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Highlights from the Society of Editors conference

Society of Editors Conference

How can journalists address the various challenges facing the UK media right now? Last week’s  Society of Editors Conference delved into some of the biggest issues facing reporters at the moment. 

From SLAPPs, to problems getting in touch with press officers in the police, journalists discussed and offered solutions to the current stumbling blocks. We’ve rounded up some of the key takeaways from the conference.

Getting out of the Westminster bubble

Politics is always a polarising issue and interest in it from readers has certainly waned in recent years, according to the opening panel of the day. However, Kate Ferguson, political editor of The Sun on Sunday, said that the upcoming vote would be a ‘different kind of election’. 

‘2019 was the “Brexit election” with Jeremy Corbyn and Boris Johnson. Boris was a huge personality and sells politics and sells papers. Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer are less extreme personalities and less polarising’. 

Gavin Foster, regional editor of Newsquest North, reinforced this point by saying that people have become disengaged due to the toxicity around politics and not really understanding policies.

How can journalists make political reporting interesting again? Pippa Crerar, political editor of The Guardian, feels that engaging with the big issues of the day is the key.

‘People, especially the younger generation, are switching off from party politics. But they are incredibly engaged when it comes to big issues like climate change, so we need to focus our energy on covering what matters to them’.

For Gavin Foster, journalists must look further into the important issues on a local level: 

‘It’s about cutting through the noise and getting to what really matters on a regional and local level’.

Opening communication channels back up

The relationship between the police and the press has suffered after the outcome of the Leveson inquiry and the handling of the Nicola Bulley case, when poor cooperation between the police and the media led to a lot of misinformation and speculation. This, combined with a lack of police funding, has led to a breakdown in communication between the two. 

Rebecca Camber, crime and security editor at The Daily Mail and also chair of the Crime Reporters Association (CRA), said ‘Lots of police forces no longer have the telephone number or email address of the press officer listed on their website. There are also some police forces that are no longer even emailing out press releases’.

Rebecca was asked by the National Police Chief Counsel about what needs to change and has submitted a report with 26 recommendations. She believes police and journalists need to start talking again. 

Charles Thomson, investigations reporter at Newsquest London, said ‘I think it’s very important to open communication channels. It’s beneficial for all of us because it helps us get the story out but also reduces the massive pressure on the press offices, which are often understaffed’.

An improving situation for court reporters

The Lady Chief Justice, the Rt Hon Baroness Car of Walton-on-the-Hill, acknowledged the importance of the media in covering legal cases and scrutinising the legal system in her speech. She also announced that she was establishing a new transparency and open justice board: 

‘Its aim is to examine and modernise our approach to open justice. The board will set objectives for all courts and tribunals, focusing on timely and effective access in terms of listing, in terms of documents and in terms of public hearings’.

Due to the pressures that local press is under, court reporting is often not a priority. The Lady Chief Justice wants to improve this situation:  

‘I remember the importance the local press used to play in reliable and accurate court reporting. You knew the local staff and you knew the local judges, meaning open, trusting and collaborative relationships. One development the new board will explore further in order to help promote increased access and reporting, is making online attendance at hearings easier’. 

This alongside access to more information in advance should help journalists to report more easily on a broad range of proceedings and issues.

Winning back time with AI

Many media companies have been looking at the best ways to take advantage of AI tools and processes. Newsquest has developed an in-house tool which takes trusted and verified information and essentially acts as a copywriter. Jody Doherty-Cove, head of editorial AI at Newsquest, explained how the publisher has hired twelve AI-assisted journalists over the last year to help manage the tool and give training and editorial judgment. ‘The tool and AI-assisted journalists means we have won back a lot of time for the newsroom as a whole, allowing journalists to focus on going out and getting those front page stories,’ said Jody.

Saving time for journalists has also been a focus for PA Media. Peter Clifton, editor-in-chief of PA Media, shared how the organisation has arranged their thirty year archive in order. The publisher is exploring developing tools that would allow journalists to extract information and possibly even draft content. Pete also highlighted that ‘one of the biggest pressure points is the pending box where all the incoming copy goes waiting to be subbed. It’s never empty at any time of the day and a number of the things that need doing are basic tasks like tagging, checking spelling and checking against the PA style guide. If AI can work on doing some of the heavy lifting, the sub can then work on refining the content and sending it out’.

Emotional toll of war reporting

The penultimate panel of the day covered issues within war reporting. Rushdi Abualouf, Gaza correspondent at the BBC, said that ‘as a journalist, your job is to report the story and not be part of it. But as a journalist in Gaza, from day one, we became the story’. 

Danielle Sheridan, defence editor at The Telegraph who has covered the Ukraine war, echoed comments from Rushdi on how ‘emotionally draining it is to cover conflict’. She said, ‘the kind of stories that I was faced with were so harrowing that I don’t really think anything can prepare you for that’. 

What can be done to tackle the natural emotional response of covering a conflict? Simon Robinson, executive editor at Reuters, said they were concentrating much more on the mental health of journalists that were going into war reporting, to help prepare them. For Christina Lamb, chief foreign correspondent at The Sunday Times, to minimise any emotional toll on reports then the focus should be on the people rather than the fighting: 

‘I’ve always been much more interested in how people live during war because in all these wars, while all of the fighting is going on, there are still millions of people going to work, having babies, getting married and to me that’s much more interesting.’

If you’re looking for information to cover the latest political issues or experts to comment on a court case, then you can do so by sending a request on the Journalist Enquiry Service. Fill in the form here to get what you need, quickly and easily.

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