IPSO Blog: How Covid-19 is affecting newsgathering

Joint Head of Complaints Lauren Sloan on journalist social distancing.

There are a number of challenges for journalists when reporting on Covid-19 – not least around newsgathering.

Now more than ever, there are critical matters of public interest to be reported on both locally and nationally. News has been recognised as vital – Culture Sectary Oliver Dowden even described newspapers as “the fourth emergency service” – and journalists reporting on Covid-19 are designated as key workers, meaning their work is crucial to the public response to the pandemic.

Approaching people who are part of a story is an important part of newsgathering. It helps to ensure that what is being reported is accurate and gives the subject (and sometimes others affected) an opportunity to comment or respond. Like many of us, journalists have been adapting the way they work due to lockdown restrictions, including using the phone, internet and social media, but there are still be occasions when they need to go into the community.

In the current circumstances, editors will be thinking hard about how to ensure the safety of their staff and indeed the public, balancing this with the need to ensure that effective newsgathering is still happening. For journalists too, there a number of factors to think about. IPSO’s guidance on major incidents gives a flavour of some of the considerations needed when gathering news in order to make sure that journalists and editors comply with the Editors’ Code, the set of rules that all publishers regulated by IPSO must follow.

The Editors’ Code is a broad document which covers the behaviour of journalists and editorial material. Although the rules remain the same, their enforcement can vary depending on the circumstances and how the Code it is interpreted by our lay-majority Complaints Committee, who make decisions about whether or not the Code has been breached. Certainly, Covid-19 has thrown up new and interesting situations to which the Code must be applied.

In recent days, IPSO has received numerous inquiries from members of the public about journalists and social distancing, including some instances where it has been alleged that journalists may not be following the government’s social distancing guidelines.

While we all have an important responsibility as individuals to follow the guidance to safeguard public health and contribute to controlling the pandemic, these concerns relate to alleged breaches of the government's social distancing guidelines, not the Editors' Code. Therefore, it is the police, rather than IPSO, who are responsible for enforcing the government guidelines.

That said, there are certainly situations where related concerns about the activities of a journalist or a group of journalists would raise a potential breach of the Code. For example, Clause 3 (Harassment) says that journalists must not engage in intimidation, harassment or persistent pursuit and that they must not persist in questioning, telephoning, pursuing or photographing individuals once asked to desist; nor remain on property when asked to leave, unless there is a public interest in staying.

In cases such as the above IPSO has a 24-hour helpline for people affected who are concerned about potential press intrusion. Where appropriate IPSO can help by contacting newspapers and magazine publishers to make them aware of concerns that the Editors' Code may be breached via a private advisory notice.

IPSO also offers 24-hour pre-publication advice for journalists and would encourage any IPSO members with concerns about social distancing or Code issues to contact us here.

Even where we are not able to take forward a complaint under the Editors’ Code, IPSO has a wider role in monitoring press standards. The current Covid-19 pandemic and the behaviour of journalists is a priority area for our standards team and concerns will feed into our ongoing work, helping us to understand areas of concern and address potential press standards issues.