‘Journalism is extraordinarily resilient in the face of pressure and change’

By Fiona O’Brien, the UK bureau director of Reporters Without Borders (RSF). A foreign correspondent and journalism academic by background, she joined RSF in 2023 and is tasked with increasing the organisation’s impact in the UK.

This article is based on our closing keynote at Newsrewired last week (22 May 2024)

In a world that seems to be changing more rapidly than ever, it is no surprise that much of Newsrewired was preoccupied with the pressures facing the industry and its journalists. The challenge of AI, the challenge of audience apathy, the challenge of disinformation – and I confess I was worryingly good at the Bad News game – the challenge of deepfakes, and the challenge of job insecurity in an industry still struggling to find economic models that work in a digital world.

At Reporters Without Borders, we are also very well aware of the pressures on journalism today, all around the world. We work daily with journalists who are threatened, imprisoned, or forced into exile because of their work. We work with the families of journalists who have been killed. Our projects fight back against disinformation, censorship, judicial harassment and – as my colleague Chloé Fiodiere noted – declining trust. Globally, our work has never been more needed.

This year’s RSF World Press Freedom Index, which we published on May 3, World Press Freedom Day, painted a pretty grim picture. Around half the world’s population live in countries we consider to have a very serious situation for press freedom. Less than one per cent of the world’s population live in a country we consider to have a good situation. The UK, for the record, ranked 23 out of 180 countries we monitor and was rated satisfactory. While generally, the UK press is able to function freely, there are a number of areas of concern, most notably abusive lawsuits, online harassment, transnational attacks on exiled journalists working here, and, of course, the devastating job losses we saw last year.

But, journalism is extraordinarily resilient. Newsrewired explored ways forward, solutions, innovation – and anyone who has studied the history of journalism in this country will know that innovation has always been the very kernel of the industry. Technological change has always required innovative commercial responses – be that the printing press, postal services, telegraphs, the internet or AI. It is clear that the industry today maintains those core strengths of adaptability and creativity, from the way we engage with new technologies, adapt to changing audience expectations, find new ways to listen to, learn from and serve our audiences.

I have used the word industry, but what I really mean of course is the people at its heart. AI may be an important tool in what we do, but journalism is fundamentally a human art – as the great Harry Evans said: “News is people”. He was talking about stories, of course, but I do not think I do him a disservice by extending his words to newsrooms themselves.

Ultimately, it is journalists – whether working alone or in teams – who hold power to account, who document war crimes, who relentlessly file FoIs, who decipher the hidden meanings in Taylor Swift’s tortured poetry – it is journalists who bring the information that matters to the citizens who need it.

It is good we heard about journalist’s wellbeing. At RSF, we work with journalists who face extreme repression around the world, but you do not need to look far to find journalists suffering because of their work. Social media may have made it easier than ever for journalists to find sources, increase the reach of their stories, and create a public profile for themselves, but it has also made them vulnerable to being targeted for their work in a way they have never been before.

Online abuse of journalists is rampant – and disproportionately affects women. Yet all too often, employers respond by telling those impacted to keep a lower profile online – something which may minimise the abuse but has obvious professional consequences and cannot be considered a solution. We need to change workplace cultures, not just individual behaviours.

We heard about conviction – no doubt shared by all of us in this room – that whatever the challenges, journalism is something vital and worth fighting for. Democracy depends on journalism – especially public interest journalism – and on journalists.

In my job I see all too often what happens in countries where independent journalism is suffocated – in Gaza right now, where the Israeli authorities are not only killing Palestinian journalists, but also trying to stop international news organisations from documenting the war; in Russia, where almost all independent media have been banned or blocked since the invasion of Ukraine, or in China which has more journalists currently in jail than in any other country in earth.

But I also see the extraordinary principles, commitment, hard work, resilience and creativity that manages, time and again, to overcome these things. To push boundaries, harness technologies, resist oppression, engage new audiences, to keep telling stories about people, for people. And that fills me with hope, even as the pressures rise and the pace of change accelerates, I am hopeful that journalism – and journalists – will continue to find ways to navigate change, and ensure the vital flow of independent, factual, meaningful news to audiences, news which has always had – and will continue to have – humans at its heart.

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