What a breath of fresh air it has been to see the BBC’s Ros Atkins find such fame with his explainers.
The format — presenter-led videos typically lasting around 5-10 minutes — seems quite obvious in retrospect, but I understand convincing BBC higher ups it would be a winning strategy wasn’t easy. The long accepted view on online video is that it had to be short and simple if it was to become shareable. Atkins has thrown that thesis out of the window.
It’s been an hallelujah moment for broadcast journalism. Why? Because its success is built on solid foundations of great journalism, with little-to-no compromise in the name of clicks or fallacies about attention spans. It relies on good research, sharp scripting, quality material, trusted data and incisive analysis. In one place. And viewers, against what felt like an irreversible trend, absolutely love it.
But is it scalable?
Atkins is a stand-out personality at the BBC and in broadcast news in general. He is, I’m sure he won’t mind me saying, a colossal news nerd. Throughout his career he has pushed new formats into the most rigid of places, such as the BBC World Service with “World Have Your Say”, and later on BBC World TV with Outside Source*.
He’s done this with an entrepreneurial streak not typical among news anchors. Back when Atkins was getting ready to launch Outside Source, they ran a number of pilots. The “gimmick”, if it’s not too harsh, would be a big interactive screen that Atkins could use to bring up material — statements, tweets, pictures — and also cue in reporters.
I was part of one of those pilot shows, an in-studio reporter. It wasn’t long before it became obvious that, when Atkins pressed the screen, it sometimes wouldn’t react. A harder tap followed, sometimes two. After the show, I asked if they were fixing that. “I don’t mind it,” Atkins said. “It means viewers know I’m the one actually controlling it. It makes it more credible.”
He was right. Viewers would tweet with the same observation. That instinctive understanding of a viewer’s mind is critical to the success of his explainers. And so, in that sense, Atkins is uniquely talented. But that doesn’t mean he can’t be emulated.
True to his nature, Atkins is only too wiling to help others do that. On a recent podcast, he was interviewed by Nick Bryant, a former BBC correspondent I was lucky enough to work with briefly in Washington. Like Atkins, Bryant is a nerd of his craft — particularly when it comes to the shape of words and phrases, the pictures that should be chosen — the “rhythm” of the news.
During the podcast, which I’d urge you to listen to, Atkins laid out what I think form the beginnings of what we might call the Rules of Assertive Impartiality. Or: how to scale Ros Atkins.
Assertive Impartiality is the principle that underpins the success of the Atkins explainers. It is a snappy, evidence-based, cut-the-bullshit approach to broadcasting. Done well, it commands almost instant respect. The key is to let the material do the work, with unflinching transparency.
Here are the rules (so far):
— Rule 1: Offer fast-turnaround depth. Journalists are news obsessives. Normal people, for the most part, are not. It’s why many people say they don’t “follow the news”, indicating the feeling that it’s something that needs to be kept up with, like a soap opera, or household chores.
Assertive Impartiality requires bringing your audience up to speed at the point when they need it most: when the headlines are screaming about the biggest latest development in a major story. Doing so lays the groundwork to explain the latest information with credibility. For viewers, “how we got here” is every bit as important as “and here’s what happened today”. Often, in TV broadcasting, the former is reduced to a sentence at best, sacrificed in aid of the latter.
“Provide depth, but what I call fast-turnaround depth,” Atkins says. “Just at the moment when the story is peaking, here you go — here’s a full distillation of all the different developments that we think are important to you.”
There’s no better example of this than Atkins’ explainer on the libel case between Colleen Rooney and Rebekah Vardy. No-one answered better the question of what on earth this Wagatha Christie thing was all about.
— Rule 2: Create a judgement-free zone. Viewers are more than smart enough to make their own conclusions when presented with the necessary information. What is less needed, Atkins says, is reporters that say things like a politician has “had a bad day”. The details of his or her day should be ample to get that across (and if it isn’t, the reporter, if wanting to achieve Assertive Impartiality, should probably not have said it in the first place).
In this vein, the often-maligned “he said, she said” reporting has a distinct place. Particularly when the “she said”, from a source of authority, flatly exposes the bullshit of the prior “he said”. Just lay it out.
— Rule 3: Share evidence without delay. When broken free of the shackles of broadcast news, both on time and structure, we’re gifted a special treat: we can do whatever the hell we want. That means putting the right things in the right places. Achieving Rule 2 relies on this bit. Back up assertions, the Assertive Impartiality, with the evidence immediately.
“Anytime I was being forthright and particularly assertive, I didn’t just provide evidence for that assertion at some point in the piece,” Atkins says. “I juxtapose the assertive statement with the evidence there and then, so anyone consuming it can see the factual basis of what I’m saying.”
— Rule 4: Be (more) honest about the process. It’s always struck me that anyone who has spent time in a quality newsroom, one where facts matter, very quickly becomes an evangelist of the process. If only the public could know the lengths journalists go to make sure something was true, they’d perhaps be more trusting of journalism.
(Notably: trust in American journalism peaked after All The Presidents’ Men, the legendary movie about the reporting behind Watergate, was released.)
Assertive Impartiality demands an openness about where information comes from. That doesn’t mean revealing sources, obviously, but just being blunt. If it was in a rival publication, just suck it up and say so. We should tell viewers, as Atkins repeatedly does, that “Downing Street sources” typically means a senior advisor hosting a conference call with a few reporters. Or that “the Daily Mirror broke the story”. It’s fine.
The public have become skeptical of journalese, and not before time. Assertive Impartiality works best when the process is part of the story.
— Rule 5: Lose the adjectives. In scripting, which should be as sparse as possible, the presenter needs to move out of the way. Adjectives are not your friend.
Says Atkins: “I don’t really get involved in using adjectives to describe things, because that’s me bringing something of myself. Every time you bring something of yourself, which is essentially a perception and not much more, you risk being accused of speculation, or something that’s not fact-based, or bringing your own agenda. If you write very sparse, adjective-free scripts, you’re not at risk of that, because your entire piece is rooted simply in the information.”
— Rule 6: Momentum matters. Don’t let the above make it seem like Assertive Impartiality, and the explainer format, is a paint-by-numbers exercise. It isn’t.
In his excellent book The Art and Craft of Feature Writing former Wall Street Journal feature writer William Blundell describes the best feature writing as being like a river. Each paragraph flows from one to the next, picking up new information as it finds its winding way way to a conclusion. You can, at times, stop at the shore, but not too often and not for too long.
Explainers are no different. No material can exist in isolation, each must do its work to relate to what came before it, and tee-up what comes next. That’s what makes it a story.
There’s little room for error, Atkins says, in eliminating the “weaknesses” in a script. “In a digital context, much more than TV, even if the first three minutes and the last three minutes are good, if the minute in the middle isn’t, and is a bit boring, your digital audience is gone.”
To achieve this, Bryant noted the need to look outside of journalism for storytelling inspiration. Stand-up comedians are particularly good. Indeed, in some respects, you could argue Atkins’ schtick isn’t dissimilar to John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight—done straight.
These may all seem obvious. In that case, a bigger question might be why these principles have been neglected or abandoned entirely in much of the mainstream media’s output.
Is applying Assertive Impartiality appropriate in every part of the news biz? Quite obviously no. And it’s important to remember that what Atkins does is not the coal-face of news reporting. Much of the information he uses to report, as he readily explains in diligently following Rule 4, is from newspapers and other raw material gatherers. Without them, he’d have little to go on.
Explainers are part of the ecosystem, one in which Assertive Impartiality, applied as above, can help rise the broader reputation of the media. News organisations may be lacking Atkins in their ranks, but they certainly don’t lack the resources to follow these princples. That should be hugely encouraging news to everyone who cares about what we do.
(*He also shook things up in another important ways, launching the BBC’s “50/50” project to increase the inclusion of female voices in news coverage. It spurred a huge improvement.)