The Association for Qualitative Research
The Hub of Qualitative Thinking

Planning for future news

Does constant snacking prevent real hunger? 2013 PRS Award winner Dr Sarah Jenkins was charged with understanding cross platform needs in news consumption.

First a bit of context: the BBC News Audiences team wanted to provide journalists with insight on how to clarify stories to audiences across all platforms and ensure engaging coverage while maintaining its customary high journalistic standards. Within that, a key objective was to help audiences better understand complex stories. The team sought actionable insights to inform the way BBC News stories are covered by:

  • creating a regular and reactive, but value for money, resource that the BBC could use at various points to test how coverage is helping to improve understanding of a key news story;

and

  • providing an "audience wind-tunnel" for testing treatments and techniques used in BBC News coverage with different audience groups.

The challenge

The BBC was looking to set up an approach that could be mobilised at short notice that allowed it to get feedback on treatments and techniques used in its news coverage so as to make the story clear to all audiences. The approach needed to tackle a number of different stories across the coming 12 months, with each session focusing on a different one, despite being unable to plan what future stories would be.

The solution

Traditional methods such as discussion groups and online qualitative research can be flexible and quick to turn around, but Ipsos MORI did not feel that they would capture the breadth and depth of insight required across different stimulus and different platforms efficiently. That's why we sought to develop an approach which combined the benefits of a range of qual methods, while remaining flexible to ensure adaptability to the story in focus; hence the birth of the BBC "StoryBoard". In summary, a StoryBoard involves asking participants to undertake tasks; use jargon boxes; join rolling group discussions and depth interviews; vox pops and much more; all on one day, in a single location.

The StoryBoard is implemented in a central location such as a community centre, with circa 60-80 participants dropping in throughout the day. Depending on the flow of participants, each table can be a one-to-one depth interview; or a full group discussion. With recruitment taking place both on the spot and in advance, this method has proved to be ideal for sharing a wide range of stimulus, and capturing thoughts and opinions of a range of participants in a short space of time.

New consumer thinking is generated as participants are given an opportunity to focus on two to three short pieces of stimulus at one time, and are encouraged to articulate specific details relating to the stimulus they have seen that aid their engagement (or conversely, act as a barrier to their understanding). Providing contrasting stimulus allows participants to react to alternative modes of delivery and gives them the tools they need to articulate what can sometimes be subconscious behaviour.

This flexible and fluid approach to qualitative research allows participants to move around the room, and make comparisons to other stimulus and highlight differences across platforms. The exact layout of the day and the number of different stations is bespoke; dependant on the venue, topic and specific platform requirements. Throughout the course of the day the BBC is observing, notes are taken, and analysis is started in small teams. Once participants have left, the whole team, including the BBC, contributes to a wider analysis session.

Lessons for the client

By the end of a StoryBoard day, Ipsos MORI is able to provide detailed feedback on individual stimulus with specific examples indicating what is effective and why; and barriers to understanding, including any assumed knowledge or jargon. Moreover, we are able to identify any similarities or differences across platforms, and provide the BBC with key audience insights on how improvements could help their understanding, both quick wins, and longer term changes. The result is new audience thinking:

1. Clarifying the unique audience challenge of each story
Findings have given the BBC a clearer sense of the barriers to understanding on each individual story.

2. Challenging assumptions about the audience
The research identified smaller, tactical improvements that teams could address immediately.

3. Detailed feedback for correspondents
For the first time, findings were shared directly with correspondents as well as engaging with different BBC News teams and journalists from the Midlands to the Middle East. This has prompted discussion on both daily editorial decisions, to ideas for longer term programming.

4. Encouraging sharing of best practices across BBC News
The findings from this work have highlighted best practices across the full range of BBC News output and thus helped BBC News Audiences to forge more links between teams to the benefit of the audience.

5. Linking stories by theme to extend best practice messages
The team has applied insights across stories of a similar nature, and shown how learnings might be applicable to other stories. For example, findings in the way benefit changes are communicated can be applied to other stories about financial cuts. It has thus extended the life of the insights beyond one story.

Lessons for the future

This approach enables the evaluation of large amounts of stimulus from a range of audiences both effectively and efficiently. Focusing on specific issues — such as the way a story is delivered; assumptions of existing knowledge; and terminology — provides detailed feedback to the BBC on how audiences engage with large and complex news stories, and what enablers and barriers exist across delivery styles and platforms.

The research has helped the BBC to think differently about how it addresses these issues, both providing quick wins, and provoking longer debates on news delivery across teams. Findings have been shared with a wide range of teams across the BBC, vertically from editors to correspondents, making an immediate impact on delivery of news. There has been an unexpected benefit, too, in that lessons are being learned and applied horizontally across teams and audiences.

 

Sarah Jenkins
Copyright © Association for Qualitative Research, 2014