Credit: Photo by Utsav Srestha on Unsplash

UK industry regulator IMPRESS has published the first results of its public call for evidence, with the right to response, discrimination in the press and accuracy of covid-19 information amongst the key concerns.

Unlike other industry codes, IMPRESS Standards Code is created for and by the public, reflecting their expectations. Its board is independent of the news industry.

The first iteration of the Code was established in 2017 and its clauses cover many similar topics as you would see elsewhere: public interest, accuracy, attribution and plagiarism, children, discrimination, harassment, justice, privacy, sources, suicide and transparency.

But attitudes change over time and digital and social media, in particular, has changed the dynamics of relationships between the media and the public during the past four years. So IMPRESS put out a public call between November 2020 and February 2021 to update its standards. So far, 35 organisations have responded, which IMPRESS will take into account.

The impact of reporting

"When we first developed the Code [in 2017], the big issues of the day were things like press intrusion, matters of privacy and accuracy, particularly partisanship" explains Lexie Kirkconnell-Kawana, head of regulation, IMPRESS.

"Whereas now there's a lot more focus on safeguarding and protection, particularly online, so how do we ensure people have a right to be heard, to respond and comment [on a story about them] whilst protecting them in the online space?"

IMPRESS-regulated publishers have to meet a number of requirements around transparency of complaints process and commercial interests. Prominence and clarity around corrections, and explanations around how this impacts readers' trust, are amongst the areas their standards could be improved.

"A second issue is conversations around discrimination in society," she continues.

"It's one of the most dominant issues we are seeing, and how the dial has shifted on what is considered acceptable and tolerable for journalists to reach mass audiences, reporting on issues, framing and other journalistic practices which impact communities."

Conversations about industrial racism have been in focus especially in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement since last year. But concerns around newsgathering comes out of increasing competition online, says Kirkconnell-Kawana, meaning that IMPRESS will focus on the methods journalists use to approach and engage with the public for stories.

The report cites that some have complained about the use of fake accounts to enter private community groups, for example, though there could be a legitimate reason for using this tactic, such as threats associated with investigative journalism.

The competition for stories online means journalists put potentially vulnerable communities in the spotlight and in front of a wider audience. The point is, a quick story on one community can bring about undue pressure and attention.

One respondent from the Sikh Press Association said: "Negative reporting has a relationship to discrimination and can lead to individuals from a protected group being harassed by the public."

The impact of covid-19

There is also the small matter of covid-19. The pandemic may have brought about an uptick in news consumption but by sharing these stories far and wide, respondents recognised how fast false information can get out of hand.

"The authoritativeness and veracity of sources in the news cycle are really critical," adds Kirkconnell-Kawana.

"The information we had at the start of the pandemic versus what we have now has radically shifted, and what that means for sub-editors and fact-checkers is really significant. It comes back to some core principles of accuracy, but at the same time, information flows faster now so our standards need to reflect the impact of reach, not just the [first] instance with the reader."

Next steps for the Code

The Code also dives into other aspects of online journalism, accuracy, discrimination fairness, harassment, children and public safety.

Because many responses to this initial call for evidence were provided by civil society organisations, IMPRESS will seek a more rounded final sample by adding in a public survey towards the end of the year. This will be completed through a joint enterprise with the University of Leeds and the University of Derby.

The findings will feed into a redrafted set of codes, which will again be up for public consultation in the first quarter of 2022. The board will then issue a final set of codes.

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Correction: A previous version of this story stated that IMPRESS will work with the University of Portsmouth for upcoming public surveys. This has been corrected to the University of Derby.

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