After venting frustration last month at the BBC’s censorship of the Steubenville High School rape case I sent them the following Freedom of Information request:
- Are you [the BBC] aware of the Steubenville story? If so, when were you first aware of it?
- What process does the BBC use to ensure it is aware of news stories across the world?
- Who makes decisions about which new stories to include/not include within the BBC’s content? Can you provide job titles, grades, names of committees etc. please?
- What is the context within which they make these decisions? I.e. is there a policy guide that the decision makers need to abide by to make their decisions? Can I see this guide?
- If not already answered in 4 & 5 above, can you advise who decided, and on what basis, that the Steubenville High School rape case in Ohio would be omitted from the BBC’s content?
In reply, the BBC told me, “Our Washington bureau did become aware of this story – though not until the latter stages – and published this report”. The BBC published that report on the 9th January 2013 under the headline “Ohio tension rises over Steubenville rape case”. They also tweeted a link to that story later the same day: “Tensions are high in #Steubenville, Ohio – where a rape case may turn on the weight of social media evidence”. The BBC have since published one brief update to the story on 30th January under the headline “Ohio footballers rape trial to stay in Steubenville”.
The BBC then went on to tell me, “There is no policy guide about decisions on what stories to pursue and we rely heavily on the BBC’s extensive network of correspondents around the globe as well as on trusted press agencies to alert newsroom editors to news developments”. But the absence of a policy guide should not be taken to mean “pursue any story”. It is likely to mean the opposite. If the BBC favours certain types of stories more than others, then correspondents and agencies will have learned to pursue only those types of stories that the BBC are likely to run. There is the potential for a huge amount of bias within this process – the best test of its existence would be to analyse the BBC’s output. (More to come on this soon).
Finally, the BBC said, “Decisions on what to cover and how to cover it are taken strategically, at board level, as well as minute by minute, with editorial discussions going on throughout the 24-hour news cycle. Editors make judgement about the newsworthiness of stories based on experience, knowledge and expert advice among other things, including an understanding of their audiences based on research-based evidence.” Again, a lack of guidance does not create freedom – instead it enables cultural biases to embed unchallenged. And a lack of guidance makes it difficult to test retrospectively whether defined standards were maintained. As Nick Davies discusses in his book “Flat Earth News” (p149), a 2005 inquiry into the BBC’s coverage of he European Union found an “…institutional mindset, a tendency to polarise and over-simplify issues, a measure of ignorance of the EU on the part of some journalists, and a failure to report issues which ought to be reported… Whatever the cause, the effect…feels like bias”.
The BBC’s mention of an “understanding of their [the editor's] audience, based on research-based evidence” being a factor in decision-making is another source of concern. In “The Universal Journalist”, David Randall (p18) points out that news outlets “build up over the years, through responses to their stories from letters, complaints and so on, an anecdotal ’knowledge’ of what their [audience] wants. Or rather what they believe their [audience] wants. This internal folklore…may or may not be accurate. Often it is combined with the prejudices of journalists, executives and owners to produce a highly personalised idea of what readers want, or what they think they ought to want.” The BBC spend a lot of public money carrying out audience research, but in ‘establishing’ that the public see the BBC as a ‘trusted filter’ did they talk their audience sample through all the stories they omitted and explain to them why?
So far in 2013, the BBC News website only has stories concerning “gang rape” that has occurred in India, South Africa and Mexico. Do gang rapes only happen in those countries? And only 1 of the 215 BBC News website stories in 2013 containing the term “rape” discusses “rape culture”. And this is where I think the BBC is really letting its audience down – they could spark a debate on something fundamentally important to everyone within society, but they choose not to. US blogger Prinniefied, who first broke the Steubenville story, posted last week that “Something magical has happened as a result of the Steubenville case – rape culture is being acknowledged around the world as a real problem and people are addressing that problem. Knowledge is power and education is key. Repeatedly the speakers at the Occupy Steubenville rally implored people to get involved. Start a group in your town. Ask questions – address issues. Be that voice. Talk to your children and teach them that we are all equal. Teach them that it is okay to be the one who stands up as the lone voice in the crowd. Teach them that it is okay to say NO or object to behaviour of their peers. This incident…should be utilized to create unity and bring the community together”.