A report from the BBC Trust that looks at the broadcasters coverage of the Arab Spring raises the question: How can broadcast and online news work best together?

A report commissioned by the BBC Trust looking at the broadcaster’s coverage of the Arab Spring found that while coverage was accurate and impartial, it was not full enough in many instances and did not cross reference BBC online as much as expected.

The report raises the question: What is the relationship between broadcast and online news in terms of how they complement and supplement one another? 

Edward Mortimer, author of the report and former UN director of communications and Middle East expert, saw a drop in Egypt coverage after President Mubarak’s fall, and noted concern for a lack of context provided during a number of other countries’ uprisings, including Libya, Syria and Bahrain.

The report explains that the website provides the most opportunity to provide context and give more detail into themes and issues that are brought up in the every-day coverage.

And the website almost invariably provides greater depth of background information, with a wealth of question-and-answer features, analysis from correspondents and other aggregated material – special reports which are either country specific or more general, information graphics, maps, and slide shows of “how we got here”.

Mortimer continued, saying that their research showed that the more engaged audiences used the website in two ways: for keeping up to date on current events, and “to drill down into individual stories and follow up on details.”

But BBC television and BBC Radio failed, for the most part, to point readers to the website. They surveyed the television coverage for 44 days. Of 985 Arab Spring-related pieces, there were only 35 which contained a reference – either visually or orally – to the BBC website.

Radio had even fewer: Only nine of 916 Arab-Spring related stories included references to the website. (Mortimer notes that “it is of course harder to provide such links on radio, where there is no visual option.)

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James Stephenson, editor of BBC’s News at Six and News at Ten doesn’t think that pointing viewers or listeners to the website is always necessary. “I feel it’s evident it is there, so you need to try and judge when you say go and look at it,” he said. “We’re trying to move in the direction of flagging particular pieces of content.”

Mortimer’s report agrees with Stephenson in part:

Routine reminders of the website’s existence are probably neither necessary nor very effective, and could even be counterproductive if the public gets bored and feels they are simply holding up the flow of the news. But whenever possible, specific items that would enable viewers deepen their understanding of the item just reported in the news should be flagged.

Alfred Hermida, UBC journalism professor, expert on digital journalism and former daily news editor at the BBC News website, weighed in on these findings on his blog:

In my nine years at the BBC News website, from its launch in 1997 to 2006, it was consistently an uphill struggle to convince colleagues in radio and television to flag in-depth material on the site that would help audiences understand complex issues.

I can understand the challenge of convincing radio and TV shows to mention the website in its early days.  But the BBC’s digital news services are now 15 years old and integrated into the organisation.

Hermida concludes his post, calling for broadcast journalists to look to the web: "Their audiences do not just rely on the morning breakfast show on radio or the evening TV news but mix and match media sources throughout the day. Journalists at the BBC and beyond must do the same."

What do you think? How can broadcast and online news best work together?