In a special ’10 minutes with…’ interview for International Women’s Day, Reach’s Dr Rebecca Whittington sits down with Newsworks to talk about new research with Women in Journalism into online abuse, how mistakes can be our greatest learning, and why she’d invite Maria Ressa and Ruth Bader Ginsburg for dinner…
You are Reach’s online safety editor. What does that role entail?
This was a newly created role, so I have had the privilege of being able to develop the role from scratch. I took an approach that developed a protective aspect, working on things like training and policy, working with editorial and other teams within Reach such as security, HR and health and safety in order to take a joined-up approach and really working together so that we can make sure our journalists are prevented from being targets of online harm.
I’ve also had the opportunity to do quite a lot of preventative responsive work as well, so if something does happen there is guidance around how to respond, how to support that journalist and how to ensure they are protected in the future.
My role continues to develop, it changes with the emergence of new technologies and new ways of creating or sharing journalism. It is an exciting role and one that continually challenges and interests me.
Why is it important for news brands to be engaged with online safety?
Online harms is not an issue that only affects journalists. However, obviously journalists work on the frontline of online spaces, using online tools to promote and to share their work. This pushes them into ‘public’ online spaces much more and makes them an easy target for abuse.
The content journalists produce is often the trigger for abuse as well – we often see threats, backlash or harassment sparked by reports around politics, showbusiness, crime and court reporting, and health and science.
It’s really important that news organisations are aware of and taking action to tackle these issues, because obviously it can have an impact on mental health and wellbeing as well as psychological and physical safety.
Staff recruitment and retention can be impacted too; if people are being abused routinely within their work and not receiving the support and information to protect themselves then they are at real risk of not enjoying their work, feeling unsafe or vulnerable in their work and ultimately some might leave their work to take a job with less risk.
We know that women, LGBTQ+ journalists and ethnic minority journalists are at higher risk of being abused online. Journalism is striving to be more inclusive, to be more representative of the society that we are reflecting and as a result we need to ensure that diversity is allowed to thrive within our newsrooms. The risk is if we don’t take notice of this particular issue that actually there is a chilling effect on those journalists who are prime targets online.
As a result, the industry runs the risk of not continuing to diversify, to not produce more representative and reflective content and ultimately allowing those people who are hateful to win by silencing alternative perspectives and stifling production of diverse content.
Tell us about the online safety research you’ve conducted with Women in Journalism.
The project between Reach and Women in Journalism aimed to investigate not only the extent of online abuse of women in journalism and media in the UK, but also the impact of that online violence.
We had more than 400 participants take part; that’s a significant completion rate for a piece of industry research and just goes to show how important people think this issue is, even if they have not experienced online harm themselves.
Of the participants, three quarters said they had been made to feel unsafe either online or in person by a member of the public during the course of their work. A quarter had experienced online sexual harassment or sexual violence and a fifth said they had considered leaving media or journalism altogether due to the threat of online harm.
There were many more outcomes from the research, but those I have mentioned here were particularly shocking as they demonstrate the scale of the issue facing women working in journalism and media in the UK, and they also indicate that we need to do so much more to tackle this problem, before it starts to have a significantly detrimental impact on individuals and industry.
It is simply not ok for online abuse of journalists to be accepted and normalised as part of the job and unfortunately, this survey suggests that even with positive change taking place in training and media organisations, much more needs to be done.
The research has also demonstrated the risk for freelancers is intensified due to the lack of support structure that those on permanent contracts have access to.
The report does come with recommendations to publishers to create policies and identify individuals to lead on this crucial issue. It also comes with an offer of support in terms of resources from Women in Journalism to help those who need guidance or support in mobilising against this crucial issue.
What measures need to be taken to make online spaces safer for journalists and audiences?
There needs to be an understanding within the industry and organisations about the types of harm that are taking place and who is being harmed in that process. It’s worth doing that because, for example, the experiences of staff on new start-up social media organisations are going to be different to journalists working in public broadcasting. While we know what many of the themes and overarching issues are, employers need to analyse their own organisational experiences to identify where change is needed and to measure impact.
It’s not always easy investigating problems, as uncovering issues prompts a duty of care to make change, but there is a lot of support and advice out there for organisations wanting to take those steps.
There also needs to be more transparency and clarity on safety measures and response by social platforms and also from our own lawmakers and police. I’m not sure how we are ever going to be able to pressure platforms to actually take real strong action on this if industry, our government and our police are not taking the strong action as well.
The Online Safety Bill is obviously going through parliament at the moment, but it is not really going to have much impact for journalists suffering online harm in its current form. Much more needs to be done to hold platforms and perpetrators of harm to account.
How did you get into journalism?
My passion for journalism started at a young age; I love working with people and finding out about their stories and I really love writing, so that’s why I set my sights on a career in journalism.
I did a degree in English Literature and the History of Art and while I was doing that I also did lots of work experience at print news titles and the BBC. I also did a stint in hospital radio. I was lucky enough to get my foot in the door at the Telegraph Argus in Bradford, and they put me through my NCTJ training, which was a really privileged position to be in.
Mine has been a ‘squiggly career path’ – from the T&A I went to work on the news desk and as an editor for weekly titles before going to the Yorkshire Post. Then I went into lecturing and did a PhD in journalism before joining Reach in 2021. Journalism never stops being the best job in the world, I love journalism and I’m thrilled to be working back in industry again.
Why does journalism matter?
Journalism has the privilege of seeking out and telling stories that matter, of connecting communities and reflecting the state and make-up of our society. It is crucial that in an increasingly polarised world, we have verifiable, reliable, factual information, which can be used to educate and inform, and which offers an official challenge to the opinion-as-fact and misinformation and disinformation that floods our online spaces. That’s why it is so crucial that journalism also continues to diversify, and that online hate does not stop and reverse that process.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?
I think the best piece of advice that I’ve ever been given and that I regularly dish out to other people now is that mistakes provide us with new opportunities. We all make mistakes at times, and we should be able to make mistakes without the fear that it will cancel our careers or cancel us as individuals. Mistakes are actually the greatest learning process; you can get so much out of making an error, you can learn about why you went wrong as a person or individually but also it sometimes changes the way that you view the world and I think that making mistakes are actually something that can be really positive.
What inspires you?
Sometimes in my role I can feel I am fighting an unwinnable battle and on those days it would be easy to think it was all too much and would be just easier to give up. But feedback from individuals; my colleagues, the Online Safety Rep Network, people I work with to address online harm at Reach and externally too, really helps keep me going.
I can’t change the internet and I can’t make bad people behave better online, but I can help my colleagues protect themselves and feel supported to work safely in online spaces – sometimes the little wins can make a huge difference.
Who would be your fantasy dinner party guests and why?
I would really like the opportunity to sit down with Maria Ressa, the founder of Filipino news site Rappler, education campaigner Malala Yousafzai, Michelle Obama and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. I imagine they would all have stories to tell about how they faced the things that they fear, how they overcome that fear and what mistakes they have grown from.
What is the biggest story this International Women’s Day you think more people should know about?
That women are facing significant online harm and abuse while working in journalism and media in the UK is perhaps not the most surprising news – but that we know this and it continues to occur, despite the knowledge that it is stifling women, journalism and wider industry – is perhaps the point we should focus on.
When did abuse become normalised, mainstream and ‘part of the job’ to the extent that three-quarters of our research participants said they had felt unsafe during the course of their work?
We as an industry need to do so much more work in this area to understand the extent and impact of the abuse and to really tackle the issues arising, but we also need to push those in power; the police, government, and the social media platforms, to be accountable and take action on this endemic and hugely damaging issue.