Shawn Lim
Dec 4, 2023

"What is good for audiences, is good for business": How BBC's commitment to verified journalism is shaping brand safety for advertisers

In an exclusive, Campaign speaks to BBC about why the broadcaster believes funding ethical journalism combats false information, while ensuring brand security and connecting with audiences in a credible media setting.

The rise of digital platforms and citizen journalism over the past two decades has increased misinformation and fake news. This shift has also cultivated audience habits of consuming free content or paying minimal fees for media services. As a result, news organisations, traditionally reliant on a mix of subscriptions and advertising revenue, now face newfound sustainability challenges, especially given the inevitable rise of generative AI—which has seen some of the world's biggest brands fund fake news.

According to GroupM's Global Advertising Forecast, newspapers' share of advertising in Asia-Pacific plummeted from 16% in 2013 to just 3% in 2022. Their Consumer Eye research also shows that 57% of APAC consumers are more concerned about fake news on social media than any other online issue. Only 17% of respondents prefer a paid, ad-free news service. Over half are unwilling to pay more than US$1 a month for such services, highlighting the necessity of ad-supported models for journalism's viability.  On the positive side, 73% of respondents recognised the importance of advertising in funding responsible journalism. 

As a publicly funded broadcaster that does not rely on advertising or subscriptions, the BBC may seem somewhat immune to the challenges above, but what it isn't safe from is the slew of misinformation sweeping the news business. Committed to its focus on providing accurate, timely and relevant reporting, the publisher has instilled a number of verification mechanisms, even having gone as far as to have a dedicated landing page for stories that incite fake news and calling them out, so viewers can keep on top of what's real and what's not.

Campaign speaks to Jonathan Munro, BBC News' deputy chief executive and director of journalism and Sean O'Hara, BBC's executive vice president of ad sales and Storyworks, to find out how the BBC is investing in responsible journalism to counter misinformation to ensure advertisers experience brand safety and engagement with captive audiences in a trustworthy news environment. 

How the BBC is verifying stories

In May, the BBC assembled a team of forensic journalists and experts, including analysis editor Ros Atkins, disinformation correspondent Marianna Spring, and their groups, totalling around 60 journalists.  This unit, BBC Verify, has advanced forensic investigative skills and open-source intelligence capabilities. They focus on fact-checking, authenticating videos, combating disinformation, analysing data, and elucidating complex stories to uncover the truth. 

BBC has also built dedicated physical space in the London newsroom, featuring a studio from which BBC Verify correspondents and experts will report. This setup allows for transparent sharing of their evidence-gathering processes with audiences. BBC Verify correspondents' contributions will span various platforms, including BBC News Online, radio, TV, the BBC News Channel, and live and breaking streaming operations, catering to UK and international audiences. 

"We fortunately begin from a position of considerable trust and respect from our audience. Our trust ratings are the highest of any global news organisation," explains Munro. 

"This trust is rooted in the principles that underpin all our journalism: We are impartial, fair, and not influenced by commercial profit and loss pressures, as the UK licence fee payer primarily funds us. We are not a government agency, reinforcing our impartial stance." 

Munro explains that the BBC needs to demonstrate to its audience, especially in an era where fake news can be unknowing, that what they receive from the BBC is verified, proven true, and impartial.  

There are two aspects to this. First, BBC is redoubling its efforts in verifying its content, ensuring that what the broadcaster reports is objectively true. Second, BBC is keen to keep its audiences updated about BBC Verify's verification processes.  

"Suppose our audience does not know that the content they are viewing has undergone thorough verification checks and has been scrutinised by our impartial journalists. In that case, they cannot be expected to discern this independently," says Munro. 

While the BBC previously had a fact-checking department called Reality Check, it focused on analysing statements, such as those made by politicians, and determining their truthfulness. Reality Check would clarify what was true and what was not, providing reasons for these conclusions.  

BBC Verify has now absorbed all of Reality Check's functions and expanded its scope to scrutinise other media sources, like social media and videos, to check them properly. 

For example, when dams burst in Dema, Libya, in September 2023, numerous videos depicting flood damage in Libya emerged rapidly. However, many of these videos were not actually from Libya; they showed flood damage from other parts of the world.  

As using these unverified videos would create a false narrative of the situation, BBC deployed BBC Verify to assure its audience that what they saw on the channel was genuinely from the scene at the time it claimed to be. 

BBC Verify also found that many videos featured a mosque that remained intact despite the surrounding destruction due to its sturdy construction. BBC could geolocate this mosque, which allowed the broadcaster to pinpoint where the video was taken by analysing the angle of the shot.  

"The process enabled us to confirm the authenticity of the footage we were showing. Conversely, we could also determine that certain footage was not from Dema if, for instance, the mosque was not visible in the skyline," explains Munro. 

"This absence provided clear evidence that the video might not be truthful, or at least its authenticity could not be confirmed, in which case we would not use it. The Verify project is about ensuring the accuracy and truthfulness of our entire range of content." 

Munro points out that events do not wait for verification for real-time stories like a war. At the same time, there is competition in the media space, with stories emerging from the exact locations. BBC wants to prioritise being correct over being first. For example, when videos have emerged depicting atrocities during the ongoing Israel-Hamas war, the BBC needs to be sure that what the broadcaster is seeing is indeed evidence of that specific atrocity, and not something from a different conflict or time. 

"Our job isn't to engage in a speed race to turn around videos quicker than others. Our verification processes can sometimes slow things down, but this is deliberate. We want our audience, whether online or on linear broadcasting, to trust that what they're getting from us is accurate," explains Munro. 

"Additionally, the analysis provided by BBC correspondents worldwide is another key aspect of our service. We have a presence in dozens of countries, including a significant presence here in Singapore." 

Munro continues: "Our journalists have knowledge and expertise about the regions they cover. They often live locally, speak the language, and are culturally familiar with the history of the area they're reporting on. So, our overall offer to the audience also draws on these strengths." 

Advertising's role in supporting journalism

Being aligned with accurate and trusted content is now more vital than ever for advertisers to ensure they optimally reach their audiences. For advertisers, this makes the 'transference of trust' an integral element in their campaign planning.  

O'Hara points out that as with all the BBC's editorial news content, BBC Verify has no direct commercial requirement.  

He notes this sets BBC News apart from other news providers as it ensures their news content is provided entirely independently from any commercial influence or revenue pressure.  

"BBC Verify is a further great example of the quality journalism that we know impacts our audiences across the globe," explains O'Hara. 

"It is our central belief that by demonstrating how news stories are reported, what facts sit behind the story, and how our teams go about their work, this will continue to earn the trust of our audiences, which in turn is good for advertisers. What is good for audiences is good for business, which will continue to sustain and grow the important journalism across the BBC." 

Munro adds that BBC embraces its independence as a critical strength and insists a political agenda, shareholder profit motives, or commercial sponsorships do not sway the broadcaster.  

He claims BBC journalists have the freedom to pursue their work without these influences, which is crucial, especially when considering audience behaviour and the need to make BBC news accessible on various platforms, including social media. 

With millions of people globally accessing BBC News, their trust in the platform is invaluable, and Munro believes that one must earn this trust. 

"It is crucial that everything the BBC publishes, including on social media, upholds this trust. We're aware that some content may falsely appear from the BBC, and we actively work to clarify such misconceptions," explains Munro. 

"Maintaining trust is essential; losing it is easy, but regaining it is extremely difficult. Therefore, we must ensure we never lose it in the first place. This principle applies across all platforms, whether linear broadcasting, digital platforms like our website, or social media. The same standards of quality journalism must be upheld in all these mediums." 

BBC's mantra is to be widely available across numerous platforms, including TikTok, which attracts diverse audiences. For example, BBC's linear TV channel audiences tend to be more male, while on social media, the gender balance is more even.  

Munro notes younger people are likelier to engage with BBC on social media than linear channels. Therefore, being present on these platforms is essential for reaching more youthful demographics.  

"We believe that if we are not present on these platforms, others will fill the void, and we do not want to leave that gap. Our brand values must be represented across all these media streams," explains Munro. 

"One challenge with social media is the perception that it's all about speed, with a rush to publish content quickly. We aim to be prompt as well, but our priority is accuracy. We only want to be fast if we're certain we're correct. This is the balance we maintain with every story." 

The future of news verification

In a world where AI anchors and ChatGPT-produced articles are prevalent, and generating news through machines costs just $400, Campaign previously explored the current worth of a human journalist.

Munro believes AI will play a significant role in journalism in the future, but it is an evolving landscape.  

He points out AI presents opportunities, such as instant translation between languages, a technology that has existed for some time. However, he cautions AI also poses threats, as it enables the creation of content that appears authentic, but is deceptive.  

"Our opportunity lies in ensuring that AI-generated content, which is not real, is identified and removed from circulation through verification. In terms of our current technology, there is no substitute for human expertise," explains Munro. 

"This involves fresh pairs of eyes sifting through content, sometimes taking time to analyse it thoroughly. Our team uses the latest algorithmic information, metadata, and geolocation techniques. They often match videos with mapping and satellite imagery to check for distance consistency. With the human eye, we can assess whether the weather or climate in a video matches the purported location." 

For example, when the BBC exposed a massacre by Cameroonian soldiers in 2020, the government claimed the story was not valid. However, BBC stood by its report because the broadcaster could verify the uniform pattern in the video with the Cameroonian Army's uniform.  

BBC also cross-checked the geolocation of the atrocity with observable tree growth, building layouts, and road patterns.  

Munro points out humans did all this verification. He explains while there are software tools that can assist journalists, they must ultimately be responsible for the journalism they produce, as nothing is done solely by technology. 

"As AI becomes more sophisticated, distinguishing between what is true and what is not will become increasingly challenging. This underscores the importance of continuously enhancing our efforts in verification," explains Munro. 

"In the future, and even now, there will be instances where false information slips through into mainstream media. When such mistakes occur, we must be honest about them, aligning with our commitment to transparency." 

However, Munro adds that investing time to ensure accuracy in BBC's reporting has become even more vital. BBC must also communicate this to our audience, explaining why BBC cannot verify certain content. 

"Phrases like "we are not able to verify this video" should be used when appropriate. If we report something that isn't 100% certain, we need to inform the audience, allowing them to form their judgments," says Munro. 

Campaign Asia

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