"Media employers can do more to protect journalists' safety"

The Covid-19 pandemic has brought an increase in the cases of harassment and abuse against journalists. We interview the NUJ (UK) General Secretary, Michelle Stanistreet, who explains the main threats and challenges British journalists have faced during the pandemic and how the union took action to protect their safety and freedom of work.

Michelle Stanistreet ©NUJ

Since the pandemic began, what are the most reported abuses and threats against journalists? Has the pandemic affected journalists' online and physical safety when working?

When lockdown hit in March we began to hear of cases of NUJ members being challenged in the course of their work. Our local branches swung into action and contacted local police and councils to raise their concerns. At the same time we were lobbying government at the highest national level to secure key worker status for journalists and acknowledge the importance of the NUJ press card – we were successful in doing this, something that enabled newsgatherers to carry out their roles, and have access to schooling for their children, during lockdown.

Disturbingly, we’ve seen a spike in cases of harassment and abuse of journalists through this period. One of the major threats against journalists was in Northern Ireland in May. The NUJ launched a 'Stand Up For Journalism' campaign after threats from a loyalist paramilitary group were issued to journalists and staff at the Sunday World and Sunday Life newspapers, as well as a threat by dissident republicans to an Irish News journalist. The campaign, launched together with editors and politicians, asserted the right of reporters to work without threats, intimidation or harassment. NUJ reporters and photographers also came under attack at protests and demonstrations that have taken place through this period.

In response, the NUJ carried out a safety survey of UK-based NUJ members in October and published the findings on the International Day to end Impunity for Crimes against Journalists. The results show that the most frequent form of harassment, threats and abuse takes place online, and that the polarisation of public discourse is negatively impacting on trust in journalism and on the ability of journalists to do their jobs well and safely. So much so that 78% of survey respondents believe that “abuse and harassment has become normalised and seen as part of the job”. 

Fake news over the Covid-19 are widespread and have affected trust in media. How are journalists responding to a bigger pressure for trustworthy information?

Improving levels of trust is vital and tackling disinformation is key. The NUJ is working with the government and other stakeholders on national initiatives, including public awareness campaigns and media literacy initiatives. Quality relevant news and information is the answer to the proliferation of fake news. Journalists and journalism, that is well-resourced, diverse and representative of our communities, is a solution to rebuilding trust and kicking fake news into touch.

Last year as part of the UK media literacy week the NUJ organised an event that focused on how we can work with media literacy projects, colleges and schools to help young people to have a critical understanding of the news they receive via Facebook and social media. Boosting this work is also part of the series of measures recommended in the NUJ News Recovery Plan.

Politicians and policy makers have a vital role to play too – 98% of respondents to our survey agreed those in public office have a leadership role to play in maintaining high levels of public discourse and should avoid dismissing journalistic work as fake news. We need an end to politicians attacking the media and undermining faith in journalism, we need better access to the media and a commitment to ensure our members can do their jobs freely.

Freelance journalists are especially vulnerable in terms of physical and psychological safety, as they do not always have access to the same resources and support as staff journalists. Have you seen a greater impact on their safety during the pandemic? Has the union taken any steps to compensate this?

The NUJ has worked with its freelance members throughout the crisis, not least to highlight how many have fallen within the gaps of the government financial support schemes. It has highlighted how employers have actively casualised the industry, diminishing any sense of responsibility towards freelances who they discarded at the first sign of crisis. We need reformed legislation to properly protect freelances, to gain collective bargaining rights and to reform the tax system.

Freelances were at the sharp end of over-zealous policing at the outset of the crisis too. The NUJ intervened, and secured agreement from the London Metropolitan Police and National Police Chiefs Council for all officers to be reminded of the vital role of newsgatherers, and the need to ensure that journalists can carry out their work freely and without interference. The union has also produced a range of guidelines for freelance media workers about safety.

Generally speaking, are media employers doing their utmost to guarantee media workers' safety?

Media employers can definitely do more. They should have a duty of care for freelance media workers they employ or commission. Employers can also do more for their staff. This includes creating policies and procedures, supporting media workers to report abuse, challenging the abuse and providing networks and resources that provide support and aftercare. For example, the NUJ safety survey showed that 89% of respondents said their employer had not provided any training to deal with harassment and abuse, and 56% said they did not know if their media employer had any policies in place to deal with safety and protection issues.

A NUJ member said: “I’m a freelance reporter and there is no legal obligation for the outlets I write for to support me. I felt unable to discuss personal matters with them [the employer] and there has been no clear chain of reporting. I had reported online stalking to previous management and tech support, but not to the new management since the takeover of the company. As one of few staff working remotely, I’ve felt my job has been more precarious, and did not wish to add further complications.” 

However, there are also good practices. When asked if an employer was supportive when members had attempted to report abuse, 23% of respondents said yes and 5% said no. Examples of supportive action taken by media employers included:

• Referral to the mental health team

• Circulated information about the support available

• Complaints were submitted to the social media platform

• They were interested in monitoring what was happening

• Legal letter issued by the BBC threatening prosecution of the perpetrator

On the other hand, comments from respondents linked to action by employers that was not supportive included:

• Online abuse is seen as inevitable

• Threatened with the sack as the trolls were seen as affecting the reputation of the company

• I was forced to leave my job

• I was made redundant as a result of voicing my concerns

• My next contract was cancelled

For more information, please contact IFJ on +32 2 235 22 16

The IFJ represents more than 600,000 journalists in 146 countries

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