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Threats to reporter’s children raised in SoE Conference on online abuse

Posted on: November 24, 2020 by Ian Murray

A panel discussing threats to journalists heard how a reporter’s children had been threatened in one of the most shocking examples of abuse being debated as part of the Society of Editors’ Virtual Conference.

The exchange was made to The Chronicle’s Newcastle United Football Club editor in response to a comment about a player’s performance. Helen Dalby, Reach’s Audience & Content Director for the North East told the panel discussion of the incident where the abuser had tweeted ‘respond, or your children won’t return from school.’  The tweet had been reported to both Twitter and the police. The abuse was removed, but no further action was taken, she explained.

The incident was highlighted as the panel tackled the growing problem of abuse towards journalists in a debate entitled: Tackling the increase in online abuse against our journalists.’

Taking part were Karl Holbrook, Group Editor for Newsquest North East and holds editorship of The Northern Echo in his portfolio; Helen Dalby Reach’s Audience & Content Director for the North East; Louise Bradford, Managing Director of Creo Comms and Lee Hall, Head of School of Media and Communications at the University of Sunderland.

Chaired by Society of Editors’ board member and JPIMedia Editorial Director Joy Yates, the panel discussed how the abuse towards journalists had grown greatly in recent years. Most of the abuse was targeted towards, but not exclusively, female and diverse journalists. 

Lee Hall said this was a huge issue facing journalists who are just starting their career. 

“There is no doubt there is a massive slant towards women experiencing abuse. Amnesty International have done a lot of work around this. They found every 30 seconds a journalist is abused on social media and one in 14 tweets targeted at female journalists was abusive.

“There is an issue around lack of transparency of social media companies and how they deal with these issues, including rape threats, threats against people and their family.

“Social media companies and the government themselves have a role to play in this. The main thing is about achieving transparency. How many reports do social media companies get of abuse? What do they consider abuse?”

“At lower end of the scale journalists are being called liars, told they don’t know what they are doing, they have got their facts wrong. In any walk of life if somebody walks up to you and bawls you are rubbish in your face that will have an effect on you.”

Karl Holbrook added: “I have seen a huge change in this area in the scale of the abuse we face. 

“Is there a gender issue here? Hugely. It is always the women who face the worst abuse. There is the example of a colleague who had rape threats, that person was jailed. But overall, the abuse that women face is totally different to what men face. There is also a racial element from what I have seen.  The previous editor in my job was female and she faced much worse abuse and it’s difficult to understand that.”

The panel agreed that more should be done by the government and social media companies to get the message across to the public at large that abusive conduct was not acceptable.

Helen Dalby said: “We need to work proactively with police and crime commissioners to raise awareness of what can be done and what support can be provided for journalists. 

“Part of the problem – and it is a minority of people, we have to remember – is they (the abusers) often do that behind a cloak of anonymity. It is noticeable this is often the case with some of the worst perpetrators. This seems to absolve them with a sense of real-life identity.”

Louise Bradford said research had shown that often those involved in abuse did not realise they were part of the problem.

“The irony was (in the research) that there were comment after comment of abuse, particularly misogyny, and you realise when reading this that people simply didn’t believe they were part of the problem.” 

She added that the whole area of where criticism ends and abuse starts needs to be explored and made clear.

“This is not just an issue that journalists face, and we need to get the message across in general. There needs to be parameters on social media of what is acceptable and what is not. This is a power that has been put into people’s hands that perhaps they are not equipped to deal with.” 

The panel felt that the Covid-19 crisis has exacerbated the situation.

The debate comes after the launch earlier this year of the National Committee for the Protection of Journalists which the Society of Editors sits on. 

The discussion touched on a number of action points to tackle the abuse of journalists:

  • Set the parameters of what is acceptable criticism and what is not. What are the boundaries?
  • Communicate that to staff.
  • Be aware of the added threat to journalists from diverse backgrounds as well as women.
  • Call on government and the police to take action and treat claims of abuse seriously.
  • Call on social media giants to be more transparent about what they consider abuse and how many complaints they receive.
  • Decide how to moderate content – what are the standards and how can the industry deal with comments coming in with shrinking newsrooms? A challenge for the industry. 
  • Have regular training for staff on how to spot abuse and deal with it.
  • Train managers on how to support people who are going through abuse problems.
  • Consider creating ‘buddy-hangout’ support systems to provide support, especially during this period while working from home.
  • Call out and stamp out any notion that this abuse is acceptable. 
  • Don’t make this just an echo chamber about journalists. This is a wider problem.

The full video of the debate is available for catch up here.

The debate was able to take place thanks to the sponsorship of Facebook Journalism Project and Camelot.

Camelot has sponsored the Society of Editors since 2001 and a short video from their CEO Nigel Railton played at the beginning of the session. If you would like to discuss anything with Camelot – story ideas, ways to improve working together or anything else – please let the SoE know and we’ll put you in touch with them.

Details of the upcoming panel discussions alongside how to book for the remaining keynote discussions with Rachel Corp, John Whittingdale and Christian Broughton can be found via the Society website here.