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Revealed: The onslaught of online abuse and the toll on regional journalists

Posted on: September 28, 2020 by Mariella Brown

Journalists have been diagnosed with anxiety and depression, been forced to move home and have left the profession as a result of abuse and harassment.

In a survey asking regional journalists about their experiences of abuse as a direct result of their profession, more than 80 per cent said the problem has got ‘significantly worse’ since they began their careers.

Many have said they’ve quit or want to quit the profession as a result and, in the most serious cases, have contemplated suicide.

The findings come from a survey by Newsquest Oxfordshire editor Samantha Harman (pictured below), who set up a cross-publisher group with representatives from Reach, Archant and JPI Media earlier this year.

The group wanted to look at how abuse online is impacting the industry and what more publishers and social media companies could do about trolling.

Anecdotes submitted to the survey include female journalists being threatened with rape, reporters being racially abused, reporters having their families threatened and having their personal information published online.

These are serious cases, but a large majority of respondents said they encounter general abuse online every day, with 40 per cent spending more than an hour each week reading and dealing with it.

Many say this online abuse has led to feelings of paranoia, depression and anxiety.

Abuse online includes being accused of fake news, being called media scum, having personal remarks about appearance or race posted online, as well as being called expletives.

The most common platform for abuse is Facebook, with 89% of respondents receiving abuse on this platform. For Twitter, it’s 67%. Eighty per cent say they receive abuse in the comments sections of their newspaper websites.

Eighty-four per cent of respondents say not enough is being done to tackle the problem.

Harman is working with the Department for Media, Culture and Sport to help develop initiatives to tackle online abuse and harassment of journalists. The cross-publisher group has been in discussion with social media platforms and a campaign is being planned to highlight and tackle the problem.

Ian Murray, executive director of the Society of Editors, who sits on the newly-created DCMS Committee to Protect Journalists said, “Sadly the findings of this survey are not surprising, yet they still have the ability to shock. The growing number of accounts of journalists being abused for simply doing their job has prepared us for the alarming detail in this report. We can only hope that politicians and those who abuse their positions of authority to undermine the vital work and reputations of journalists who work under some of the strictest codes and professional standards in the world will take heed and act accordingly.”

Samantha Harman said: “To some extent, you are always going to have to deal with anger and complaints, because often you are writing about people’s lives and livelihoods. No one wants information — like the fact they’ve been charged with a crime — published.

“Constructive criticism is welcomed by our profession — but that’s not what we’re talking about here.”

“I’ve been threatened numerous times during the course of my career but now face a daily barrage of abuse — from being threatened with rape to personal attacks on my appearance. I live in the community I work in, as do many of our reporters. Yet we do not feel safe,” she added.

The findings from the survey will aim to encourage journalists to speak out against such threats.

“The solution is for us to stand up and say enough is enough — and for those who abuse us to be held accountable,” Harman said.

“We want reporters to know that they don’t have to put up with it and they can reach out for support.”

Continue reading the report in full on Behind Local News.