We must prepare journalism students to be safe online as reporters increasingly become target of abuse

Online abuse can have a profound impact on people from all walks of life.

Saturday, 12th December 2020, 6:00 am

The Yorkshire Evening Post’s Call it Out campaign is highlighting real-life experiences of people in Leeds, from MPs receiving death threats to children being bullied online.

Our campaign was mentioned by Halifax MP Holly Lynch in Parliament in October, who called social media abuse a “public health ticking timebomb” which urgently needs addressing with online harms legislation.

And unfortunately journalists are increasingly on the receiving end of such abuse, with local reporters receiving death and rape threats, physical threats to firebomb their office and a constant stream of abuse which goes far beyond criticism.

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A study found 80 per cent of regional journalists said the problem of online abuse had got “significantly worse” since they began their careers (Image: Dave Thompson/PA Wire)

I have been researching the impact of online abuse on journalists with Leeds Trinity University, to find out how we can better prepare journalism students for working in an often hostile environment online.

Working with Jenny Kean, senior lecturer and leader of the university’s MA Journalism course, we spoke to journalists and editors on their experiences of abuse.

We presented a list of tips for journalism students at the Association of Journalism Education (AJE) annual conference last week, which we hope can be rolled out into both classrooms and newsrooms.

Its more important than ever to equip journalism students with the tools they need to cope with abuse

This included switching off from social media outside work hours, having strict privacy settings and knowing when to respond to trolls.

Sadly, research has highlighted that it’s more important than ever to equip journalism students with the tools they need to cope with abuse before they are thrown into a newsroom.

A Behind Local News study this year found that 80 per cent of regional journalists said the problem of online abuse had got “significantly worse” since they began their careers.

Some journalists we spoke to had suffered mental health issues which they attributed to abuse online, while others said abuse had triggered existing depression or anxiety.

Both male and female journalists experienced abuse, but the interviewees agreed that women faced the most “targeted, personal and relentless” attacks.

Racist comments had become more prevalent on stories, the reporters said, creating a challenging environment for black and minority ethnic journalists in particular.

I hope our research can better protect the next generation of brilliant journalists, giving them the confidence to use social media which is now so vital in our roles.

But most importantly, the journalists stressed that online abuse is never acceptable - it should not be ‘part and parcel’ of the job and more needs to be done to protect our students and trainees from online attacks.

There is no one solution to this problem and we need a joined-up approach between news organisations, social media platforms and the Government to root out online abuse in all its guises.

No aspiring reporter should be put off such a rewarding profession because of the vile actions of trolls and we need to turn the tide on abuse to stop this happening.

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