There were two pivotal moments earlier this year when I knew change had to happen.
The first was around 9pm, one night in early February. I was driving home from another long day at work when I noticed a car behind making the same turns. Dread knotted in the pit of my stomach.
‘Are they following me? Is this one of the anonymous people who threatened me online today? Have they worked out what car I drive, are they following me home, are they going to attack me?’
I reached down into my bag and pulled out my phone, put it on the chair next to me just in case. I began thinking about what I could use to protect myself. I took a detour, back onto the main road and away from the direction of my house, where I knew it would be busier. After a minute, the car behind turned another way – clearly not following me, just a late-night commuter heading home too.
It sounds crazy, doesn’t it? It is. But this is reality for me, and for hundreds of my colleagues working in regional media.
Abuse towards journalists has always been part of the job. When you are writing about people’s lives, you’re often dealing with information they may not want in the public domain – if they’re in court charged with a crime, for example. You’re there at the worst moments in their life. It’s little wonder they associate you with grief or rage.
Many an ‘old-school’ hack has a story about being walloped by someone angry, or being squared up to at their local boozer. One night out as a young journalist, a drunken gang recognised my colleague. They started shouting his name and swearing at him, before stumbling after us as we rushed to hail a taxi out of there. Another time, a grown man, out and about with his two children not much younger than me, grabbed me by the throat. These incidents, the terrifying ones, are rare.
But within the last few years, a sinister, anonymous style of abuse has begun to blight the lives of local journalists on a much greater scale. People, often hiding behind strange usernames, send us threats, abuse and vitriol online. Some use IP blockers so we can’t hunt them down. When banned from our websites, they pop up again and again like weeds in a garden. This is not occasional – it is every single day.
In part, I believe it is driven by a normalisation of toxic rhetoric, perpetuated by the likes of Donald Trump who bandies around the phrase ‘fake news’ whenever he doesn’t like a headline. It is also the result of the boom in social media. The combination has left today’s public unsure of how to spot factual information, and the majority of the population pays little heed to the value of having dedicated, trained reporters in their area.
Most also don’t understand how news is funded. The internet has caused generations to think that journalism is free to produce – as though journalists don’t have rent to pay or children to feed, of course.
And when we’ve asked the readers who heavily consume our content if they might consider contributing to keep it alive, the answer is often ‘you’re shit, there’s no way I’m paying for this.’ Hours of investigative work, or the craft of honing a feature, aren’t worth a penny these days. And journalists obviously aren’t human, or worthy of any respect or politeness.
Reading the comments
Sometimes the insults come in the form of accusations. ‘Fake news’, they cry. ‘You’re a fucking lying bitch’. Some days, it’s comments about appearance, gender or race. Other times, too many times, it’s ‘I’m going to rape you’, ‘I’m going to find out where you live and slit your throat’, or ‘I hope your family dies.’ These are all genuine, factual examples.
Now, in any profession you need to be able to handle constructive criticism. You need to apologise when you’ve made a mistake, learn from it and do better. But what we’re talking about here can in no way be labelled constructive – despite many of my detractors trying to tell me it is. Often, the arguments from the people who say it’s acceptable to abuse us centre around examples they believe illustrate the failings of the media. ‘Look at Piers Morgan’, they’ll see. ‘Look at what the tabloids did to Harry and Meghan’.
This argument fails to distinguish between regional and national news. It also fails to address the fact that Piers Morgan is a multi-millionaire 50-something man, who can afford security and lawyers. Criticising him is one thing. Threatening to rape a 22-year-old woman who earns about £15,000 a year, has probably moved across the country for the job, who lives in the same town as you and has absolutely no way of protecting herself, is another thing entirely. And using this argument to defend the abuse of trainee journalists is, quite frankly, pathetic.
The second incident which prompted me to act was a visit to the optician. I have long-term psoriasis (lovely) which flares up when I am stressed. Usually, it is on my hands, arms and ears. But in early 2020, I started getting really bad pain in my eye.
A visit to the optician revealed the psoriasis was in my inner eyelids and had caused an infection. The optician began asking me about my psoriasis triggers, the hours I work, my stress pinch-points – the abuse I was facing daily being a big factor.
“None of this is good,” she said. “You need to seriously start taking better care of yourself and look at what changes you can make, because this is all going to impact your health.” Walking home, it dawned on me that I am in a constant heightened state of stress.
Sure, the hours in regional journalism are long and the job is generally tough – but the abuse from strangers has added an extra layer of negativity to an already high-pressure environment. I’ll be standing in the supermarket and suddenly wonder: is the person who told me they were going to firebomb my office standing behind me in the queue?
I can be at home at 10pm on a Saturday and a ‘ping’ on my phone will alert me to a comment telling me what a piece of shit myself or my reporters are. And yes, there are things I can do myself to combat this. I do them already. I am very careful with the information I give out to my neighbours, and when I meet people for the first time who know roughly where I live, I will lie and say I work in marketing.
Sometimes, when I have to give out my number or address – booking a table at a restaurant, for example – I give a different name. Maybe that is stupid when my face is all over the internet. But how about you live a day in the life as a reporter and see what ridiculous steps you start taking to protect yourself?
If someone is threatening you in person, at least you know what the danger looks like. But when someone is too gutless to put their name to their words, they could be anyone – including the mechanic who services my car, or the cashier who serves me at the bank. When nasty emails, DMs and comments are flooding in every day, it’s difficult not to think this way. It can have a profound impact on how you see the world. It’s harder to trust people, harder to see the world as a good place.
Yes, I can turn my phone or notifications off. But the fact is that what is published on the comments section of our websites is technically my responsibility, so sometimes I have no choice but to look at it. And the solution should never be that the person on the receiving end of this unwarranted, daily abuse should make the changes. Why should strangers, hiding behind a cloak of anonymity, be able to get away with saying vile, disgusting things to someone they’ve never met? Where are the consequences?
I’m a grown woman. It’s taken me a lot of hard work and resilience to get to where I am, and I like to think I handle the pressure of the job pretty well. But what about the trainee reporters? What about those without the platform, or backing, to feel confident enough to speak up? I can’t in good conscience train the next generation in this industry without doing my bit to protect them.
A few months ago, I set up a cross-publisher working group with colleagues from the major regional publishers. In order to understand the prevalence of the problem, I created a survey and asked reporters to anonymously share their stories. To date, I’ve had more than 400 responses and many have made me cry.
Regional journalists are being diagnosed with anxiety and depression. They are leaving the profession in droves and, in the most extreme cases, have contemplated suicide. Some have moved house for fear their children will be hurt. Others, like me, have been diagnosed with physical health conditions. In serious cases, the police have been involved – but the outcome too often is that officers can’t do anything.
More than 80 per cent say abuse has got ‘significantly worse’ during their careers, and there are youngsters who’ve only been in the industry a year saying they want to leave.
The results show that abuse is worse for female journalists. Having once had to read an entire comments board dedicated to my chest, I can’t say I’m surprised by that – misogyny is a major theme in the abuse many of us experience. Rape threats are common. Racism is experienced by many BAME colleagues.
I knew there was a problem, but the results of the survey have shown just how prevalent it is. And while eighty-seven per cent of respondents have faced trolling on social, 80 per cent say they are abused within the comments section of their own newspapers’ websites.
This is problematic for publishers. Free speech is a fundamental right in this country, and they want to offer a platform for reader debate – unfortunately, that platform is being massively abused. While website sign-up steps remain informal, it’s very easy to set up accounts with fake names, addresses and even DOBs. The same goes for Facebook and Twitter. Social media companies, the government, publishers and employers all have a responsibility to stop this from happening. And so does the public.
Educate yourself on the vital role local reporters play in your community. They’re sifting through council agendas, going to court, often working long hours in weird situations. Do you have any idea what a dangerous place the world would be without them, or how much they fight on your behalf? They are classed as key workers, yet are all too often treated as unworthy of respect or fair recompense for their efforts.
Being the change
On the back of my survey, I’m now working with the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, which has enlisted the help of experts from the police, the CPS and the journalism industry to take some serious action. I won’t stop working on this until that change happens.
In the meantime, I want young journalists to know they’re not alone – and for their readers to understand the role they have to play. Every day, you have a choice about what you put into the world. You can either use your voice for kindness and to benefit others, or you can use it for negativity and harm. Just because you are able to tell someone how awful you think they look, for example, doesn’t mean you should. Your perceived right to share your unsolicited opinions don’t outweigh anyone else’s right to feel safe.
One woman – anonymous of course – who emailed me something so vile it left me shaken, summed it up perfectly when I challenged her. ‘I am a keyboard warrior,’ she explained. ‘When I’m angry, I lash out at people on the internet. I saw your email address and thought you deserved it.’
I hope she, and the countless others like her, read this. I hope they take a serious look at themselves, stop putting their anger onto other people and address the issues that make them behave in this way. I also hope they start paying for the content they so readily criticise. But they won’t. Instead, they’ll probably comment some more abuse on this article. I’m ready for that. But we’d all do well to remember that not everyone is.