Keep your opinions to yourself!

The old saying is that there are “two sides to every story.” (The reality is there are often more than two sides.)

So — think of a story and now think which side of that story do you believe is “right”?

When you cover a story, you’re going to hear different opinions and views about what’s happened. You in turn are bound to have a view about who is in the right and who is in the wrong. That’s perfectly normal. Everybody has opinions and views and there’s nothing wrong with that.

The problem comes when, as a broadcast journalist, you start telling people what you think.

Here in the UK, journalists who work in broadcast news are expected to keep their opinions out of their work.

That means while they should try to report the differing opinions about a story, they don’t take sides themselves; they don’t express an opinion (“editorialise”) about who’s right or wrong or what should or shouldn’t happen and they don’t offer solutions to problems.

Why does this happen? There are a few reasons, but the biggest one is because they aren’t allowed to.

In order to broadcast in the UK organisations need to have a licence from an organisation called OFCOM.

The thinking behind this goes back to the days when access to the airwaves was much more limited. Unlike newspapers — lots of choice — there were only a few broadcasters and than meant they had a huge influence, which needed to be regulated, so that influence wasn’t abused. Similar rules for US broadcasters were repealed back in the 1980s.

CGTN (China) Press TV (Iran) and RT (Russia) have all been taken off air by OFCOM for breaches of its strict set of rules called the Broadcasting Code, which covers things like impartiality and accuracy.

So that’s why, for example, you will find it impossible to work out which party the BBC’s Political Editor Laura Kuenssberg supports. The same is true for Beth Rigby the Political Editor of Sky News.

Over the years, Labour party supporters have accused both these women of being Conservatives and Conservative party supporters have accused both of being Labour. (That suggests they’re doing a good job!) Both are carefully neutral in the way they report and in what they say on social media.

But the broadcasters need to be impartial in the way they report all stories, not just political ones.

So it’s not just political journalists. Here’s an interview with George Alagiah, who presents the BBC’s Six O’Clock News. Look at what he says about the importance of keeping his opinions to himself.

His comments are interesting because they show it’s not just about following rules. Even without the OFCOM regulations about impartiality, it is arguably still a good idea for broadcast journalists to be neutral — because they are more likely to be believed if they don’t take sides.

One final reason to keep you mouth shut might be, as my first editor told me a long time ago: “Nobody cares what you think about anything.” Brutal but true.

The BBC’s editorial guidelines say experienced journalists should not offer “personal views” on political topics but can “offer professional judgements routed in evidence.”

And one day you might end up being the sort of expert journalist who offers some sort of commentary on or analysis of what is happening. But that hasn’t happened yet.

So for now, when you report your stories for Cardiff News Plus, we’ll expect you to stay neutral too. That means you need to:

  • Get both sides of the story.
  • Keep your views about who is right and wrong to yourself.
  • Don’t suggest solutions of your own, or talk about what should happen or should be done.

In other words — keep your opinions to yourself. This is often hardest to do at the end of a script, when you are running out of things to say, perhaps, and you’re tempted to write what you think should happen next.

Avoid this temptation. The only opinions you should include are those of the people you interview.

Activity: Think of a subject/story that you have strong opinions about. Look to see how it has been reported by UK broadcasting organisations. Has the story been reported in an impartial way?

Go Deeper: This is a big subject. Lots of people want a US-style relaxation of the rules in the UK. They say the world is changing now. There are lots more broadcasters. Viewers and listeners can use the internet to watch and listen to more or less whatever they want. And lots of people believe that the “mainstream” media is not as impartial as it would like us to believe. If you find these issues interesting, read this 2012 Reuters Institute paper by Professor Richard Sambrook from JOMEC:

Look at the recent row about Newsnight’s Policy Editor Lewis Goodall and an article he wrote for the New Statesman magazine.

Is Netflix regulated by OFCOM? No. Find out why here.

And if you want to see what happened when OFCOM investigated alleged breaches of impartiality at CGTN and its coverage of protests in Hong Kong, read this.