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September 15, 2022updated 07 Oct 2022 7:16am

‘This isn’t an acceptable part of the job’: How journalists and publishers can tackle online abuse

By Charlotte Tobitt

The UK media industry’s first dedicated online safety editor is trying to help journalists move away from the idea that abuse is “something you should have to put up with”.

Rebecca Whittington, who took on the role at Reach last year, also told Press Gazette’s Future of Media Explained podcast why she has become a “critical friend” to social media platforms like Meta and Twitter and why she believes collaboration between publishers will make them a more “robust force” against the blight of attacks against journalists.

Whittington (pictured) joined Reach from Leeds Trinity University where she was a journalism course leader and lecturer, work which she said gave her the training, pastoral care and research skills needed for her new job. She has also worked in regional journalism herself, including at the Yorkshire Post.

Her first nine months in the role have been “really busy”, she said, including feedback sessions at different Reach brands across the different regions of the UK to determine how they experience online abuse in often quite varied ways.

Part of her job involves supporting Reach’s national and regional journalists being abused because of their job. The publisher had a support system in place previously but it was more “ad hoc”.

Whittington changed the way cases were logged and made it easier to check in with those affected, ensuring they could ultimately have a point of closure.

[Read more: Future of Media Explained podcast 14: Online abuse and what to do about it]

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She said it was “really crucial” to tell staff “we’re going to leave it here and if you need to pick it up again, you can do, but otherwise you won’t be hearing from me again on this”, adding: “I think that’s important so that people can move on as well as feel that they are supported.”

Then in July she introduced a new reporting system with help from the product team, which includes the ability to easily triage cases to bring the right people in to help – for example, for a social media issue at a regional title Whittington can bring in the relevant social media editor, or for a security issue that team will be contacted. Ultimately, it means, she said, that it is easier for a member of staff to make a report, check on the progress and who is involved, and for every interaction based on that report to be tracked and transparent.

Who is most affected and why?

The system also asks staff for their informed consent to share data such as the social media platform involved in their case and their personal characteristics so that Whittington can begin to build an evidence-based picture of who is facing abuse and where, rather than relying on anecdotes relating to, for example, homophobic, transphobic, racist and misogynistic abuse.

Whittington’s work has also included producing new training and guidance – for example, on how to handle an online backlash and how to keep your personal and professional lives separate on social media, and highlighted mental health support services at regular intervals.

Within Reach’s more than 1,000 journalists certain trends can be seen regarding who is most impacted by online abuse: when we spoke in August, Whittington was preparing to help sports journalists during the new football season and the World Cup, which she said bring with them “a lot of online harms and abuse”.

The Covid-19 pandemic and the vast amount of online misinformation it brought meant a lot of threats towards journalists, she said.

“We see less of that now because the [Covid] reporting is less, but what we are seeing is a rise in hateful conversations and harmful conversations around things like gender and the way that people identify,” Whittington added.

She noted that discrimination against personal characteristics like this “can have a huge impact on mental health and well-being, and unfortunately is something that we see playing out online quite significantly”.

Millennials and Gen Z, the youngest generations currently of working age, are frequently slammed as “snowflakes” for refusing to accept things that impact their mental health or make them feel negative feelings.

But Whittington said younger journalists’ refusal to accept unpleasant parts of the job like online abuse as necessary is “actually really good”. Instead of just shouldering the burden, they now expect to see good support and welfare structures around them and are more willing to actively seek them out.

“I do hope that that message – this isn’t an acceptable part of the job, it isn’t something you should have to put up with – I really hope that that message is filtering out to people and I believe it is,” Whittington said.

“However, [Reach is] a large organisation and across journalism as a whole I do think that that is probably a legacy that we still are trying to move on from… still, there are people who will shoulder different things and then have different expectations of what their colleagues should be shouldering.”

‘Critical friend’ to Meta and Twitter

A parallel part of Whittington’s job involves working with the likes of Facebook and Instagram owner Meta, Twitter, and the government to help efforts in cracking down on abuse before it can have that negative impact on journalists.

Whittington said she was a “critical friend” to the social platforms and that she meets them on a regular basis. Recently, Meta led a session for Reach staff informing them about how they can be safeguarded on Facebook and Instagram.

“That partnership working is really important,” Whittington said, noting that you could easily say “they’re the bad guys” but that wouldn’t be constructive.

At Twitter, she praised recent additions such as the ability to remove yourself from a conversation, saying that could be a “game changer” in terms of giving people an element of control amid a backlash against them.

“But, obviously, people are misbehaving and misusing the tools that these platforms provide them and I do think that there is always room for improvement,” Whittington said.

“What I tend to do with both of them is take evidence to them and say ‘this is happening, this is an ongoing issue, can we do something about this?'”

She added that these conversations are “quite often a long process” but she hopes the data being collected by the new reporting system will help provide the evidence needed to move things along.

Collaboration makes us a more ‘robust force’

At a governmental level, Whittington said the issue of abuse is on the agenda in the UK and things are going “in the right direction” but “we need a bit more of it”.

The Online Safety Bill, which has been delayed due to the change in government, contained protections against “legal but harmful” content that could cause offence, but new prime minister Liz Truss has said there “may be some tweaks required” to tip the balance back towards free speech. Whittington said legislation of this type was “slow-moving” because there is so much to include, and that keeping up with digital innovation in legislation is a real challenge.

Meanwhile, the National Committee for the Safety of Journalists has met twice a year since July 2020 and created an action plan to better protect journalists, which led police forces to appoint dedicated liaison officers.

“We need to be keeping the government focus on these issues, because if at the end of the day we want to have public interest journalism, which is clearly something the government has an interest in, we need to be able to protect those journalists to produce public interest journalism without fear,” Whittington said.

Whittington, welcoming people to get in touch with her if they want to talk about the issues, also called for more collaboration between news organisations: “From my point of view, if Reach is doing it and then the other publishers are doing it and broadcasters are doing it and actually we’re singing from the same hymn sheet in terms of the way that we’re approaching it, it then makes us a more robust force against these things.”

She said it was “quite likely” that if somebody at Reach is being abused, then the culprit is also attacking journalists at the BBC and other news organisations.

“So this issue isn’t a different issue for different news organisations and different journalists,” Whittington said. “It’s something that we need to work collaboratively on, in my opinion.”

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