SPOTLIGHT | Dr Craig Gent, IMPRESS Code Committee Member: 'A standards code is a necessity for any professional publisher or working journalist'
Dr Craig Gent is an editor, writer, researcher and Head of Operations at Novara Media, an independent multimedia publisher specialising in political news, commentary and analysis.
In April of this year Craig joined the IMPRESS Code Committee; a group of experts who are responsible for advising the IMPRESS Board on the editorial standards and guidance for journalists that are incorporated in the IMPRESS Standards Code. Craig is one of three serving editors of IMPRESS regulated publications to sit on the 12-member Code Committee. To retain its independence, serving editors make up a minority of the total membership of the Code Committee.
In this IMPRESS Spotlight, Craig shares insights on his new role as an IMPRESS Code Committee member, how IMPRESS membership supports publishers to professionalise and the opportunities and challenges for publishers trying to grow audiences online while maintaining high journalistic standards.
> Tell us a bit about you: what’s your background?
I’ve been involved with Novara Media for almost eight years, in which time it’s grown from a labour of love run by a small group of volunteers to a full-time organisation employing 17 people (and growing). Before my current role I was the Head of Articles, and I’m also our legal and compliance point of contact with IMPRESS. Between 2014 and 2018 I read for an interdisciplinary PhD at the University of Warwick, which interrogated the politics of algorithmic management within workplaces, and I taught students on a range of topics from digital media to digital labour to journalism ethics.
Despite having left academia, I still maintain a keen interest in the politics and ethics of algorithms - an area which isn’t going away any time soon! - and I’m writing a book on the topic. I live in Yorkshire with my dog and in my spare time I’m into boxing, soul music, learning Spanish and chess.
> What drew you to join the IMPRESS Code Committee?
The Code Committee does vital work to ensure that the IMPRESS Standards Code is responsive to the considerations and concerns of publishers who are working within a continually changing environment. As I see it, certain ethical commitments such as accuracy are always going to be front and centre within any regulatory framework, but technological advances from AI-generated journalism to the changing nature of digital publishing throw up ethical dilemmas which need ongoing attention and review. It’s a challenge, but one I feel very invested in, and I’m glad to say IMPRESS is too.
I’m just three months into my time on the Code Committee but already everyone has been incredibly welcoming, and I’ve been struck by what an incredible breadth of knowledge and experience there is across the committee and within IMPRESS, from media law to local journalism.
> How does the IMPRESS Standards Code help publishers to engage with their audiences?
I think it comes down to professionalism. A standards code is a necessity for any professional publisher or working journalist; yes, to guide professional conduct, but also to establish trust with the audience that the publisher has made a commitment to following a set of universally accessible and independently adjudicated rules. It also works the other way, by protecting the freedom of publishers and setting out very clearly what constitutes legitimate grounds for complaint.
> In your day job you are Head of Operations at Novara Media. Why did your title choose to join IMPRESS’s approved scheme of regulation?
At the time we applied to become IMPRESS regulated, we were going through the tricky process of becoming a professional organisation. One thing that emerged for us was how to develop a code and a complaints process that was credible enough to inspire confidence in our audience, but also robust enough to apply to our employees. Our previous code and complaints process wasn’t really up to purpose, and we found through our initial conversations with IMPRESS that we didn’t have to reinvent the wheel. Moreover, that becoming regulated by IMPRESS would give us an infrastructure to guide us through any complaints process in the future.
> How can journalists and publishers use the IMPRESS Standards Code and resources to support the journalism that they produce?
At Novara Media, the IMPRESS Standards Code is built into all our job descriptions and employee onboarding, and along with the accompanying guidance document, it is a really useful resource when making ethical judgments in a high-paced environment, such as when a story is breaking and we’re going to air in just a couple of hours.
IMPRESS as an organisation is also an excellent resource – as a regulator they have to maintain impartiality and can’t provide pre-publication advice, but they do want to empower their regulated publications to create great journalism and the team are really responsive to queries about the Code or the complaints process. There are also frequent workshops for member publications on areas of ethical and legal interest, such as the legal pitfalls of social media.
> In your academic research you have explored issues concerning digital media, journalism ethics and the politics of algorithms. What would you identify as the main opportunities and challenges for news publishers posed by the rapidly evolving online landscape?
Within the online landscape, a paramount concern has to be the continual evolution of social media platforms. At one level there’s obviously the global regulatory debate about whether platforms are themselves publishers, but at the level of most independent publishers there’s a big question mark over the way professional and ethical standards of journalism interact with the algorithmic logics of platforms. On many platforms, algorithms can penalise publishers for adopting a tone which in print might seem respectable or authoritative, but which platforms consider too impersonal to prioritise within user’s feeds. If publishers feel forced to adopt a more personal, ironic or sensationalist tone to have a better chance of connecting with a larger audience online, how can they also ensure they are maintaining high standards?
I think it’s one of a number of questions worth asking when it comes to contemporary online journalism because, apart from the largest outlets, the days of people primarily finding journalistic content by browsing a publisher’s website - an environment they can quite tightly control - are pretty much gone, whereas platforms are only just getting started.
> How can IMPRESS and its Code Committee continue to support the public and publishers as the industry develops and adapts into the future?
Precisely by maintaining an adaptive mindset and keeping an ear to the ground when it comes to emerging developments and trends. I doubt there will ever be a ‘one best code’ which will perfectly anticipate every evolution of the landscape and serve every publisher and all of the public over time because the terrain is moving very quickly. As such, IMPRESS and the Code Committee’s work will always be something of a work-in-progress to compound a real depth of journalistic practice and experience with an openness to new developments, particularly online.
On one hand this calls for regular code reviews, such as the one that IMPRESS is currently undertaking - to make sure the concerns of publishers, the public, researchers, and other stakeholders are being met - and on the other it means capturing a wide range of publishers (often independent) who are at the cutting edge of the new terrain, often trying to figure things out for themselves.
IMPRESS Code Review (ONGOING): If you are an individual or organisation interested in helping us to draft a revised IMPRESS Standards Code that continues to be relevant and fit for purpose in the changing world we live in, we want to hear from you. Find out more about the process, including how to get involved at www.impress.press/standards/
Dr Craig Gent is an editor, writer, researcher, and Head of Operations at Novara Media, an independent multimedia outlet which seeks to address the defining issues of the 21st century. He has taught on various topics within digital media, media sociology and journalism ethics, and holds an interdisciplinary PhD from the Centre for Interdisciplinary Methodologies at the University of Warwick, for which he studied the workplace politics of algorithmic media. As a writer his work has appeared in a number of outlets both domestically and internationally, and as an academic he has spoken to a wide range of audiences in the UK, Europe and the US. He is currently turning his academic research into a book on the politics of algorithms.