Why are journalists an easy target for abuse?

Date published: Monday 1st March 2021 9:52 - John Nicholson

This happened at the weekend on Twitter:

There is great concern within the sports journalism industry bodies about the relentless, aggressive, nasty attacks the profession’s workers receive all day, every day, on every level. While footballers receiving abuse is very much front and centre of concerns right now, that concern does not extend to journalists and broadcasters. Not at all. Rather, some feel they deserve it. It would appear that to many, giving journalists some stick is a free hit; one that no-one will condemn you for. Journalism is one of the last -isms you can have a guilt-free sweary fit about without fear of being seen to be A Bad Person in the court of public opinion.

We are getting it wrong to caricature the people who do this sort of thing as being either spotty teenage keyboard warriors, or 40-year-old virgins who live with their mother. They’re rarely that unusual. Some say they’re inadequates who are jealous of their target. Maybe, but I doubt they are any more inadequate or jealous than the rest of us. They may be mentally unwell, but again, perhaps no more so than most of us are.

They’re not even trolls as such, that’s a specific wind-up role. More scary, but likely more true, is that they’re regular people like you and me who have been, by a kind of media radicalisation, transformed into thoughtless, aggressive, bullying critics, encouraged to be so by the architecture and very nature of the media itself.

For 20 years or more, we’ve been told by newspapers, TV, radio, magazines and websites how important both we and our contribution is. Every programme appeals for engagement and involvement via emails, tweets and hashtags etc and is all too often judged by media executives as a success or otherwise by those engagement numbers.

This has liberated people to think slagging off some poor reporter is part of their human rights now. That it is okay. That there are no consequences to worry about. Just do it. We’ve been puffed up and made to feel important by a media desperate to use us as free content, so, despicable as it may be, it isn’t surprising. Indeed, it is, for those in charge, the system working perfectly.

Unreasonable criticism, disrespect, insults and all the rest of it has been normalised toward sports journalists. Does anyone care? It doesn’t seem like it. Rather, the image of the Fleet Street hard-bitten hack, wreathed in smoke, a bottle of Scotch in the drawer, telling the world to go f*ck itself, persists. It is far from the truth.

The general advice within the industry is to never read anything BTL in order to preserve your sanity. It can upset, anger and depress. But it is harder to avoid social media hate when they @ you.

The ‘if you can’t stand the heat get out of the kitchen’ argument is of no help. Unlike a regular member of the public, or even a celebrity, a journalist or broadcaster can’t really delete their account or not have one, as it is now an important tool and using it will likely be in the job description.

That latter point is crucial. I know several people in broadcast media would love not to be on social media and dislike having to post pictures of themselves doing whatever it is they’re doing, but are now required to do that as part of their job, so they can’t ignore all the comments or get away from them when they arrive.

Some say that criticisms are ‘only words’ but they are failing to understand the situation. A declaration of war is only words too. We are not intellectually, psychologically and emotionally geared to ignore words. Quite the opposite. Words are how we interact with the world. Words affect us, even if they come from someone who is ignorant or malicious, and especially when they arrive in large volume. It is possible to brush off the odd snipe, but impossible to do when there are dozens, hundreds and thousands of them all within a short time frame.

I suspect many website and newspaper editors would love to go back to a time before below-the-line comments existed. They take up time, effort and labour in moderating which would be better spent doing something more constructive, but because their presence has encouraged a culture of using abuse as entertainment, they now attract traffic and traffic is money. So they stay, even though, on many websites, it is the same hardcore of people shouting the odds, often in agreement that the website they’re doing it on used to be good but is now sh*t. It is very weird, but is not seen as weird anymore, so far through the looking glass are we now.

Just as in the playground, there is always a crowd standing around to watch a fight, so we have created a thoroughly toxic, sick situation where, because abuse is being monetised, we cannot do without it as an industry and the more abusive it is, the more traffic it attracts and the better the profits are as a result. So what hope have we for a better world?

We could pay for what we consume on the internet. Paid subscriptions remove the need for adverts and BTL-related revenue.

This sounds great in one way, but there are downsides. Taking away the BTL option means we cannot learn or enjoy other people’s non-abusive wit, anecdotes and perspectives – something crucial if we’re to break out of our own blinkered cultural environments. It means we cannot share humour or joy. Yes, we lose the bad stuff, but we lose the good stuff as well. Is that what we want? It is a peculiarly modern Catch-22 situation when the technology that shows us just what we have in common, drives us apart.

The same applies to Twitter etc. It is not often said how rewarding positive interaction is on social media, nor how kind, empathetic and educative it can be with a nice word or two, or by pointing us in the direction of something inspiring, entertaining or learned.

But we can’t escape our responsibilities as consumers. Surely, we have to have standards of behaviour. We must understand that while we act as an individual, we are part of a community. Social media confuses and conflates those two things. Look how many times the same comment is made under a piece, post or Tweet, as though all the other comments do not exist, as though every single reader has made it thinking no-one else has, despite evidence to the contrary right there. In real life, in a discussion. we wouldn’t just keep repeating what hundreds of other people have already said. We must know we are not alone, but we act as though we are and in doing so, we are playing the game perfectly.

Because this is how it is supposed to be. Negative human emotion has made a few people very rich. The worst of our natures exploited for profit. No platform wants to outlaw abuse for that very reason. Anyone in the business will tell you that a critical or negative piece, tweet or post gets far more reaction than a positive one. Our anger, insults and bullying are mere commodities to be traded for cash.

So by having a go at someone like Sonja, or whoever the target is today, we’re actually playing the game in exactly the way those with money and power want us to behave. Hypnotised by our own self-importance and numb to the collective effect we’re part of, is, by giving sports journalists (and anyone else) such a kicking that they’re reduced to weeping, really what any of us want? Are we really so pathetic as that? Is this what life in 2021 has come to? We need to pause more often to think of the consequences of what we are about to say to someone in sports journalism. After all, it’s just sport. It’s not life and death.

In this amoral world, the only thing that matters is engagement, so it follows that the most revolutionary thing any of us can do in this day and age, is to disengage. But that’s not what we want. We want the dopamine hit engagement brings. Are we so addicted to telling the world what we think about everything and everyone that nothing will stop us doing it, even if it drags us all into the same gutter, while the rich count their money?

The evidence so far is, yes, many of us are. But really, this is no way to live at all.

John Nicholson

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