Precisely when we thought we were falling into a crisis in audience numbers and as we watched trust ratings undeniably slide, came this unexpected, unforeseen repatriation of faithful audiences. Viewers, listeners and readers ran en masse straight towards their trusted, reliable safe haven: the national public broadcaster.
It took the combination of an unpredictable and highly infectious disease, a pandemic, governments swimming in uncertainty, loss of personal freedoms and above all, a growing need for the truth to bring back those people we thought we might have lost forever.
Since the very beginning of this crisis, audiences of News programmes and to websites have been staggeringly high. We’re even seeing those elusive younger viewers watching traditional evening TV news bulletins in large numbers.
Meanwhile, behind the scenes:
It has been an extraordinary time for all of us. And especially so in News. This crisis has really been showing public service journalism at its best.
Despite the amount of restrictions and the technical challenges we’ve all become familiar with, we’ve seen some incredible creativity.
The absolute basics of broadcast journalism have been tested. TV journalism is team work. People working physically close to each other, on the road, in the edit suite, in the control room, in the studio. Every part of it has had to be reimagined.
Teams working remotely from each other, presenters doing their own hair and make-up, editorial meetings on video conference, everything has changed.
I am proud to say that the EBU has played a vital part in this revival, particularly of TV news bulletins.
Right from day one, when our own newsroom was shaken by the news that a colleague had tested positive, we began a quick but orderly transition towards remote working. We wanted to make sure our service would not be affected, and we could carry on business as usual.
Safeguarding the News Exchange has obviously been our top priority. Many of the team are working from home, with key staff in the office split into groups which don’t cross over. We have strict hygiene procedures and have even created two alternative newsrooms so we can keep going in the event we have to vacate the main newsroom.
In the early part of the crisis the workload was almost unbearable, the volume of content was enormous. And it continues to be extremely busy. All while people are working with new systems and having to worry about home-schooling, the impact of isolation, and their own health and well-being. Combatting exhaustion and fear have been as much part of this crisis as the practical implications.
I feel grateful to the entire team here in Geneva, our teams around the world and all our amazing colleagues in our Members’ newsrooms.
The broadcasters are continuing to show amazing commitment to the News Exchange and sharing a large volume of content. From the middle of March to mid-April 90% of our items have been related to COVID-19. There has never been a story like this.
EBU at your service! Our contribution to your success
One of the most successful things we’ve done was to create a WhatsApp group for journalists involved in COVID-19 reporting. This quickly became a virtual room in which to share breaking news, interesting articles and exclusive coverage. Today we have more than 170 participants from more than 25 members and other public service media organizations across the world.
Every week we’re hosting an extremely popular meeting for Editors-in-Chief. Virtually, of course! It’s an opportunity for top-level editors to share their experiences and concerns and is getting great feedback.
Externally we are working with the news agency AFP to exchange live content on Coronavirus. So, where our members or AFP have access to live press conferences by governments or health authorities, we are collaborating and sharing those events. This is for two reasons: firstly, to make sure this crucial public service information reaches as many people as possible, but also to make sure fewer camera operators and other staff are attending these events, so we can better protect individuals.
What about fake news?
As one might expect, we’ve seen a fast rise in the circulation of false stories and misinformation. Our immediate PSM response to this was the Flashlight initiative. A Telegram group where fact-checking teams and our own Social Newswire can share the stories they’ve been working on. We’re also part of the Trusted News Initiative which involves a number of large global news companies.
And there’s more …
In radio news, we have revamped the audio platform - audio.ebu.ch - allowing the sharing of long-form news content on COVID-19.
The Investigative Journalism Network has turned its hand to sharing long-form TV content dedicated to COVID-19 and is now sharing this amazing journalism with all EBU members. There is an extensive amount of content becoming available and I urge everyone to take a look at what’s there. Get in touch if you don’t know how.
And in data journalism, we’re supporting data journalists across all our Members to produce visualized content. COVID-19 is a data-driven story and being able to interpret it is something we can support you on.
Because we want to support all of our Members, including some who are facing financial crisis, we have been able to give temporary access to the News Exchange to organizations under financial sanctions. These are times to be generous, to support each other and it has been a delight to see the impact this has had.
Next on the agenda for many of us is working out how to manage the relaxation of the lockdown restrictions. How do we return to the office safely? In News and beyond we’re looking forward to sharing ideas and success, as well as any failures or warnings.