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May 17, 2021updated 30 Sep 2022 10:17am

Journalism students now need training for ‘vile’ online abuse they will face, study finds

By Charlotte Tobitt

It is “necessary” to better prepare journalism trainees for the realities of increasingly “vile” online abuse they could face, according to a new report.

The study, published in the Journal of the Association for Journalism Education, found that abuse has become “more commonplace, more vile and more serious” in ways that can impact young journalists’ emotional well-being and lead them to doubt their abilities.

It said: “Opening up conversation during journalism training is therefore vital to prepare students for what they might face. But we do hope that one day, this training will not be necessary at all.”

Scroll down or click here for a series of recommendations for tackling online abuse

The study was carried out by Jenny Kean, who leads the MA Journalism programme at Leeds Trinity University, and Yorkshire Evening Post reporter Abbey Maclure. They interviewed 13 journalists about their experiences to gather advice about how journalism institutions should treat the issue and how trainees can use social media without it ruining the start of their careers.

Laura Collins, editor of JPI Media daily Yorkshire Evening Post, expressed why it was so important to forewarn young journalists and give them tools to deal with abuse: “You don’t want to see young women shying away from those public-facing roles, or wanting to dream big, because they’re so worried about putting themselves out there,” she said.

“That surely can’t be good for debate and it certainly can’t be good for democracy, can it?”

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Jenna Thompson, digital editor at Reach website Hull Live, revealed she addresses abuse during the interview process for new journalists but felt “really sad” this was necessary.

Police are currently investigating a threat made towards a reporter on her title.

“I think journalism is a fantastic job. I love it. And I never want to say something in an interview which might make that career sound less appealing,” Thompson said.

“But in the last year, I felt it was important to raise it with people before they even start, to say unfortunately this is something that you can expect, tell them what we would do to support them, but also ask how they would feel about that.

“And it’s really, really sad and not something that I wanted to do. But how can you not?”

Former Oxford Mail group editor Samantha Harman, who surveyed regional journalists about their experiences of receiving online abuse last year, has prepared training to use across Newsquest titles.

The training makes clear that online abuse “shouldn’t be part of your job and it’s not acceptable” but warns trainees to expect it may happen to them nonetheless along with instructions for what to do if it does.

Jess Rudkin, editor at BBC Radio Bristol, told the researchers that she makes clear to her employees that abuse is unacceptable but admits “the genie is out the bottle”.

Her former colleague and breakfast presenter Emma Britton revealed she has left the industry in part because of the abuse she received, saying she refused to accept it goes with the territory.

“There’s nowhere where it says as a broadcaster it is okay for people to send you personal abuse, she said.”

Katie Ridley, a journalist at ITV Anglia and formerly of Archant’s Huntingdon Post newspaper, said she felt more training was needed: “It definitely needs to be taught before you go into the profession, how to deal with [abuse], because I didn’t think that it was going to happen to me that much.

“I knew people hated journalists, but I didn’t think it was going to be as intense as it sometimes is.”

The report supported previous findings that women and non-white journalists are worst hit by abuse. The three male reporters interviewed felt more able to “brush it off”, possibly because the abuse targeted towards them was generally less personal in nature.

The survey participants said journalists should not be told to “grow a thick skin” and accept abuse as part of the job.

Collins said: “That doesn’t feel like the right thing to do,” while Britton admitted: “I definitely haven’t got a thick skin.”

Nine recommendations for tackling abuse :

  1. Keep work and personal accounts separate and lock down the security features on the personal pages
  2. Flood social media with positive posts about the work of colleagues to drown out any abuse they may be facing
  3. Be liberal with block and mute tools
  4. Respond in a factual way if the accuracy of a story is being called into question but otherwise try not to engage – and don’t ever expect to have the last word
  5. Report abuse to management and use internal processes that are in place – the report found the media organisations represented in the survey have good protocols and support on offer
  6. Switch off out of work hours – having a totally separate hobby can help
  7. Speak about it with family, friends or colleagues to “take a bit of the heat out”
  8. Take time away from social media if necessary and ask for an editor’s support to do so
  9. Know it is okay to be upset and that abuse is not acceptable and should not be part of the job.

Picture: Shutterstock

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