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October 18, 2021updated 07 Nov 2023 5:46am

Reach hires industry-first online safety editor to tackle ‘endemic’ abuse

By Charlotte Tobitt

Update 18 October: 

Reach has appointed former Yorkshire Post Newspapers head of news Dr Rebecca Whittington as its first online safety editor.

Whittington, who will take up the industry-first role on 15 November, will support Reach staff who are receiving online abuse and work on measures both internally and with external partners such as social media platforms to try and prevent further harassment.

She is currently currently a lecturer and course leader for Leeds Trinity University’s journalism department and her PhD thesis explored the impacts of digital tools on news production and journalistic identity at the UK’s local press.

Whittington (pictured) said: “Online abuse is an endemic issue which has increased significantly over the past decade.

“Journalists are vilified online on a daily basis simply for doing their jobs, with types of abuse ranging from personal attacks to hate crimes. Not only does this cause harm to the victims of abuse, but it also causes harm to the audience witnessing it. It is time these issues were addressed and by leading the way and creating the position of online safety editor, Reach is taking an important step in doing just that.

“In my role I aim to support staff facing online abuse and harassment and I also want to address the issue externally, by working with platforms and audiences to prevent and protect.”

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Reach group editor-in-chief Lloyd Embley said the new role would help Reach “take the next step in making the internet a safer place for journalists across the industry”.

He added: “As Reach continues to grow and recruit more young journalists than ever before, it is absolutely essential that we lead the way to create a safer online environment for our people and our readers.”

Original story 25 June:

Reach has created an online safety editor role, the first of its kind in the UK, to tackle “endemic” abuse and harassment of its journalists “head on”.

The UK’s largest commercial publisher said the appointee would liaise with social media platforms on individual cases of abuse and to push for action to improve the problem more generally.

The Reach online safety editor will ensure the publisher’s online abuse policies are followed in every case and support staff who are affected. They will develop and deliver training for dealing with online abuse.

A taskforce of senior editorial and HR leaders decided to introduce the role, which is now being advertised and will sit within the audience team, after seeing the results of an internal survey of more than 550 employees.

[Read more: Journalism students now need training for ‘vile’ online abuse they will face, study finds]

Group editor-in-chief Lloyd Embley said: “Online abuse has become endemic in our industry. It can severely impact the mental health of our journalists and at times even threatens their physical safety.

“While we have always had a system in place to support and protect our colleagues, we felt that with online abuse only increasing across the industry we needed to dedicate a role to tackle it head on.

“We will not allow our journalism to be silenced or our colleagues to live in fear.”

The announcement came in the same week a woman was sentenced for an abusive email towards a journalist at Hull Live, one of Reach’s regional news brands.

[Read more: Police investigate threat to reporter at Hull Daily Mail in wake of backlash from arts leaders against title]

The email to Anna Riley, who has since left to join GB News, threatened to publish her address on social media unless she took down a “hate filled racist article” about a Labour councillor who hit out on Twitter about Prince Philip’s past “racist” remarks hours after his death.

“Go kill yourself you racist scumbag,” it said. It also called her a “needy fat s*** who lives on takeaways”.

Elizabeth O’Brien, 31, of The Greenway in Hull pleaded guilty to one count of sending malicious communications and was sentenced to 80 hours of unpaid work under a community order plus £100 in compensation and court costs of £85.

Riley encouraged others to report abuse and trolling towards them “so that these spineless individuals are punished and the message gets spread that it’s not okay to troll”. She said the email left her “sick to my stomach and was an especially shocking response to me just doing my job”.

The Government is currently asking journalists to share their experiences of online abuse and of reporting it to their employers, social platforms and the police to help it decide how to take action. The consultation is open until 14 July.

There is no meaningful data on the scale of the problem at present, with many incidents never reported formally.

But some incidents do make it to court and have even resulted in abusers going to jail: last year a man was jailed for two and a half years for threatening to kill Liverpool Echo staff and this year a man was given 22 weeks in custody for threatening to shoot a journalist at Newsquest daily The Mail on Facebook.

Online abuse concerns on Press Gazette:

Picture: Society of Editors

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