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Journalism at risk from trolls, warns online safety editor at UK’s biggest news publisher

Reach Plc’s online safety adviser Dr Rebecca Whittington at LTJMW

Online harassment harms the media industry as it may stop young people wanting a career in journalism, according to newspaper group Reach’s online safety adviser Dr Rebecca Whittington.

Whittington spoke to students at Leeds Trinity University’s Journalism and Media Week about the importance of not suffering in silence.

She said: “Just because you’re a journalist working in an online space doesn’t mean you are there and up for grabs so that anybody can just pick you up and abuse you. You wouldn’t let them do that if you were in the street so why let them do that if you’re online?

“Don’t dismiss the harms that come your way. Speak about them…we need to normalise talking about this much more.”

The prevalence of online harms could stop people wanting to go into the industry, which means journalism is at risk, she said.

Whittington explained that a lot of the abuse suffered by journalists stems from mistrust and lack of confidence due to bias and scandals such as the Leveson Inquiry.

“There is social injustice and people are looking for someone to blame.

“The rise of Trump in 2017 and his attack on mainstream media also fit into a perfect storm that was already happening.

“We have the amazing channels available to us to communicate online, and it really created this opportunity for certain people to fill the gaps, with essentially conspiracy theories and disinformation.”

She emphasised that shutting journalists’ voices down stops our society’s voices from being heard.

“We want journalism to reflect and represent the societies that it is reporting on. We want it to be able to question and have these difficult conversations that come up in our society without being silenced by online trolls and harassment.”

However, Whittington acknowledged that being reflective and able to accept constructive criticism are also important skills to have as a journalist, and said it is good to not just reject it unless it is blatantly damaging.

She said: “Journalism should be questioned, we shouldn’t just be allowed to be in this position of power without people reasonably questioning us. But being abusive is different. It is not OK.”

She explained that finding a balance between protecting yourself and doing your job can be difficult, encouraging students to be “quite savvy”.

Whittington, who provides journalists with training and support, reassured students that they need to seek guidance when experiencing online abuse.

“It can feel really isolating and vulnerable. It’s very difficult to take the moral high ground and say ‘you are being abusive’.”

“If something happens to you, talk to somebody because, actually, it is a problem halved.”

She recognised the importance of self-reflection and having faith in yourself.

“Don’t feel ashamed or scared to ask for help. You’re a great journalist, you deserve to be here, you’ve worked hard for this.”

Reach Plc’s Online Safety Editor Rebecca Whittington’s advice on taking online abuse seriously

Whittington hopes that 10 years down the line, things will be different online for journalists.

With new generations hopefully having better protection, including more education about online safety in schools, she believes things should “massively change”.

What do you think?