume that, when no such caveat appears, 'this is because such material is thoroughly reviewed before appearing on news programmes making in the majority of cases the use of caveats unnecessary'."

But when interviewed, deputy director and head of programmes for BBC News Stephen Mitchell said "the policy is not as clear as that, but perhaps it should be".

"Some of it is pretty controversial, and there you absolutely should spell that out. I think we should have done that more often, down the spectrum towards the less controversial – e.g. somebody in their own home doing something on a mobile phone.

"Probably there are not enough formal warnings."

Mortimer added that "personally, having browsed through BBC coverage over a fuller time scale than the content analysis, but in a far less systematic or scientific way, I was struck by the frequency with which such warnings ... do occur, either spoken by the reporter or emblazoned on the screen".

The BBC Trust responded that the BBC "should consider how it might better share more effectively with the audience the rigorous vetting process", in a bid to "safeguard audiences’ trust".

The review also looked at the number of cross references made to the resources on the BBC website within other coverage from the broadcaster, such as within TV news bulletins.

It found that while the website "provides a significant amount of background material" there was no cross reference to online content in more than 97 per cent of BBC news items.

In television news alone, reference to the BBC website occurred in just 35 out of 985 items related to the Arab Spring.

The report adds that while there may be some cases where there were several related items in one programme, which would only require a single reference to the web content, it appeared that "reference to the website was clearly the exception, not the rule".

"And on radio the situation was even worse, with only nine out of 916 Arab Spring items including references to the website. (It is of course harder to provide such links on radio, where there is no visual option.)"

Mortimer added: "As far as TV news is concerned this does not square easily with my own impression, formed much less scientifically by viewing News at Six and News at Ten over a longer period.

"Between 29 January and 9 February 2011, for example, we found that there was a reference to the website on six consecutive days when the events in Egypt were the lead story.

"The most probable explanation – though we have not been able to verify it – is that such references were much less common, in fact virtually non-existent, on the news channel, BBC World, and current affairs programmes like Newsnight – as well as on radio, where even the Today programme seems seldom if ever to mention the website."

BBC management said they "acknowledged that in some cases the BBC did not do enough to draw attention to content on BBC News online" in cases where this could have enhanced understanding, and "fully accept this as a lesson of this review".

While presenters were found to be increasingly making "an effort to draw the attention of listeners and viewers to this valuable source of information", it was highlighted in the review by a senior executive that there may "be scope for further 'exploring the potential' of these links".

"In short there seems to be something of a consensus," Mortimer adds. "Routine reminders of the website’s existence are probably neither necessary nor very effective, and could even be counterproductive if the public gets bored and feels they are simply holding up the flow of the news.

"But whenever possible, specific items that would enable viewers deepen their understanding of the item just reported in the news should be flagged."

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