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.

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Courts are journalism amphitheatres – dwindling coverage is not an inconvenience, it’s a crisis

As a sports journalist – and blowing my own trumpet is absolutely not my intention here – I witnessed some of the most momentous finals, showdowns, shootouts, deciders, mouthwatering clashes…you get the gist.

Whatever hyperbole was used to ham up the occasion, there I was, best seat in the house, taking in the atmosphere that only being physically present could provide.

Even though the job description demanded neutral detachment, hacks are only human. Myself included.

While watching the drama and emotion of elite sport unfold all over the world I’ve let out gasps, muttered expletives, bitten fingernails and clenched buttock cheeks with the best of them.

And yet none of the above compares to the experiences I’ve had in the one journalistic amphitheatre that has always, and will always, offer up the best stories of all – court.

To therefore digest the findings this week of a report by journalism academic Richard Jones of the University of Huddersfield, which suggested public funding may be needed to safeguard court reporting in the UK, was alarming.

Jones’ study concluded that regional media organisations like Reach and Newsquest are shouldering the resource burden of covering events at courts – magistrates and crown – virtually alone.

The ongoing contraction of the journalism workforce – not exclusive to these two companies – makes this situation unsustainable, Jones asserted. Some have suggested solutions such as expanding the Local Democracy Reporter scheme or forcing the likes of Google and Facebook to contribute financially. My money would be on the former before the latter.

Two further concerns present themselves.

Magistrates court proceedings

The first is the current vogue for job creation to centre around digital, technical audio-visual and social media skills. This is inevitable given the changing requirements of the industry but if we needed a reminder of just how important traditional core fundamentals and basic professional competency remain, perhaps this issue is it.

Twenty years ago entering the paid ranks of journalism meant starting with general news before exploring any ambition to specialise in sport, business, politics etc. And starting with general news meant going to court. Not every day, but very possibly every week. It was an invaluable way to learn, but so few rookies now get the opportunity.

Secondly, there is the unfeasibility of any gap in court coverage being plugged by hyperlocal, so-called citizen journalists, unqualified in media law. The former audience, as Dan Gillmor christened them, has admirably taken up the fight to preserve community news but clean, legally safe copy from a rape trial can never be part of their remit.

Journalist representation in court has been declining for years. When warned of the dangers of this, media company bosses largely agreed but shrugged their shoulders and spoke about contracting economic realities.

Yet findings such as those of Jones, together with other factors cited above, help focus minds on just how close we may be coming to a tipping point.

It needs averting as a matter of urgency. Not just because of the oft-quoted fact about a transparent justice system being the bedrock of any democratic nation, but also because court reporting retains immense value to journalism itself, and subsequently to readers, viewers, listeners and subscribers. That’s an economic reality right there, you just have to be prepared to play a longer game to see it reflected in profit margins.

Standing or falling on a court assignment is also a development tool for journalists worth its weight in gold. From a human resource standpoint, there is no better investment. Going to court and producing stories rightly remains a key component of our BA Journalism course at University of South Wales, led by a course leader in Craig Hooper who could write a book about his escapades in front of the beaks while an agency man serving the London-based nationals.

It demands (from a legal as well as ethical perspective) accuracy, fairness and balance. It challenges reporters to build contacts among court personnel, it develops confidence in trainees to engage with, even challenge, judges, magistrates and barristers, and also to approach defendants, victims of crime and their relatives for interviews when cases conclude.

There is nothing like court for a journalist. Nothing.

I’d contend all journalists should at some stage have seen the inside of a court (for work purposes). You’ll certainly be very hard pushed to find one who has, and does not believe their career was aided and enriched by doing so.

Most will have a favourite story to tell, most will concede that there were times when they felt as though they were among a select audience at the premier of some cliffhanger film, a film they then quickly realised was for real.

My own introduction to the judicial circuit came at about 10am on a grey morning in October 1996.

As a Gwent Tertiary College student hoping to gain the National Council for the Training of Journalists’ pre-entry certificate I found myself among a class outing at Newport Crown Court listening to a defence lawyer pleading for leniency in the case of a young man, no more than 21 if he was a day, who had become embroiled in a nightclub fight and struck an assailant with a glass bottle.

Newport Crown Court. Pic: WalesOnline

From the appearance of the defendant – who sitting in the dock looked contrite and petrified in equal measure – and his worried-sick family sitting white-faced behind us, this carried all the hallmarks of an otherwise law-abiding, respectable chap having acted wholly out of character in drink.

When the judge returned from a brief adjournment myself and fellow aspiring scribes anticipated at worst a suspended sentence of some sort, along with a fine and a severe warning as to future conduct.

What we got was stunning, in the purest sense of the word.

An 18-month jail sentence was rather pitilessly meted out, and if I used every conceivable word known to man I could never do justice (no pun intended) to the sense of shock and despair that took over that room as his honour explained why he needed to be seen to take the toughest stance possible over such crimes. I can still hear the wails and sobs of the lad’s distraught mother to this day.

It seems callous and indulgent to reflect on such moments as electrifying drama, but of course that’s just what they are to journalists whose job nevertheless is to remain dispassionate whether sitting in a media gantry at a packed stadium or on a press bench in Court No1.

Thereafter, trips to court in my formative years in the job always – always, always, always – yielded the best stories.

Within the first 18 months of my traineeship at the Gwent Gazette in Ebbw Vale, I’d reported on a murder case which followed a teenager being struck and killed by a lorry, a teacher who’d been done for making nuisance phone calls, a bouncy castle operator guilty of abusing children and a council leader who’d assaulted his girlfriend.

My old newspaper, the Gwent Gazette, leads with a court story.

Not even a ticking off by the chairman of the bench at Abertillery Mags for reading The Guardian during one tedious interlude put me off.

The murder case I mentioned saw the defendant eventually get four years for manslaughter, a sentence which enraged the victim’s family. It was deadline day for the Gazette, a Monday, and I remember running out of Cardiff Crown Court and dictating the copy from a phone box to a sub-editor at Thomson House. No mobiles in them days…

Tucked in with that showpiece lead story would have been any number of smaller reports on more trivial cases, from drink driving to non-payment of a TV licence.

I just remember that day in Cardiff, especially, being a win-win-win scenario.

I got my job satisfaction and another piece for my cuttings book (which I’ve still got somewhere), the readers got their story, and justice – notwithstanding the dissent – hadn’t just been done, it had been seen to be done.

If this sequence of events is becoming ever rarer then it’s time lawmakers and the industry itself viewed it as not so much an inconvenience or a consequence of different times, but as a crisis requiring urgent action.

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Closing offices threatens those who are the future of journalism

THE feeling of bewilderment I can still remember vividly.

A harassed looking reporter had come down to reception at Thomson House to greet me on my first day of work experience at the South Wales Echo, circa 1995. Up the steps we went, through the double doors, turned right, walked past the library hutch and then….

Given it was still only 8.30am I was expecting to see office life unfolding as I’d always imagined it would at what, to a recent university graduate, was still something of an ungodly hour. You know, a few early arrivals hanging up coats, computer screens still largely black, blinds flapping at an ajar window, kettle boiling. In short, the sights and sounds of a workplace wearily cranking into gear.

Poor naive fool. I can only equate crossing the threshold into the newsroom to walking off an aeroplane on arrival at a tropical destination, the blast of heat symbolising the level of activity across crammed desks buckling under the weight of stored newspaper copies and stained tea cups.

What a buzz. You had designers shouting for ‘a string of nibs for page 12’ mixed with journalists frantically trying to gather information by telephone to meet the 9.30am ‘off-slate’ deadline. Everywhere you looked there were correspondents punching away at keyboards with facial expressions that suggested they were actually trying to decode an explosive device about to blow up half of Cardiff (now that would have been a story!)

Immediately I felt like the sap on an army training exercise who oversleeps, misses breakfast and turns up on parade bumbling and dishevelled.

And yet without having even sat down, without having even exchanged awkward introductions with preoccupied hacks or desk bods already on their third coffee of the day, I had learned something.

This was how a newsroom functioned. This truly was work experience.

Work experience remains vital

A quarter of a century later and the Trinity Mirror title that gave me such a precious schooling in the realities of coalface journalism is now under the umbrella of a company – Reach plc – proposing to close dozens of newsrooms across the country, even after the Covid crisis is over, and to require just 25% of its workforce to be based in an office.

Reach will divide its human resources three ways; those who will work permanently from home (primarily production staff), those who will divide their time roughly 50-50 between home and the office (journalists predominantly) and a few hardy souls (telesales for example) who will still need to commute every day.

The company points to a staff survey which reveals many are perfectly happy with the arrangement, and the few ex-colleagues I have spoken with seem to be on board too.

Reach is keeping open office ‘hubs’ in most of the larger cities where it has a presence. The Media Wales HQ at Six Park Street in central Cardiff – Media Wales now occupies just one of the building’s six floors – is being kept open.

But while investment will be needed to facilitate a formalised remote working environment, the opportunity to slash the costs associated with high street site occupancy is the overwhelming attraction for the UK’s largest publisher.

It has not been difficult to see this coming. In terms of working from home the pandemic forced upon us a situation that in ordinary times was looked upon by many company strategists as unnecessarily radical. So now we know it works, those once skeptical have asked, why go back?

Media wales in central Cardiff

The economic case is as robust as it could possibly be. As far back as August last year a third of media organisations in one study were predicting revenue hits of more than 35%. By the time a post-Covid world genuinely becomes a reality, who knows by how much such projections may have worsened?

In an industry as much bedevilled by uncertainty as any, where Reach have led, others will surely follow.

Yet with all upheavals come winners and losers. While bean-counters high-five, journalism must protect its future – or die.

Like any industry it is nothing without a conveyor belt providing people able to do a wide cross-section of jobs, and do them brilliantly.

At University of South Wales, journalists of the future benefit from the expertise of practitioners and academics who can give them a grounding in core fundamentals through a variety of tailored courses and modules.

But if would-be employers demand students be ‘industry-ready’ by the time they graduate – and USW bases its approach on that very assumption – then there must be a recognition that industry itself has to continue to play its part.

The University of South Wales atrium in central Cardiff, where the journalism courses are based

Work placement modules are critical to our students, not just in honing skills and opening eyes to real world challenges but also to building confidence, developing contacts, instilling the highest standards and nurturing collegiate etiquette that can only come with being in people’s physical presence.

Remove the opportunity to spend time in an office, engaging face-to-face with journalists and members of the public, interacting with those in whose footsteps you wish to follow by sitting next to them and seeing at first hand how the job is done, and you strike a hammer blow for the personal and professional instruction youngsters absolutely must be given.

Striving for the best degree possible remains a fundamental staging post on the road to becoming a journalist, but in a fiercely competitive world meaningful work experience on a cv is as much a game-changer in an interview as ever it was. It’s a message, too, that is relentlessly conveyed to each and every USW cohort.

Already, in the last extraordinary year, finding high quality placements in the world of work for our students has become a significantly tougher task, with potential providers, treading water in a world of Zoom meetings, either reluctant or unable to offer anything they – or we – regard as suitably meaningful.

Are we therefore looking at a future that sees students shadowing journalists virtually, or even spending a day sitting alongside them in their converted lofts as they scour social media and dip into Google Hangouts? Is such a scenario even feasible or worthwhile? Do we even need to prepare the journalists of the future for environments that will cease to exist?

As things stand, such questions are almost imponderable.

Work experience, by definition, is something that is supposed to prepare you for the world of work. The South Wales Echo did just that for me 26 years ago.

If the confidence, the social skills, the industry insight, the contacts and the best practice I could only have picked up at Thomson House are one day no longer available, no longer even deemed necessary, then we’ll be entitled to ask: what has the world of journalism become?

End