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April 19, 2021updated 30 Sep 2022 10:12am

Call for journalists to receive ’emotional flak jackets’ against worsening online abuse

By Charlotte Tobitt

Journalists should be given “emotional flak jackets” to deal with ways their work could impact their mental health, such as through online abuse and burnout, it has been suggested.

The call came as a journalist in BBC Monitoring, which investigates online disinformation and extremism, revealed up to eight of his BBC colleagues had left over the course of a year to 18 months because of the daily abuse they faced.

Shayan Sardarizadeh told a virtual panel about mental wellbeing in the newsroom, hosted by City University, on Wednesday: “That was the moment when there was a realisation something is wrong, we need to do something.

“We basically had a meeting with our editor and we said look, this is a serious problem, not only are journalists leaving but we are now getting actual death threats, people are doxxing us on the internet, our addresses, our phone numbers, emails, our family members.

“It got to a point where I was like, it’s fine for me but I don’t want my sister or my dad or my mum to have to deal with it – direct it at me.

“Then they started taking action. But I’m fortunate, I work for the BBC, it’s a massive organisation and has some kinds of practices in place. There are tonnes and tonnes who have nothing.”

Doxxing (sometimes written doxing) is when a person’s private details, such as their address or contact number, are shared on the internet without their permission.

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A BBC spokesperson said well-being support available to its staff includes counselling, a 24/7 employee assistance programme, and mental health first aiders.

“The welfare and mental health of our staff is of paramount importance and we have a wide range of measures in place to support them,” they said.

Sardarizadeh, who joined the BBC in 2013, revealed one of his colleagues, a woman in her 20s, even had to deal with people putting signposts with her name and “we’re watching you” along her commute to the office.

He said although his team of seven – four men and three women – all get daily abuse, the women have it “far, far worse despite the fact all of us do the exact same role”.

“It’s on a completely different level – it’s far, far worse and far nastier,” he said. He noted his team is worse than many as they report on people with radical and extremist views.

[Read more: BBC’s Tim Davie tells under-fire journalists to say ‘we believe in what we do’ and hold strong]

The BBC said: “The teams who deal with graphic material or threats can be directed to additional expert help in this area and have methods and advice to cope with their work. If serious threats are made to individual journalists we get detailed support from our expert safety advisers and of course, if deemed necessary, we wouldn’t hesitate to alert the police.”

Abuse getting ‘far worse’

Sardarizadeh said journalists could always expect to be “fair game” and receive “some degree of nonsense” because they have power and a public profile which comes with responsibility, but added it has “moved beyond ‘you suck, you’re terrible’” type messages.

He said the problems began in around 2014 or 2015 “with the culture of social media expanding and becoming far more widespread and also social media algorithms radicalising people” and then became “probably the worst it’s ever been” during the aftermath of the 2016 Brexit referendum.

He said it calmed down after the December 2019 general election but then became “far, far worse” again during the Covid-19 pandemic and the US election campaign. He also said generally it is “far worse” in the US, blaming the unregulated broadcast media for playing a part.

Sardarizadeh warned the industry is losing good journalists because of this abuse.

“I’m hearing about journalists who either leave the industry altogether because they can no longer put up with the level of abuse that they have to deal with on a daily basis – and to some extent, they can’t do their jobs properly,” he said, citing the need for the worst cases to have police monitoring and even bodyguards for journalists at events.

“I get messages from people, students studying journalism, constantly who ask ‘how bad is it? How terrible is it? How much abuse do you get?’ And that then becomes worrying because journalism needs young, capable, talented individuals to come into it to shake it up.”

[Read more: Owen Jones talks about online abuse of journalists and living with ‘constant threat of far-right violence’]

‘Emotional flak jacket’

The panel advocated journalists speaking up when they are having a problem, whether they are struggling to deal with online abuse, burnout or trauma, as the issue could otherwise easily go undetected by superiors.

For example two top Wired editors in the US stood down this week, with editor Megan Greenwell citing “burnout” in her decision while site director Scott Rosenfield said he was “exhausted”.

The panel also suggested it is  “incumbent” on managers to keep an eye out for their staff.

Hannah Storm, chief executive of the Ethical Journalism Network and former director of the International News Safety Institute, said it is a “two-way street” and that many media organisations are still failing to sufficiently support staff.

“We’ve heard before about physical safety training,” she said. “We wouldn’t send somebody to war without a physical flak jacket. We shouldn’t be sending anybody anywhere where their mental health might be compromised without an emotional flak jacket.

“That means talking to them about how their work is going to impact them and thinking about resources and risk mitigation in advance.”

Amid the debate over the need for more diverse voices in the journalism industry Storm said it is “really important” the people making safety decisions “don’t just look like a certain type of person so that they’re more aware of what’s going on”.

Pamposh Raina, a New Delhi-based journalist who has worked for the New York Times and AFP, told the panel that newsrooms should invest more resources in trauma literacy similar to what they already do with hostile environment training.

“The most important thing is to mainstream these conversations in newsrooms and outside, she said. “In India, we don’t talk at all about these things, especially as women,” explaining the fear that if they raise concerns they may lose assignments to men because it’s “easier”.

“If we start doing it, even in silos, it might make a difference.”

Picture: Shutterstock

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