Formats Unpacked: BBC News Social Video Explainers (AKA - Ros Atkin’s videos)
How to go viral by not trying to go viral
When I launched Formats Unpacked I never would have thought that news formats would provide such rich material for unpacking. But here we are with another, having already had Marcus John Henry Brown’s unpacking of The News and Matt Locke’s unpacking of Breaking News Memes.
This week week I’m taking a close look at a format I’ve been fascinated with for a while. I’ve known for sometime that what Ros Atkins does is brilliant and really important, but writing this has given me a greater appreciation. Right now, the world really does need more of what he is doing.
What is it?
BBC News social video explainers (AKA - Ros Atkin’s videos)
What’s the Format?
Short explainer videos, designed for social, featuring BBC newsreader Ros Atkins. The videos range in length from 3-9 mins but rarely go over. These videos take a current news stories from around the world and distills the facts into the simplest and most consumable language. When sharing them on social they are told how long each story will last e.g. 4 mins on why Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe is coming home now or 9 mins on the untruths and distortions that Russia is spreading about 'Nazis' in Ukraine. Ros has been described as ‘the BBCs Explainer-in Chief’.
What’s the magic that makes it special?
At a time when algorithms are rewarding extreme and distorted perspectives, and public media is under threat, there is a real need for people and organisation who are brilliant at bringing clarity to the events which impact our lives. Most importantly, we need them to be doing this without bias.
The magic in this format is Ros and his team’s ability to tell complex stories with a simple clarity that feels free of bias. They do the hard work for you - taking the chaotic noise of breaking news stories and sieving them until there are only hard facts left. They are then ruthlessly efficient with their words, with each script going through multiple iterations, each pass removing unnecessary information and opaque phrases. By the final script, the sentences are short, the words are simple, and the facts are clear.
But a good explainer is more than a story filled with facts - it’s hard to get people’s attention and make people care with facts alone, as the last few decades of internet media has shown us. Some news formats try to capture and hold audience attention by giving their stories sensational headlines. Others do it by delivering news as shouty polemics, or by using comedy.
Ros is different. He and his team have an obsession with the craft of storytelling, particularly the value of structure. Each story he tells lets the audience know what the issues are, why they should care, why the issue is important right now, and how it links to the broader context of things going on in the world. It might look simple, but believe me, it isn’t.
When it comes to news formats, we’re constantly being told that the only way to get attention is by turning opinion and personality up to 11. But Ros Atkins’ explainers frequently become ‘viral hits’, despite the absence of opinion, and without being delivered in a shouty, extreme or comic way. His ‘no shtick’ shtick is a breath of fresh air, particularly on Twitter where some of his videos have got over 8 million clicks. And surprisingly for such a partisan time, the neutrality of his stories have won him fans right across the political spectrum.
It might still be easier to get attention to news articles with polemical arguments or through comedy, but both polemics and comedy only really work by confirming your biases. They take you deeper into your filter bubble, instead of lifting you out of it. In a media landscape dominated by formats that narrow your perspectives, Atkin’s videos feel like a breath of fresh air, like you’ve taken off your binoculars and can see the whole horizon again.
I’m a fan of the excellent Vox Explainer videos. BBC Radio 1’s Newsbeat is worth a mention too. I spent 15 years at Radio 1 and always admired the brilliant job they did explaining the news for young audiences.
I’m not sure ‘favourite’ is the right word to use in this context, but his coverage of the war in the Ukraine has been really helpful. Especially for people who find the wall to wall coverage overwhelming but need to keep up to date on the events.
I’d love to hear about any news formats you’d like to see unpacked. I’d like to see more from print, including news articles, editorials, cartoons, Op-Eds, and photo news features. We’re always looking for writers so get in touch if you’d like to unpack one of these.
Thanks for reading.