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Who Decides What Deserves to Be a BBC Breaking News Alert?

Someone must have thought I needed another push notification about Meghan Markle's dad.

by Rob Nowill
18 May 2018, 12:09pm

Left: Twitter; Right via pxhere / CC.0

It dawned on me, a few weeks ago that I've stopped reading the news. It wasn't a conscious decision, I had just begun to feel detached from it – and anything really significant ends up on Twitter anyway. Did I really need to know about the latest mass killing, or the latest politician at the House of Commons making jokes as weak as bad tea?

But I had a word with myself. Ignorance isn't the solution. Even the most gut-wrenching or exasperating stories still need to be told. It's important. So I installed the BBC news app on my phone, thinking it would be a more enriching alternative to Instagram. I felt a little pleased with myself for being so grown-up.

Late that night, my phone pings with the sound of a notification. My stomach lurches a little. Breaking news – especially the kind that's significant enough to warrant a late-night notification – is rarely good news. Will it be a terror attack? An earthquake? Has someone died?

I look at my phone. Meghan Markle's father isn't coming to her wedding.

I reckon my feelings on the Royal Family align with about 80 percent of British people: a kind of placid, good-natured neutrality. Of course, there are some who think the entire family should be strung up, and there are some who hoard pictures of Prince George and don't think there's anything creepy about that. But, like most people, I'm not really arsed. It’s even harder to muster up much feeling about Meghan Markle. She seems nice. She has shiny hair. I liked that one speech she did about feminism.

And royal weddings are, by and large, a good thing. It means there’s something upbeat on TV, and you can slag off the dress on WhatsApp, and it gives everyone something to talk about on Monday. But did I need a late-night update on the latest insignificant detail of a wedding that is literally inescapable? I already knew about Meghan Markle's dad. It was on Twitter, and online, and almost certainly in the Evening Standard. Hardly a scoop.

I remembered a couple of months ago, when friends complained about the third notification they’d received that day about Prince Philip's hip surgery. It was on the same day that leaked papers had revealed Amber Rudd's zero-tolerance immigration policy. That, apparently, didn’t warrant a push notification. I remembered, too, a friend who’d worked at a major news network, who’d been told to drop a story on the Somalian famine because Amy Winehouse had died. Apparently, it warranted greater airtime as it was a story of greater public interest.

So I emailed the BBC. I was curious about what constitutes breaking news. Is it decided, like so many things, by algorithms, or does someone make the call? A very nice man at the press office pointed me in the direction of this Wired piece, in which the BBC's mobile editor Nick Sutton essentially admits that there's no real process to deciding what constitutes breaking news. It's decided based on what they think the British audience is most likely to care about, and thus most likely to click through to read.

It paints a fairly bleak picture of the national psyche. Nobel prize winners? No one cares, unless they are British. Mass killings? Sure, but no further up the ladder than George Clooney having a baby. Economic news? Don’t even think about it. Literally no one is interested.

Is it suprising? Not really. I'd probably have clicked through to the George Clooney story. And I’d certainly never have read a story about the FTSE. But it functioned as a useful reminder of why you should read the news. All of it. Not just the stories that float up to the top of the websites, or that trend on Twitter, or appear on your phone. You’re probably missing something significant that an editor somewhere decided you were too shallow and self-interested and stupid to care about. Prove them wrong. Read the story that’s less sexy, but more significant.

And next time, don’t fucking ping me unless one of the royals has croaked.

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