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.

“Opening 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.


Marcus Rashford can be tech giants’ nemesis in battle against social media racism

THE abuse, depressingly, was nothing new. The reaction? Potential dynamite in the quest to find a solution not just to the racist online trolling of footballers, but to the even wider problem of hate crime on social media in general.

“Humanity and social media at it’s worst,” concluded Manchester United and England striker Marcus Rashford after receiving racist bile from anonymous Instagram accounts after his team’s 0-0 draw with Arsenal last weekend.

“Yes I’m a black man and I live every day proud that I am,” Rashford continued in a tweet. “No-one, or no one comment is going to make me feel any different. So sorry if you were looking for a strong reaction. You’re just simply not going to get it here.”

Earlier in the same week Chelsea defender Reece James and West Brom’s Romaine Sawyers also received racist abuse via social media. In Sawyers’ and Rashford’s cases, the police were contacted and are investigating.

There is no textbook for dealing with faceless cowards who attack people based on the colour of their skin, but the eloquence of Rashford’s turn-the-other-cheek reaction resonated in the most powerful manner. This 23-year-old has already shown what can be achieved when a driven high profile sports star intervenes in a social issue. His campaigning for the provision of free school meals has not just embarrassed politicians but forced tangible policy changes. If anyone can finally make a difference to the ongoing disgrace of incidents like those mentioned above, perhaps it’s Rashford.

Calls for tech giants to do more to clamp down on racist hatred are obligatory in each and every aftermath and the pattern remains the same; the initial chorus of disapproval quietens and we return to a state of latent abhorrence… until the next time.

Is the fierce criticism of facebook, twitter, instagram, youtube and other digital platforms justified? Are they indeed allowing racial hatred to perpetuate in a climate of complacency, hand-wringing and even denial?

It has become nigh on impossible to mount a case for their defence. In fact, studies have shown complacency – at the lower end of the spectrum of charges against these companies – to be a malignant influence in the perpetuation of racism in UK sport, football especially.

In the last decade Fifa has, risibly, claimed racism to be ‘on the decline’ thanks in part to its own campaigns. In 2012 Premier League representatives told a parliamentary investigation into racism in football that arrests were at a record low, prompting the following from then PM David Cameron: “If everyone plays their role then we can easily crush and deal with this problem.” The Culture, Media and Sports Committee spoke about how the atmosphere at football grounds had ‘changed hugely’ since the 1970s and 1980s.

Marcus Rashford in action against Anderlecht. Pic: rscanderlecht

Such claims have since been shown to be short-sighted and ill-informed, placing as they did undue emphasis on diminishing levels of overt racism. The monkey chanting and banana throwing may have gone – though recent documentaries have shown the former continues to rear itself – but the extent to which racism is culturally embedded in British society never went anywhere. Studies have shown that when it manifests under football’s banner, it is a reflection of attitudes that prevail among a section of the wider public – including those who don’t care two hoots about the outcome of any sporting contest.

Racism in football has simply been herded from the stands and terraces to other outlets that 20 years ago were not available. Before the explosion of twitter, racial abuse on internet message boards was described as ‘covert’ by some scholars. Its progression to platforms with millions of account holders rather than niche followings of diehards has directed the malignancy full circle. There’s been a regression to the dark days of 40-50 years ago. What gains were made have been eroded.

What can be done? Certainly more than IS being done. Facebook, twitter and youtube operate a ‘report and take down’ strategy to deal with hateful content. In other words, they rely on the public to do their dirty work for them, outsourcing their moderation responsibilities at zero expense. It is time large scale investment was made in the creation of entire departments of staff whose job it is to proactively search for racist and other hateful material, to remove it and identify those responsible. Punitive fines should be built into legislation for failing to remove offensive material in a timely fashion – there are numerous historical examples of such failure.

In this way, the tech giants can bear the brunt of the investigative workload rather than the police. Why should taxpayers money be wasted on resourcing time-consuming police enquiries? If football clubs have to pay costs for the policing of matches, why should those who provide online community platforms expect the same safeguarding for free? Prosecutions are essential, but in instances like the one Rashford flagged up the leg work of monitoring, identifying and tracing should be the duty of the tech firms before publicly funded law enforcement.

Social media companies are secretive about the level of resources they direct towards monitoring and removing inappropriate content. Why?

“We do not give out numbers for the simple reason that someone, somewhere would say that it is not enough,” twitter employee Nick Pickles told a Home Affairs Select Committee in April 2017. Simon Milner from facebook told the same committee: “I would suggest that there is not necessarily a linear relationship between the number of people you employ and the effectiveness of the work you do.”

Assurances have been given to parliament that new technological systems are being worked on to make possible the increased internal vigilance disgusted members of the public are rightly demanding, but progress has been indefensibly slow. Research by the Alan Turing Institute and University College London in 2018 showed just how many digital breadcrumbs twitter users, for example, leave behind. ‘Associated metadata’ in the study allowed the identification of every account holder in a group of 10,000 with a 96.7% degree of accuracy.

It should have come as no surprise to anyone that instagram owners facebook, and twitter, both issued statements in the wake of the Rashford incident condemning racism and pledging to work tirelessly to eradicate it. The high profile nature of the victim, and subsequent media storm, clearly triggered some urgent crisis PR management.

Yet we’ve seen this film before. Facebook in particular has form for being more responsive to complaints about offensive content once they are highlighted by the media. In the 2017 parliamentary report mentioned above, members criticised the reaction of social media companies to complaints from those without the kind of platform Rashford commands as being ‘opaque, and inconsistent’. Some, it claimed, were ‘ignored altogether’.

It is four years now since MPs called on the likes of facebook and twitter to publish quarterly reports on their efforts to tackle hateful material. “Transparent performance reports, published regularly, would be an effective method to drive up standards radically and we hope it would also encourage competition between platforms to find innovative solutions to these persistent problems,” was the advice given. “If they refuse to do so, we recommend that the Government consult on requiring them to do so.”

That necessity came some time ago. We’re getting nowhere on current evidence, which is why hope springs that a figure of Rashford’s gravitas may make the difference.

Of course, he shouldn’t have to, but it might just be that he, and others such as Manchester City star Raheem Sterling, opt to spearhead a battle which is everybody’s to fight – outside of the anonymous misfits who punch away at lonely keyboards.

The likes of Rashford and Sterling have their day jobs. They have already gone above and beyond what they should ever have been expected to do in calling out racial discrimination.

But their intervention, as past inaction has shown, is vital. They have an influence on public opinion that terrifies politicians and chief executives and so hopefully more and more elite athletes will follow suit.

And the more that happens, the more social media companies will realise the futility of mealy-mouthed pledges on racism and hate, and the necessity of effective quantifiable intervention.

They’ve sat on their hands and abdicated responsibility for too long. So long that the tolerance threshold of society has already been breached.

If tech giants don’t act now, it may not be long before lawmakers do.