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November 3, 2021updated 30 Sep 2022 10:44am

Survey told by one in three female journalists they feel unsafe working in UK

By Charlotte Tobitt

More than a third of female journalists who participated in a Government survey about abuse and harassment said they feel unsafe doing their jobs in the UK.

In total 80% of the 360 male and female journalists who responded to the survey said they had experienced threats, abuse or violence as a result of their work in the UK.

This included abuse, intimidation, threats of violence, violence, death threats, bullying, sexism, racism and homophobia.

But one in five said they had chosen not to report threats or abuse to their employer because they saw it as part of their job. Some 10% said they worried it would affect their career prospects if they raised it.

News Media Association chief executive Owen Meredith said the figures were “completely unacceptable”.

“No-one should have to go to work fearing that they will be abused, assaulted or worse. Journalists are no different,” he said.

The survey was put out by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and the Home Office between June and July as part of their work on better protecting journalists, which has included an action plan on journalists’ safety published this year.

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The survey should be treated as indicative due to the self-selected nature of participation and relatively small sample size, and although it was broadly representative of the demographics of the UK journalist workforce in terms of gender, location and staff versus freelance status, ethnic minority journalists were overrepresented.

A summary report of the results published by the Government revealed a “very similar proportion” of men and women experienced threats, abuse or violence as a result of their work in the UK.

Men were more likely to experience violence or abuse while women were more likely to be bullied.

However half of women had also experienced sexism while doing their jobs. More work is needed on the distinct experiences of women journalists, the report said.

Abuse, threats and violence were equally reported by journalists from white and ethnic minority backgrounds – but a third of non-white journalists reported experiencing racism.

‘Extreme effect’ on quarter

Just under a third of respondents said they were abused online, a third in person, and just over a third both online and offline.

In total almost three quarters who experienced threats and/or abuse had been subjected to some via a social media platform.

One in five said they experienced abuse at least once a week, just over a third said it happened at least once a month, and a third said something happened a few times a year.

About half of those who had experienced abuse, threats or violence said it had “slightly or moderately affected them” as a journalist, and one in six said this effect was extreme. Men were less likely to say abuse had affected their work as journalists.

Around one in five non-white journalists felt extremely affected in their work compared to one in ten white respondents.

People felt more affected as individuals – a quarter said the abuse had “extremely affected” them personally. Double the proportion of ethnic minority respondents said incidents had extremely affected them as an individual.

Change in behaviour

As a result many of the journalists had begun to avoid certain places or crowds, felt defensive or wary in public, and avoided engaging with the public or readers both in physical spaces and on social media – where they also adopted precautions such as changing privacy settings.

A particular area of concern raised was covering demonstrations. One journalist said: “Filming during crowds and demonstrations is getting more and more difficult and less safe. A growing number of protesters and activists now target media and film crews with intimidation and threats of violence.”

Another said: “I feel less safe in undertaking the work that I do when covering certain demonstrations. It makes me less inclined to cover such events, which, of course, is the intention of those perpetrating the violence and issuing threats.”

Another journalist said they had begun avoiding certain stories more generally: “I’ve stopped working on particular stories as a result of intimidation – not scared off but just don’t want to suffer the aggravation so move on to something else.”

This demonstrates the “chilling effect” abuse and violence can have on journalism, the report said.

Michelle Stanistreet, general secretary of the National Union of Journalists, said: “We need a cultural change to stop this abuse and unacceptable behaviour from being normalised – this is not, and must not be allowed to become, part of a journalist’s job.

“No worker should have to contend with threats of violence and intimidation. We want to see a zero-tolerant approach, with greater reporting, better policing and robust sentencing, to protect journalists and journalism.”

Most ‘not confident’ of being taken seriously

Journalists were more willing to report to their employers than police or social media, with one in six who had been subject to abuse reporting every incident to managers. Reach has just appointed an industry-first online safety editor to help support staff being targeted.

Two-thirds of respondents had reported all or some incidents to either social media platforms or their employers, but almost two-thirds had not reported anything to the police. Only a small minority made reports to all three entities.

Just over a quarter of respondents had reported any incidents to police and fewer than 10% reported everything that had happened to them, mostly because they felt nothing could be done or were “not at all confident” it would be taken seriously.

Of those who reported something to the police, just 15% were satisfied with how it was handled while 60% were dissatisfied.

More than 130 people shared their thoughts about how this could be improved. The report said many of their responses could be summarised by one which said: “Take it seriously. Pursue the matter. Prosecute.”

Some 20% want new functions from police such as a dedicated team or point of contact to work with journalists. They said an “easy, accessible and fast” system such as a police-operated anonymous hotline was needed to report incidents, particularly online abuse. Police could also be tougher on online threats and abuse and work better with platforms to investigate and reduce it, they said.

Many wanted police to gain a better understanding of what journalists do and why and take practical steps to improve the presence and proactive protection in areas where reporters are most at risk, such as at protests or outside courts.

The action plan on journalists’ safety published in March already announced the appointment of a lead officer at the National Police Chiefs’ Council to take responsibility for crime against journalists at national level. In addition every police force will be given access to a designated journalist safety liaison officer.

[Read more: Boris Johnson says ‘cowardly’ abuse of journalists must end as Govt publishes action plan]

However there were concerns that police themselves are responsible for some of the threats and abuse towards journalists by physically restricting access to spaces, arresting journalists, and allowing their negative conceptions about journalists affect how they treat them.

A number of respondents said ministers and other politicians also contribute to a negative attitude towards journalists, with one saying this gives “the green light for members of the public to do the same”.

For example Equalities Minister Kemi Badenoch publicly accused a Huffpost journalist of “looking to sow distrust” with a “creepy and bizarre” angle, while Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries has previously accused the Liverpool Echo of “fake news” and threatened to nail a Sunday Mirror reporter’s testicles to the floor.

On social media platforms, 70% of respondents were “not at all” confident reports of abuse would be taken seriously and just under half were “extremely dissatisfied” with the processes in place. The DCMS said earlier this year Facebook and Twitter had committed to respond promptly to threats to journalists’ safety.

‘Journalists must feel safe’

Media Minister Julia Lopez said: “From village greens to the highest seats of power, the free press is a staunch protector of the public interest and an irreplaceable outlet for ideas and opinions which help to improve society. 

“High-quality journalism should be accessible to as many people as possible and journalists must feel safe to carry out their vital work in every corner of the country.

As part of our National Action Plan we’ve heard from more than 350 people working in news in the UK to help us better understand the scale of the threats and abuse those working on the frontline of news face.

“It’s clear there is more to do so we will act on these findings and work with people from a range of disciplines and industries to address the issues raised.

“To mark Journalism Matters Week, I reiterate this government’s pledge to protect the freedom and safety of journalists and make sure the industry that supports them has a sustainable future at a time of rapid technological change.”

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