Perhaps the most important piece of academic journalism research this year

Reading journalism.co.uk at the weekend, I stumbled across a piece of research being carried out by the University of Central Lancashire.

It is being led by Amy Binns, a former Yorkshire Post journalist who is now a senior lecturer at UCLAN (and a former colleague of mine, but more about that in a minute).

The research focuses on online abuse journalists suffer as a result of comment threads being open under stories, and in the often anonymous world of social media, particularly Twitter.

Frustratingly, the survey attached to the study was due to close on Friday (March 14) but at time of writing appears to still be open. I would urge any journalist who is serious about social media and uses it regularly to get involved.

To me, this is potentially the most important piece of academic journalism research this year. A big claim I know, but here’s why.

Journalism, particularly regional journalism, has always been about being connected to the community it serves. In ages gone by – and until about 15 years ago – regional journalists, particularly on regional newspapers, were pretty much the only show in town when it came to keeping people informed about local events.

Those people would expect to have their views on the newspaper taken seriously, and their complaints dealt with. Journalists ignored that at their peril. But it was a relationship in which interaction not prompted by the journalist was generally rare – or confined to a smallish number of people.

The internet, to use a cliché, changed all that. All of a sudden, it became very easy for people to express their opinions on what we wrote, how we wrote and why we wrote it. First came the bulletin boards and forums, some of which were operated by newspapers themselves. Many forums and bulletin boards continue to thrive because they are moderated carefully by volunteers who want to create a place for discussion – and journalists often find themselves being discussed on there. I know many sports journalists who find themselves on the end of anonymous bile from ‘fans’ who blame the woes of their club on the messenger.

Then came the comment threads under stories. I took a lot of flack about 18 months ago for saying that Trinity Mirror’s (the company I’m digital publishing director at) decision to allow Facebook only login for commenting would make the websites nicer places … because it made it harder to comment anonymously. I’d argue I’ve been right about that – comments linking any story about people with foreign names to illegal immigration are rarer, fans of rival clubs are oddly less likely to provoke fans of their arch enemies when their Facebook picture sits next to their comment, and the trolls who like make disparaging remarks about teenagers who’ve just died seem to prefer to do so anonymously. Fancy. But for journalists, the experience of anyone being able to comment publicly about their work is a relatively new one.

And most recently, there’s social media. And this is why I think Amy’s work is so important. It’s devastatingly easy to set up a Twitter account under a false name and start trolling, but one of the curious things I’ve observed when I’ve been helping reporters deal with abuse on Twitter – and generally it is just Twitter, not least because I don’t think many journalists make full use of Facebook – but that’s a post for another day – is that a growing number of people just don’t care their face is next to the comment they’re making.

Maybe it’s the instant nature of Twitter, maybe it’s because they don’t think accusing a sports reporter of being a liar who is in the pocket of the club is offensive. Whatever the reason for the abuse, the understandable reaction of many journalists is to back away from Twitter and, at best, use it to just share links. Avoiding conversation is therefore avoiding abuse is an understandable reaction.

But it’s also a dangerous one. Whereas 20 years ago, we could put the phone down on the ranty person who insisted on hurling insults, the Twitter equivalent – opting out – damages the journalist in the long run much more. Because the barriers to become a publisher – money, a printing press, marketing budget etc – have been largely removed thanks to the internet, anyone can set themselves up as a publisher.

The more they connect with people on social media, the more they join in with a discussion, the more they become part of a community. Journalists, and regional newspapers, do attract a degree of stick which these newer publishers don’t – I don’t know why, but I guess it’s down to the fact everyone knows who we are – but if we pull away from the discussion for fear of being abused, we end up losing our audience altogether.

Take a favourite example of mine, Birmingham Updates, a Facebook page which grew from nothing prior to the Birmingham Riots of 2010 to 154,000 fans at the last count. If Birmingham Mail journalists dipped out of social because of the abuse they got – or the brand did entirely because of the often frank discussion about its stories on social media – the abuse would stop, but something bigger would be lost – community engagement with tens of thousands of people.

I know editors, reporters, news editors and subs who all prefer to avoid Twitter for fear of being abused. Some haven’t even been abused – they’ve just seen what has happened to others. And it’s that fear we have to address.

Amy, in her interview with journalism.co.uk, says there may be a macho factor at play, where people don’t want to flag up how they feel about online abuse. Maybe that is the case, but that’s what makes her research so important. We need to find out what journalists are experiencing, and what they’d like done about it.

To me, opting out of online interaction isn’t the solution, which is what is often happening at the moment. The solution, I hope, lies in the result’s of Amy’s research.

* * *

PS: Amy and I worked together on the Lancashire Evening Telegraph and it was with her that I experienced one of my most terrifying moments as a reporter. Three days into working on the evening paper – my first daily – as a trainee reporter, I was sent with Amy on a door knock of a family whose baby had died from drinking a drug-substitute treatment. We knocked on one door, didn’t have any luck, and went to the next address. Unbeknown to us, the people at the first address had alerted the people at the second address and by the time we got there, and got out of the car, two very, very big men were waiting for us. From memory (and this was over a decade ago), only Amy’s sharp driving got us away from a very tricky situation. An early lesson remembered for life: Always park the car somewhere where you can get away easily.

 

 

 

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