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BBC’s Anna Doble on misinformation, safeguarding democracy and forward momentum

The Drum Awards for Online Media recognise the best in journalism and online publishing. Here, this year’s chair of the judges Anna Doble, digital editor of BBC World Service English, discusses how to ensure viewers trust journalism in 2021.

Anna Doble, digital editor of the BBC World Service, is responsible for giving a digital life to anything that starts out as radio or audio. “That means making sure that world service journalism reaches people online all over the world – via social media, through our partners, through podcasts and video.“

And while every workplace has had its struggles adapting, she believes teams like hers were at an advantage. “Like the digital and online teams that take part in these awards, we had a bit of a head start, because we already had the tools to bring us together when we’re not together. We already knew techniques for speaking remotely, or using digital tools to share files – all the more tedious aspects of journalism and media.”

These teams have acted, by necessity, as a kind of digital advocate for their wider companies. “I’m guessing we’ve all had to bring people with us that perhaps are not so used to using those tools.”

What long-term impact will this have on the way we work? “Everyone’s reached a sort of middle ground now, so I think when we do go back to the office we’ll all have a mix of those skills. That’s a real positive. While we haven’t exactly been able to hang out, we’ve managed to learn those things together.”

What are the main challenges you have seen in the world of digital media?

Like most industries, the shift to remote working has had a complicated impact. “In the past, the World Service has always had London as our main hub of creative activity. Some newsrooms don’t have a physical HQ anymore – that’s a seismic shift. It has opened the door for digital teams to become the main way of working.”

When contributors from elsewhere in the world would join the meetings, it was easy for them to be drowned out by the people physically in the room. “There has been a democratising aspect to this strange world – in some ways we’re just 2D beings now. We’re all equals now, and I’ve had fantastic creative meetings where one person is in India, and one in Nigeria, and there is no longer a dominant London voice.”

What have journalists learned about providing value to audiences?

More than any other story recent years, the pandemic has affected everyone directly. What impact does Doble think it has had on the work of journalists? “I hope that because they have been living through it themselves, journalists have been able to think more like their target audience, adapting the way they go about their jobs to serve people directly.”

“Some of the most successful BBC news content has been that which puts the person at the centre. Tell me about rising cases in my area, or tell me what the numbers are where I live, or when I’m going to get the vaccine. Not to say that people are self-centred, but of course fundamentally we’re all wondering how this will affect us and our families and our jobs.

”This story has really changed how we think about audiences, and hopefully has made us more responsive to the vital information, like public health information, at the right time, in the right format.”

What are your predictions for digital media over the next 12 months?

Lifestyle shifts have also changed the ways audiences want to consume media, Doble notes. “Spending so much time at home has shifted our media habits. And since we’re not limited to time slots, commutes, daily habits, people have become a bit more fussy about what we like.”

So what do we like? “I am a big podcast fan – I think they’re having a real renaissance. There’s a competitive market out there for daily news, for compelling series, and everything in between. The wonderful thing about podcasting is being able to find a niche audience and build a community around it.”

But aside from changes to our habits, Doble predicts that journalists will have to be on their guard against disinformation. “It’s one of the watchwords of our time. How can we turn the tide and battle misleading information? What formats can we use to create reliable public information that people can trust? We have to give people a clear sense of where to go to understand things truthfully.”

She says the events of this year have highlighted the problems of false stories and hoaxes, but that they will be far from the last. “We’ve been through Covid-19, and a tricky US election period – but this is not the end. This is merely the beginning. Harnessing the internet to defeat this sort of disinformation will be our challenge for the next five to 10 years.”

Why is it important that this industry strive to do better?

Doble says the higher purpose of journalism is still intact. “The last year has shown us more than ever why accurate information, high quality reporting and really trusted journalism are really important for democracy to function.”

But reporting the news is about more than the mere facts, she adds. “It’s important that we share truth, bust myths – but coupled with entertaining people. We’ve seen over the last 12 months the need to give people stuck at home something to look forward to.”

Does she think the industry has done succeeded? “I think we can be proud that we have managed to balance what we do for people digitally with how we keep them engaged with the outside world. We’ve given people a sense of forward momentum – so well done everyone.”

Watch the full interview here. The Drum Awards for Online Media are now closed for judging. Nominations will be announced on the Thursday 1 April. Early bird entries for 2022 are now open – more information is available on the website.