Dear BBC, Why oh why oh why…..

Why do the BBC and other news outlets always use the same contributors for big aviation stories?

Simon Calder
Simon Calder (Image Credit: BBC Breakfast News)

It has been another big week for aviation news in the national media. Following the controversy surrounding Ryanair’s cancellations to its flying programme, today’s morning headlines led with the suspension of flight operations by Monarch.

Whenever there is an aviation story leading the national news a familiar question appears in our social media feeds. Namely, why do Simon Calder from The Independent and other contributors always appear on the BBC, Sky News and other media outlets!?

First, let’s get one thing clear. This is not intended to be a criticism of Simon Calder. He is a hard-working travel journalist with decades of experience who has survived a tumultuous time in print media. Simon is clearly used by broadcasters because he is reliable, can perform well on camera and is trusted by the audience.

Rather this is an attempt to explain how news media operates and why broadcasters in particular use a narrow pool of contributors.

Broadcast and print news has changed radically over the past twenty years. Whereas once viewers would turn to one of a handful of scheduled news bulletins throughout the day and a daily newspaper, we now have two 24 hour rolling news channels in the UK and an infinite number of online news sources all chasing clicks and eyeballs. As an audience, we seek and demand immediate coverage of any breaking news story.

The presenters you seen on rolling TV news channels are generalists. They are expected to be able to cover a breaking news story in any field, whether it be international affairs, politics or entertainment. Their skills are the ability to present “open ended” news coverage of an unfolding news story on their feet without a script and with a director shouting into their earpiece. Budget cuts also mean that newsrooms have fewer specialist correspondents who may only be needed to produce a small number of reports a month. This means that broadcasters have to call on external contributors to add to news coverage.

The media also operates like an echo chamber. Broadcast media and online news outlets constantly monitor and mine each other for stories. This can often mean stories can go ignored for some time. Witness how the story of BA cutbacks gained significant traction earlier this year even though it’s been progressively underway for over 15 years.

And like any industry, it’s not what you know but you know. Regular contributors are also very familiar with the studio environment and broadcast media. They know they have a very limited amount of time on air to get straight to the point. They know not to look directly in to the camera like a scared rabbit or bang their hand on the desk. They know to give the presenter pointers on what questions to ask when the cameras aren’t running.

There may be other experts on hand. But they may not be willing to make themselves available at very short notice to travel to inconvenient locations (Sky News studios are in Osterley) for what are very modest appearance fees. And they simply may not perform well on what is a very superficial medium.

Thus, it’s easy for a researcher working in a high pressure environment to pick up the phone to someone they know who will be reliable rather than try someone who is untested and risk the wrath of an editor.

That said, the media should do better. Plurality of voices, which has historically been a strength of UK media, and in-house specialism is important and should be encouraged.

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