First published here on 18/3/2014

Don't Shoot the messengerDon’t Abuse the Messenger

At some point in their career, a journalist will face criticism for their work. It is part of the job. Such criticism may come from within, as seen on ABC Australia’s Media Watch, CNN’s Reliable Sources, or as may be heard on Radio NZ. Yet, in today’s online world with its array of social media tools and apps, public criticism is omnipresent; in a few simple mouse clicks or screen-taps an opinion is presented, posted for global consumption. There is nothing wrong with criticism – good or bad – but when the ‘criticism’ transforms into abuse, becoming personal or threatening then something is awry.

Now, in an attempt to understand the issue of online abuse that journalists face, researchers at the University of Central Lancashire (UCLAN) are looking at how such abuse affects journalists and how it can be handled. According to lead researcher Amy Binns, a former reporter and now a senior lecturer at UCLAN, there is considerable anecdotal evidence about the abuse journalists experience.

Quoted on The Guardian’s Greenslade Blog, Binns says some of the things she has read “make me feel a bit ill”, adding: “But we want to go beyond particular cases to gather some data about the level of this problem and how journalists respond to it, both practically and emotionally.

“Of course journalists often have to deal with people who are very emotional. The culture is usually to laugh off distressing experiences back at the office, and that can be a good way of dealing with it.

“However, my initial results show that relentless online abuse, whether on Twitter or in the comments stream, is taking its toll.”

Some years ago, while working for The Korea Times, in Seoul, this journalist faced an onslaught of online abuse across several local, expat blogs for two stories I had written. Notwithstanding being fired in the early nineties from one newspaper because of my union involvement (a matter which saw the courts find in my favour), the abusive onslaught is probably the most significant reason my journalism career went into major hiatus.


The abuse was personal, coming from people who did not know or who purported to know me and, significantly, were not even remotely connected to the stories concerned.

I am not going to highlight either of the stories concerned nor am I going to highlight the people or the blogs / sites on which they posted their vitriol.

For this individual, that supposedly well-educated people could fail to understand the stories and subsequently use vilification as their means of criticising, attacking me as a person, cut deep into my psyche. If they thought I was wrong, fine; say so and point out what, in their opinion, the error or errors were and if they had alternative evidence then present it in support of their argument. This would have added to the ‘debate’.

Over time, I noticed their posts (and cross posts) on other unrelated issues often contained link-backs to their comments about me or to some other individual who for whatever reason failed to fit their own narrow thinking. Even today, those comments are still out there, eternally preserved within the mantle of the Internet. With the Internet being what it is, no amount of rejoinder on my part would have helped.

In the past, as a journalist I have been threatened. At one time, the disgruntled subject (a herpetologist) of a story on local government nepotism phoned the newsroom to say that one night I would find a taipan in my bed. Another time, while looking into an allegation of police burying evidence, I was told, “Watch your back.”

This was before the Internet and the rise of social media. Back then, I knew who these people were and, importantly, why threats were made. In most cases, they were ignored. At the lesser end of the scale, detractors would contact editors personally or via letter. There were checks and balances in place. Journalists generally knew who their knockers were.

Debate arising from stories, including the manner in which a reporter handled it, came via ‘Letters to the Editor’. Such debate was public (albeit subjective, given the whims of the ‘Letters’ editor) and an essential aspect of a quality newspaper’s readership involvement. Sometimes, such letters could themselves trigger stories in their own right.

Today, much of the‘debate’ is anonymous and seldom seems to discuss stories, with online posters instead attacking each other and the journalists concerned. It has become more personal. Perhaps the only way out is for journalist to remove themselves from such engagement.

Off course, this will not happen because among other things, such a public presence is increasingly essential for journalists seeking to move ahead in their careers, providing online portfolios for future editors and employers to see.

Gone are the days when reporters were, to some degree, faceless purveyors of news. By-lines were earned: hoped for, always; sometimes expected but never a given right. The public often had little awareness as to who wrote a particular story unless it was by a senior, well-credentialed seasoned reporter.

Journalists often had unlisted home phone numbers. Only if we felt secure with our sources did we give our home number. Home addresses were a no-no. And we certainly did not have websites and social media accounts whereby people could follow our every move.

That the immediacy of posting comments to social media is here to stay is clear.

In a world where building rapport, confidence, and engagement between readers and journalists involves an essential, very public presence by journalists via Twitter, Facebook, and other social media platforms, the likelihood of personal attack becomes increasingly apparent.

Perhaps it’s time to go back to some of the old ways and remove the potential for journalists becoming victims of ‘personal’ attacks.

Instead of giving the world ammunition to shoot the messenger, give the messenger increased anonymity; say “bye-bye by-lines”.

This journalist and writer is available for hire.