Credit: Screenshot: Reuters Next. Jane Barrett (Reuters, top left), Tim Davie (BBC, top right), Michael Friendenberg (Reuters, bottom).

The BBC director-general Tim Davie said that the public broadcaster and its journalists must double-down on their commitment to impartiality to win over sceptical audiences, speaking at Reuters Next event yesterday.

Most recent data from the Reuters Digital News Report 2020 shows that just 28 per cent of the British public said they trust the news overall, a number which fell 12 percentage points on the previous year.

The report notes that although the BBC tops the leaderboard as the most trusted source of news in the UK, many respondents felt the organisation pushed or suppressed agendas, especially over polarising issues like Brexit.

Davie said that while social media has been good for facilitating debate on important issues and sharing news stories, it has also brought increased scrutiny from members of the public who have been given a voice. It means that those representing the BBC must behave more carefully online.

BBC staff received new social media guidance in October last year with 24 concrete 'dos and don'ts'. It provides a range of case examples where staff should think twice before posting and advises on how to follow protocol.

For example, journalists should make clear when a post is professional judgement rather than personal opinion, and should not be seen to support any campaigns, even through the use of a hashtag.

Fundamentally, social media posts should not undermine the BBC's integrity or impartiality by staff members stating a personal opinion on public policy, politics or controversial subjects. The guidelines warn that even using an emoji can be seen as taking sides.

Davie added that the guidelines act as an extension of the BBC's commitment to be impartial and not to silence the staff.

"I've always been a fan of big personality, I've always wanted my editors to have a personality and be out there on social media," he says.

"The issue was to reaffirm our vows around social media to be one outlet of our impartial journalism."

It is normal for organisations to ask employees to embody organisational values because, as the guidelines state, audiences do not see the difference between personal and official accounts. It means that disclaimers like "my views, not the BBC’s" are not enough to prevent reputational damage.

Michael Friedenberg, president of Reuters, also speaking at the event, agreed and said that Reuters' guidelines are also not there to "muzzle" journalists but to reinforce company values. This way, journalists avoid becoming the story.

"It's absolutely essential that these platforms are utilised by our journalists," says Friedenberg, referring to newsgathering and fact-checking procedures.

"In editorial, there is always an 'unsend button'. On social platforms, there is no 'unsend button'."

According to Davie, the path to winning back the trust of audiences is through fact-based journalism which is not "dull and dry" but compelling to watch, referring to the BBC's Reality Check, a news service dedicated to debunking false stories.

"We have to be really proactive, we are activists for impartiality," Davie concluded.

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