#IFJLondon: why we need to rebuild trust in journalism, says Michelle Stanistreet

  • 19 Jun 2024

The NUJ general secretary gives a preview of the union’s News Recovery Plan to reconfigure a media rooted in the public good.

We all know as journalists that trust is hard to build, but easy to lose, Michelle Stanistreet, general secretary of the National Union of Journalists told the IFJ conference.

In a bumper year for elections across the globe, when we need quality, trusted information and news more than ever, the pressures on journalists are at their most grave, she said. She said:

“Levels in public trust are impaired, frontline news resources have been hollowed out in many media outlets after successive cutbacks; the levels of deliberate engagement in mis and dis-information by a range of actors are unparalleled; a combination that has been turbo-charged by the rapid deployment of generative AI.

“On top of this, journalists have also been contending with significant additional pressures in the form of rising rates of harassment, intimidation and threats – including the realm of so-called “lawfare” where the rich and thin-skinned pull out all the stops to stymie and thwart legitimate journalistic reporting, using SLAPPs and other forms of legal bullying. 

“It makes quite the perfect storm.”

The recently published global research from the Reuters Institute for Journalism showed the fragility of trust in journalism, she said. In the UK, the proportion of those who trust most news most of the time is 35 per cent, down from 51 per cent in 2015. In Ireland it has remained static at 46 per cent over the same period.

The report also showed an increase in people across the globe avoiding news because they find it too depressing or are becoming disinterested – 70 per cent indicated they were extremely interested or very interested in news in 2015, compared to just 38 per cent this year.

This calls for radical resetting of the media, she said, as the NUJ is about to have its updated News Recovery Plan, then a response to the pandemic and now to tackle new threats such as AI, endorsed next week by the union’s NEC.

Michelle said:

“My priority was to focus on practical ways in which the news industry could be reconfigured in a way that better roots the industry in the public good.”

The plan calls for specific practical interventions, such as: a digital windfall levy and ongoing tax on the tech platforms to fund public interest news; robust media ownership legislation capping ownership levels and creating greater diversity and plurality; funding support for new start-ups; greater support for public service broadcasting; and clampdowns against the use of surveillance of journalists. On AI, the document calls for: protection against copyright infringement; compensation for content used by the large language training models, resistance against publishers using it to undermine journalism; and for greater transparency when it is used so people can trust what they see and read.

Michelle told conference about the NUJ’s work on journalists’ safety. She said: “We launched our Journalists Safety toolkit in 2022 and will launch a Press Safety Tracker this autumn. More importantly, we’ve worked to change the culture amongst journalists – to make people take a step back and realise that harassment and abuse is not and must not be seen as part of the job. To encourage reporting of incidents to the police, and putting more pressure on employers to do more to support their staff and freelances.”

She ended her speech saying:

“The problems facing journalists and journalism are certainly not unique and when it comes to generative AI and the role of the tech platforms, the solutions by necessity should be global ones. For us, that makes the work within the IFJ and our collaboration as sister unions incredibly important and a collective strength we should together seek to maximise.”

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