Former BBC director Helen Boaden talks about news in the time of social media

Helen Boaden spoke at the Hebrew Center about fake news and the search for unbiased reporting. —Sophia McCarron

The “fake news” seed has been growing steadily in the back of the American consciousness, watered by clickbaits, and recently given Miracle-Gro by President Trump and the 2016 campaign.

Helen Boaden, former director of BBC News and then BBC Radio, spoke as part of the Summer Institute Speaker Series on Thursday night about this thorny topic from the perspective of an insider who has the benefit of looking at the issue from across the Atlantic.

She recounted her own experience as a reporter for the BBC covering the civil war in Uganda. “The BBC, the BBC, the BBC saved us during the civil war,” she remembered a Ugandan nun telling her. In a time and place when the king of fake news — propaganda — ruled, the BBC was a “calm voice of authority,” Ms. Boaden said.

It’s this authoritative reason that inspires trust in the people, however they consume the media, be it by radio, newspaper, or television. “That kind of trust is invaluable,” said Ms. Boaden. “Newspapers haven’t been trusted for a long time.”

This distrust in the balance of American reporting, whether an outlet is liberally or conservatively biased, is caused by the fact that, Ms. Boaden argued, “American reporting sits in partisanship.”

Partisanship such as endorsing a political candidate is an unheard-of practice at the BBC. The BBC is funded by a television license fee charged to every household that receives live TV broadcasts. This allows them a greater level of freedom to give even coverage of all of the stories. In the past the organization has been considered left-of-center by some, and some consider it to have a conservative, establishment bias.

Having a guaranteed income, however, is a bonus that has helped the BBC rise to a position of leadership in the journalism industry. “The challenges of a guaranteed income are a luxury to have that American journalists don’t,” said Ms. Boaden.

In her talk, she cited a study that found that 21 states in America do not have any local newspapers that have a dedicated Washington, D.C., reporter because of a widespread lack of funding. The BBC’s funding model is not practiced in the United States.

This problem has become acute because of the rise of social media. Platforms like Facebook and Twitter give quick, free access to news content, and they also draw advertising revenue away from the news outlets creating the content.

This phenomenon has increased the pace of the news cycle, and decreased the budget that news outlets operate on. “The speed of the news cycle pulls at journalists’ values, rationality, and unbiased thinking,” Ms. Boaden said.

This speed makes it more difficult for journalists to think deeply about their work and how it is influenced by their worldview. People might not have the time to consider the implications of the words that they use. “Language carries political meaning,” said Ms. Boaden, “A spade is a spade, except in our culture it’s a black man.”

It’s important that journalists face their unconscious biases, Ms. Boaden argued. She commended National Public Radio (NPR) for its work in “ground-up” reporting that flies in the face of journalists sitting at their desks, often in wealthy metropolitan cities, and reporting on the news from there.

She emphasized, however, that biases were especially dangerous when they concerned America’s president. “The press — however much they loathe him — are utterly addicted to Trump,” she said. Attacking Trump’s 3 am tweets and other rhetoric acted as an amplifier and gave a validity to his message. “Fair and unbiased flew out of the window,” said Ms. Boaden.

The hour-long talk was not a light, happy pronouncement on the news industry. America needs to recognize that times have changed and social media is cutting off independent journalism, and work out an independent funding model for a news outlet, Ms. Boaden suggested. She said, however, she thought it overly optimistic to imagine that that model would mirror the BBC. Social media companies also have to publicly come to terms with their part in the spread of fake news, and make changes and increase transparency. Journalists must accept that they will never be impartial beings, face their biases, and reflect the diversity of the country without resorting to clichés.

These goals, she said, are achievable, but it will take a concerted effort to enact change.