Training journalists for the scourge of the digital age….is it time to do more?

Social media abuse has become the scourge of the digital age. Disturbingly, no solution appears in sight.

So much so that training in how to deal with being on the receiving end of it is being formalised in more and more areas of the workplace. For anyone whose job involves public service or public expression, or the requirement to stick your head above the parapet and state a position, or voice an opinion, you could mount a strong case for such training now being imperative.

I found myself this week contemplating what position journalists occupy in the grand firing line now overseen by trigger-happy trolls on a daily, make that hourly, basis.

If scribes, broadcasters, presenters and pundits aren’t in the first row alongside high profile footballers, outspoken column-writing celebrities, attention-seeking politicians and Boris Johnson, then they’re fairly close to it.

With that in mind then, should a sports journalism degree like ours at University of South Wales (USW), which inevitably places emphasis on engaging with, and exploiting the promotional opportunities and news-gathering potential of social media, focus too on the psychological demands of doing just that? It’s something hardened hacks would doubtless dismiss as “part of the job”, but is it now enough to be so flippant?

A report just published in the Journal of the Association for journalism Education concludes that social media abuse of journalists is becoming ever more vile, ever more regular, and ever more impactful on the emotional wellbeing of the targets, particularly younger ones.

ÔÇťOpening up conversation during journalism training is therefore vital to prepare students for what they might face,” said the study carried out by Jenny Kean, who leads the MA Journalism programme at Leeds Trinity University, and Yorkshire Evening Post reporter Abbey Maclure.

You wonder whether “opening up conversation” goes far enough. Should behavioural and emotional guidance form an intrinsic part of a specific degree module?

Apart from the obvious pros and cons of social media as they relate to core journalistic fundamentals, instruction in navigating this increasingly toxic area of cyberspace at USW focuses on advising students, quite forcefully, that once they become a journalism undergraduate there is no excuse for having an imprint on any platform that isn’t professional. The ethical requirement of being beyond reproach encompasses this, students are left in no doubt that personal accounts should be devoid of whatever childish nonsense they may or may not have embraced during their school years, even if that means an unexpectedly intense audit.

Year one in an undergraduate’s journey is year zero on the social media spectrum. For the first time in students’ lives they absorb the concept that the profession they aspire to is one which will grant them a platform at first difficult to comprehend, and that as journalists they are one minute scrutinisers, the next scrutinised.

This is a straightforward concept to teach because it is based on tangible facts, but how do you teach a thick skin? Is it even possible? If it is, it’s probably beyond the pay bracket of most journalism trainers.

The advice for tackling social media hate? Keep personal and professional accounts separate; report abuse to management and go through established protocols; switch off out of work hours; talk to family and friends if you’re taking flak; remind yourself that all forms of abuse are unacceptable; tell yourself it would be a thousand times worse if you didn’t matter enough for the haters to hate you….the list could go on.

Yet none of the above prepares a human being for the first time you switch on your screen and people you have never met are calling you names, using foul language, ridiculing your professional status, making you question your own ability, undermining your confidence and, worst of all, making you feel as if they speak for the majority.

Throughout more than 20 years of journalism I got off reasonably lightly, not least because it was only in the second decade of my time that social media became an option and then a necessity.

One particularly nasty period was at the height of a so-called civil war between the Welsh Rugby Union and the four regional teams. I won’t bore you with much more detail other than to say during a timespan of approximately 18 months I became a regular twitter target for people who disagreed with what I wrote as rugby editor for WalesOnline. I was, in their view, any one of a joke, an embarrassment, pathetic, biased, corrupt, dishonest, plus various other unprintable tags depending on which derogatory term came into their heads first. In other words, the usual stuff from that mammoth group of observers who feel qualified to pontificate on “terrible journalism” or “lazy journalism” despite never having done the job themselves.

Did I know how I should, as a professional journalist, respond? Of course – stay above it, reply with facts if accuracy was questioned, don’t respond to foul language or any other ugliness, block and mute – but only in moderation. Was I able to restrain myself in such a manner at all times? In a word, no. On one or two occasions the insults and the goading got the better of me and I fired back using terminology and tone I later regretted.

Did it get to me mentally? You bet. Some journalists do a damn good impression of people who couldn’t care a jot what comes their way, but there’s not a single one who doesn’t, to some extent, allow social media to get under their skin. Do some have the capacity to be relatively indifferent and nonchalant, to revel in their notoriety at the same time as allowing engagement to disproportionately affect their mood? Undoubtedly. Yet many others live on twitter, taking the consensus of a vocal minority as gospel and fretting over the loss of three followers as if it represents the total ruination of their reputation for good judgement.

Younger journalists are more vulnerable. It isn’t at all patronising to suggest they give greater credence to social media because they’ve never known a workplace without it. Furthermore, their professional confidence is in its formative stage which isn’t helpful when so much abuse directed at them centres around bogus attacks on their competence and credibility.

I’ve known young journalists talk themselves out of writing a piece, or pursuing a specific news line, in anticipation of a negative reaction on twitter. I know twentysomethings in the industry already so weary of trolls they seek solace in intermittent twitter shutdowns lasting anything between a week and two months, despite the value of the site to their day-to-day activity. Such decisions suggest there is an effect on mental health that trainees need to be made more aware of, not to mention greater provision and awareness of coping mechanisms.

Female journalists too are located at the eye of this storm. A survey fielded by the International Centre for Journalists (ICFJ) and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) found “misogyny and online violence” to be a threat to women wanting to enter journalism and the communication industry in the digital age. It even went as far as to label it a “freedom of expression crisis”.

We live in an age of intolerance, of cancellation, of twitter mob-rule through synthetic outrage, and we live in an age where the lectern of social media has put what were once pub conversations onto millions of screens in homes and offices. Once upon a time we never even knew what our critics were saying, at least very little of it. Now it’s nigh on impossible to escape it in a world of amateur publishers.

Qualified journalists, however, retain their privileged platform, and they are up there to be shot at as much as they ever were by those who resent it. Social media just makes the artillery heavier and fires it in permanent as opposed to transitory form.

Are we then doing enough by simply making this part of some wider and more frequent conversation? Could we go further in helping journalism students to understand where social media abuse emanates from, why it is ultimately worthless and what techniques – mental and practical – can be used to nullify its intended effects before they take up meaningful residence in the mind of the recipient?

The evidence suggests journalism educators need to do more. Now is maybe the time to debate what “more” should be.