The art of the viral news explainer
Ros Atkins is a British journalist at the BBC, where he has hosted the TV programme Outside Source since 2014. Ros has been described as the BBC’s Explainer-in-Chief for his viral explainer clips, which have delved into important news stories both from Britain and around the world. He also started the 50:50 Project for gender equality in news. As part of our global journalism seminars series, Ros shared his expertise on what makes a digitally successful explainer.
Why high-quality explainer videos matter
- 63% of news leaders surveyed in 52 countries for Journalism, media and technology trends and predictions 2022 said they will put more resources in digital video this year.
- 76% of people surveyed in the UK and 74% in all markets believe news outlets should reflect a range of different views and leave it up to people to decide, our 2021 Digital News Report found.
- While 53% of US adults use social media as a news source, 59% of those who do expect it to be inaccurate, Pew Research Center found.
Watch the video of Ros's talk
Seven expert tips for a viral news explainer
1. Facts should speak for themselves. "I'm not setting out to damn anyone. I am setting out to work out what the facts of the story are to distil them into the simplest and most understandable and consumable form," Ros said. His explainers are 100% focused on facts, with no intention to pass judgement, he added. This also extends to how the content is presented: "We try to release the potency of facts. We distil information down into its clearest form and offer that in a way that places the fewest obstacles between the audience and the fact," Ros said. For his videos, this means short, sparse sentences, packing in as many facts as possible and an understated tone. Ros highlighted that he is not trying to bring personality or comment into the content in any way.
2. But tell people why they should care. “The reason why something matters is hugely important,” Ros said, who stressed that this should be made very clear to the audience. Sometimes Ros even says the words “And the reason it matters is…” in order to link the news he’s talking about to its broader context that makes it significant. He said that you can’t assume the audience will care, and taking the time to explain this will lead to higher engagement. For Ros, this is something it’s always worth making space for.
3. Craft a story carefully: structure and flow matter. "The video needs to be ruthlessly efficient. It needs to be ruthlessly fair and it needs to take you through the story with a rhythm that makes you want to start at the beginning and stick with it all the way," Ros said. How to tell the story is a guiding principle throughout the explainers, he added. This requires a thought-out structure that flows smoothly from one element to the next. "Rhythm is key. And rhythm is to do with the way that the elements are edited but also with a technique of scripting where you're constantly hooking off the back of something and throwing onto the next thing," Ros said. An example of how he often does this is by repeating a word or a phrase.
4. Details matter. “We’re poring over the finer points at length and I can’t give you many examples where I’ve just sat down and written it and we’ve gone, ‘Great, let’s do it!’, it goes through lots of different iterations.” This includes a sharp focus on clear language and presentation, grammar, and extensive scrutiny of the facts and to make sure the videos are impartial and fair to all parties involved.
5. Digital success is not a happy accident. "We observed that digital content needed to be exceptional. If something is good or terrible, and anywhere in between, it doesn't perform on digital. It's got to be exceptional. Exceptional is difficult," Ros said. He said his viral clips are intentionally crafted for social media, and his colleagues in digital are involved throughout the process, not just when it comes to putting out the content. Ros also pointed out that it’s important to pick the right platform, keeping in mind the differences between videos that perform well on search-based YouTube and those that are popular on the more emotional, reaction-based Twitter, for example.
6. Social media thrives on engagement. "The role of individuals in distributing content is more and more important. I engage with people whether they are being positive or negative. I'm present in the digital space where our video needs to perform," Ros said. He added that he worked to build his own digital following, an ongoing endeavour that requires digital presence.
7. Be intentional with your audience. "You have to go on TV every night. With digital you don't. Only post when you've got something exceptional. If you're not so sure, maybe don't bother. You don't want to dilute the relationship with your audience," Ros said. When making his videos, he thinks of people who are interested in the news but overwhelmed by the amount of information out there, which is another reason he packs his explainers full of facts: "One of the most complimentary things we've had said is that our videos can save you reading five long reads and listening to four podcasts. Spend five minutes with us and you will feel better informed on a subject," he said. He also thinks of people who don't have the time or inclination to consume a lot of news but would like to stay informed, people who keep up with the news but prefer using social media as a news source to newspapers, television and radio, and people who are looking for more detail to news stories.
The bottom line
Loud personalities and strong opinions are not strictly necessary for viral success. Ros has shown that facts speak for themselves, and that the online world does still care about them. However, digital success requires hard work: planning, care, intense scrutiny and personal involvement. Consistently high online performance is not an accident, it needs intentional effort and a long process of crafting and adjusting your product. As Ros said, “It’s about finding your voice.”
If you want to know more...
- Watch one of Ros’s Ukraine crisis explainers
- Watch Outside Source on BBC News Channel
- Listen to Ros’s podcast with US broadcaster Keith Olbermann
- Read Investing in online video news, a report we published in 2017
- Read our report Depth and breadth: How news organisations navigate trade-offs around building trust in news
An automated transcript is available here