‘Get a grip on online violence towards journalists or risk silencing voices’.
This was the warning from today’s virtual discussion between industry panellists, which accompanied the launch of a new e-learning course on the NCTJ’s Journalism Skills Academy tackling the safety and resilience of journalists.
Panellists joining the discussion were Sky News’ head of international news, Tim Singleton, Dr Rebecca Whittington, online safety editor for Reach, Hannah Storm, director and media safety consultant at Headlines Network and Sophie Perry, digital reporter at the Oxford Mail.
The event shined a spotlight on the ever-increasing risks journalists face and the profound effect it has an on an individual’s mental health and wellbeing.
Rebecca Whittington said in the panel discussion: “Journalism is no longer a one-way system anymore; we have that two-way interaction. In recent years, we have had a perfect storm which has led to people messaging journalists because they don’t like the news being reported.
“It is a societal issue where we are seeing this issue of online violence. It’s crucial in journalism that we talk about this, we work to get protections in place and we work with platforms to call for change.
“If we allow this to continue in journalism at all levels without taking a grasp on it, we are going to be silencing voices and stopping people from being journalists because they just won’t want to do it.”
Sophie Perry talked about her experiences of having a barrage of abuse on Twitter – not necessarily about a story she wrote, but about herself.
She said: “I made the decision to come away from social media. My editor was my first port of call. It’s important for managers to have those discussions about reporters needing to take a break from social media and not see it as a weak step.
“You have got to treat your brain and mental health like a muscle and give it the rest when it needs it.”
Hannah Storm described the need for journalists to have that support and ‘safe spaces’ to speak out confidentially.
She said: “Journalist managers have to create this space where everything said in it is confidential.
“Journalists are the most precious resource we have and it’s incumbent on all of us to create these spaces, culture and conversations – or we signpost people to the right places.
“I strongly believe we need to create these spaces to help journalists feel well and if we don’t feel well then we can’t do good journalism.”
During the panel discussion, Tim Singleton talked about his challenges he faced as a manager to deal with the issues facing reporters. He said it was important for him to have regular catch-ups with his staff, both at work and at home, and to signpost them to resources available within Sky News.
He said: “Journalists in 2022 are so much more immersed in society and it’s very hard to stop yourself from being drawn deeper into it. Sometimes it feels like there’s no escape.
“It’s irrelevant if you are talking about international, national, regional or local news. The immersion is societal – how do you get that breathing space?”
Rebecca Whittington spoke about the difference between abuse and criticism and gave her top pieces of advice for dealing with online harassment or abuse.
She said: “Consistent, persistent and pernicious criticism from one person to a journalist can be abuse – but people also do have the right to criticise if it’s about the story or the content itself.
“I would recommend giving them clear instructions about how to make a formal complaint. It’s difficult to take the moral high ground if you get into a spat online.
“In the heat of the moment, it can be quite tempting to have that sparky discussion, but I would recommend you step away from the keyboard or get off the phone and get away – go for a walk or have a cup of tea.
“Response quite often doesn’t get you anywhere. Ignoring gives you that higher ground and your life will be infinitely better for it.”
The free e-learning course on safety and resilience aims to raise awareness and provide essential guidance to support journalists if they face difficult situations as a direct result of their job.
It has been developed by the NCTJ with contributions from some of the country’s leading universities, as well as editors and individual experts.
A recording of the panel discussion can be watched below.