SPOTLIGHT | Vanessa Baird, IMPRESS Code Committee member: "IMPRESS provides a supportive environment for professionalism and socially responsible journalism, while defending the freedom of the press."
Vanessa Baird is Associate and Contributing Editor of New Internationalist magazine, an independent, non-profit media co-operative focused on issues relating to human rights, and social, economic and environmental justice. She has a journalistic career spanning spanning four decades.
Vanessa is also a member of 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. Vanessa is one of three serving editors of IMPRESS regulated publications to sit on the 13-member Code Committee. To retain its independence, serving editors make up a minority of the total membership of the Committee.
In this IMPRESS Spotlight, Vanessa tells the story of her Amnesty International award-winning reporting from Peru, shares insights on what the future holds for high-quality climate reporting post COP26, and what accountability means to the modern journalist.
> You first joined New Internationalist as a Co-Editor in 1986. What have been some of your career highlights during your time at the title?
What immediately springs to mind is a series of articles called ‘Nature’s Defenders’ which won an Amnesty International Human Rights Media Award in 2012. The main focus was indigenous resistance to a mega-dam project that would have flooded a vast swathe of rainforest and submerged numerous indigenous Asháninka communities in the Peruvian Amazon. But the broader theme was the notion that indigenous people are the best protectors of the rainforest and are thus on the frontline of the struggle to save the global environment – an issue that has come to the fore during the recent COP26 climate summit. A few months after the New Internationalist articles were published, Odebrecht, the Brazilian construction company that was to build the dam pulled out, claiming that it did not want to upset local communities. The company was later embroiled in what was to become the ‘biggest corruption scandal in history’.
One of the reasons the ‘Nature’s Defenders’ series stands out for me is that it was a piece of original ‘shoe-leather’ journalism that involved travel to a part of the Amazon that was hard to reach and involved gaining the trust a marginalized community that had every reason to be highly suspicious of outsiders (who continue to do much damage, including killing indigenous ‘defenders’). Gaining trust was a slow and precarious process. It felt to me like a vivid lesson in how to practice a slower, more democratic, more respectful, form of journalism.
> Climate reporting is a key focus of New Internationalist. What opportunities and challenges do you see for high-quality climate reporting in the UK and beyond in the next few years?
Climate reporting is a key focus of New Internationalist, and it interlocks with the magazine’s other key concerns: human rights and economic, social, environmental and global justice. In my opinion, high-quality climate reporting needs to engage with these other dimensions, or it risks presenting an incomplete and often unhelpful picture – focussing, for example, on ‘techno-fixes’ that do not address the fundamental changes to energy systems and global relationships that are needed.
There are many opportunities for improving climate reporting by looking more deeply, widely and imaginatively at the way in which climate change is impacting communities, often unequally, both domestically and around the world. There is also an opportunity – and even duty – for critical solutions-based journalism on climate, including rigorous assessment of false solutions driven by commercial interests only. ‘How to read through the greenwash’ will be an increasingly important function of media.
Accountability also extends to using that access, that privilege, to pursue stories that are in the public interest, on subjects that people need to know about, and which might lead to justice or change.
> What does accountability mean to you in the context of journalism?
I take it to mean being responsible not only for what you do, the journalism your publication produces, but the way you do it. Accuracy is the first principle, of course, but accountability also involves being aware of the political and social context in which one is operating and taking care, through language, visuals and framing, not to feed discrimination and prejudice.
As journalists we enjoy enhanced access to information – whether through skills we have acquired or by simply being recognized as ‘the media’. It depends on what kind of journalism you do, but I think that accountability also extends to using that access, that privilege, to pursue stories that are in the public interest, on subjects that people need to know about, and which might lead to justice or change. Which leads to the flip side of accountability: the role of journalism to hold the powerful to account.
For journalists or freelancers, the IMPRESS Code can function as a primer and reminder of good journalistic practice and ethics, while being nuanced enough to belong to the real world of news production.
> As a member of the IMPRESS Code Committee, how do you think IMPRESS and its Code can continue to support the public and publishers as the industry develops and adapts into the future?
Much is already happening, especially in relation to the current review and updating of the Standards Code. Keeping on top of developments in the fields of digital technology and regulation, and communicating clearly with members on these topics, will probably go on being an important function for Impress.
In an enduring era of fake news, IMPRESS and its members will need to renew the message that self-regulation and accountability are the route to encouraging a news media that is deserving of public trust, without sacrificing freedom of the press.
> How can IMPRESS membership support day-to-day work in the newsroom?
In short: it helps us do our job better. IMPRESS provides a supportive environment for professionalism and socially responsible journalism, while defending the freedom of the press. The Standards Code (and Guidance) aids editorial decision making, saves time and can prevent blunders and missteps. If clarity is needed, or a particular dilemma is not covered by the Code, I’ve found IMPRESS staff willing to shed light or provide further useful advice.
For journalists or freelancers, the Code can function as a primer and reminder of good journalistic practice and ethics, while being nuanced enough to belong to the real world of news production. Even seasoned editors can benefit from being brought up to speed with improved practice, accountability and sensitivity.
Vanessa Baird is Associate and Contributing Editor of New Internationalist magazine. Her journalistic career, spanning four decades, includes local newspapers and radio in the UK and working in Peru during the tumultuous 1980s. As co-editor and writer at New Internationalist, she has focused on issues relating to human rights, and social, economic and environmental justice, publishing in magazines and books. She is an Amnesty International Human Rights Media Award winner and has a keen interest in media independence, ethics and reform.