Journalism is Full of Choices – It’s Not Easy

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Aug 22, 2019
by Mirabelle Morah
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Journalism is Full of Choices – It’s Not Easy

Naja Nielsen, digital director of BBC News, reflects on her new role, the importance of the BBC, and tips for spotting fake news Naja Nielsen at the 2018 Salzburg Academy on Media and Global Change (Credit: Katrin Kerschbaumer/Salzburg Global Seminar)

“Journalism looks so easy, but it's difficult. It's very difficult because it's full of choices,” says Naja Nielsen, digital director of BBC News. “You learn about something, [then] you have to decide first of all who to research… what to exclude, what to include in the story and then afterwards how to communicate it, and how to produce it. There are all these choices that can be criticized.”

Attending the 13th program of the Salzburg Academy on Media and Global Change: The Cost of Disbelief: Fracturing Societies and the Erosion of Trust, Nielsen spoke about the importance of impartiality, and the role the BBC has to play.

Nielsen made the choice to work for the BBC, leaving Orb Media, a global journalism start-up in Washington, D.C, specialized in data-informed stories. Having been appointed in April, she has since been responsible for the digital strategy and development of the BBC portfolio of digital news services. For BBC News to have a “great future,” Nielsen says it needs to excel digitally.

“That means that we have to find a balance between sticking to our core values and keep doing what we do best, but in ways that work for people that use their media digitally, primarily on their mobile phones,” Nielsen says. “Which means everything from the content selection to the way we tell the stories, to the way we publish the stories and when we publish the stories has to be reconsidered.”

This is a daunting task for any media company, but that does not deter Nielsen. “I just think people need knowledge, and I think we have an important part to play there. But I also do believe that we have to innovate and renew ourselves quite a lot to be able to do that in the future,” she says.

Tracing her thoughts back to her statement on the importance of the BBC staying true to its core values, Nielsen says that being impartial and trustworthy are the two most important things about the BBC.

“That means that we have taken no sides, we do not push a specific agenda, we are not led by economic or political interests, and we are not bought into pressure.

“We always go to lengths to make sure that whatever we are reporting is actually accurate, and both of those two things are very difficult to get right all the time. Well, it is maybe the most important reason for us [as the BBC] to exist,” Nielsen said.

However, in recent times, convincing people of the BBC’s impartiality has not been “very easy to achieve,” according to Nielsen. “For instance, if it is about Brexit, the same story can be criticized for being pro-Brexit and anti-Brexit. And to those two different groups of audience that are reading the story, we just seem like partial or biased. And it's not very easy to solve… If we just did the stories like one side wanted, then the other side would just think we were even more partial…

“I find it very interesting, and I thought this was a great opportunity for me to talk to young people from around the world [at the Media Academy] about this too to get – to be honest – a bit of help to figure out how to modernize our way of showing our impartiality,” Nielsen says.

To detect fake news, Nielsen emphasizes people need to “get into the habit of making certain questions every time they read something.” They have to ask themselves if a story is “too good to be true,” and if there is anything strange about it. If the story seems plausible, “then look at how many different sources there are,” Nielsen says. She expressed the importance of investigating the source and origin of a story, especially when one isn’t satisfied with the credibility of the news or its source.

“If there are many others that are reporting the same thing and you can see it is exactly the same wording, it's not vetted,” she notes.

“It's not enough that all media is carrying the [same] story because often, it goes so fast that it can just be the same - garbage in, garbage out. But if they have slightly different ways of covering the story but the basic facts are the same, it is often true.”

Nielsen is 51. As well as working for the BBC and Orb Media, she led editorial development in many different roles at DR, Danish Broadcasting, including as head of news. She has also been a visiting scholar at Stanford University where she wrote the paper “Journalism in the Digital Age: What Legacy Media should Learn, Embrace and Fear from Silicon Valley.” With this experience behind her, what message would she give to her younger self?

“Oh. That’s funny,” says Nielsen. She pauses. “It took me many years actually to take up leadership positions and managing positions. The first many years, I tried to work a little less, but also I think there was … me being a coward at it where I had all these ideas about how things should be, but I did not want to like take on the responsibility, and I think maybe I could have done that a bit before… If you can see solutions, you also have some responsibility…

“But on the other hand I think it has maybe later on helped me that I did not become a manager very early on, that I had many years like a normal staff member because I think maybe that made me learn how it is to be led as well… So I think it has influenced my leadership style a lot to try to empower people a lot. All leaders say they want opposition, but I genuinely want opposition because I do remember myself as [someone] young.”

And on her advice to journalists, especially young and upcoming journalists, Nielsen says it’s important to know the craft very well “and to be a little humble when you learn that because it is difficult… [so] I think it's good to practice a lot.”


Naja Nielsen is a guest scholar at the Salzburg Academy on Media and Global Change. The Salzburg Global program, The Cost of Disbelief: Fracturing Societies and Erosion of Trust, is part of the Salzburg Academy on Media and Global Change.