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Cyberbullying: the media survey

5 May 2015

A survey into the extent of online abuse against journalists has revealed cases where reporters have feared for their own personal safety as a result of cyberbullying.

Respondents referred to “death threats” and the need to take additional security precautions when out and about and at home.

Many spoke of damage to confidence and self-esteem and feelings of anger, stress and anxiety as a result of online abuse as a consequence of them doing their job as a journalist. In some cases it led to journalists retreating from use of social media and worrying about what stories to cover and how to report them. 

One said they were left “almost feeling apologetic for being a journalist”. Another said “As a young journalist it significantly dented confidence and contributed to fears over career progression”.  Another said “It damages your confidence.  It makes you worry about what stories to cover and how to report them.”

A number of serious and concerning cases were disclosed in the collaborative pilot study by the National Union of Journalists and the University of Strathclyde among the union’s membership in Scotland. 

Journalists who completed the survey revealed that a number had been on the receiving end of online abuse as a result of them reporting on contentious stories, with some experiencing cyberbullying more than 50 times in the past year. More than 80 per cent said the cyberbullying extended beyond working hours.  

The main sources of cyberbullying were via Twitter in 65 per cent of responses and through comments after online articles or commentary. Twenty eight per cent were threatened with violence or serious harm to themselves and five per cent were subjected to threats of violence or serious harm to their families.

Much of the abuse was political but there were also cases of sectarian, sexist, racist and homophobic abuse.  One respondent said the abuse was “Persistent, threatening, specific and sinister. Was evident they were monitoring my personal movements.”

Over 80 per cent responded that they had not reported the abuse to police. Just over 50 per cent said cyberbullying affected how they went about their work and 37 per cent said it affected their personal life/private activities. One respondent said “I took additional security precautions such as checking my vehicle was not being followed, installing additional security measures at home”.

Over 40 per cent of respondents did not report the abuse to the company/organisation they were working for at the time.  Various reasons were given including they were unsure who to raise it with, there was no point, the abuse was very mild, they weren’t intimidated or they wouldn’t care. Seventy four per cent were not aware of support available from their employer and 82 per cent were unaware of support available from the NUJ.

Paul Holleran, NUJ Scottish organiser said the findings showed there was an urgent need for a zero tolerance approach to cyberbullying.  While he had not received as many complaints in the run-up to this week’s general election as there had been prior to the referendum but there were still some instances which were concerning.  He said:

“In September 2014, the NUJ called for the end to threats and intimidation of journalists reporting on the referendum.  We had also earlier in the year supported a number of members who had been threatened by football supporters, unhappy at the way stories related to their club were being covered.  Indeed one perpetrator was jailed after inciting violence online on religious grounds.

“In recent weeks there has been a spate of attacks on journalists and the union responded targeting the bullies and demanding a stop to the abuse. This stage of our campaign is about stepping up the pressure on the bullies but also calling for employers to step up to the plate and stand up for journalists working for their titles or stations.

“BBC Scotland was criticised for its slow response to abuse directed at reporter James Cook and members thought their statement should have been more robust.

“As we have always stated it is to be expected when journalists are criticised but we draw a line at unacceptable levels of abuse and threats. We will highlight any ongoing attacks and in serious cases we will involve Police Scotland who have always been supportive of our work in this field.”

He pointed out that cyberbullying was a health and safety issue and that the survey would be rolled out to the entire NUJ membership.

Dr Sallyanne Duncan of the University of Strathclyde said:

“This pilot study provides a valuable insight into the causes, types and extent of cyberbullying suffered by journalists.  Our research shows that significant numbers of journalists experience online abuse in their daily work. But it goes beyond that. Social media is a professional tool for journalists, which keeps them connected whether they are at work or at home, and consequently it can be really difficult for them to escape their abusers. They can’t switch off their devices without potentially missing a story so the result is that they are constantly a target.

“Our research is concerned with the effect on their mental and physical well-being and how this affects them both personally and professionally.
“This is also a freedom of expression issue. Our research has indicated that some journalists might choose to self-censor, avoid contentious stories, or stop using social media in order to avoid their abusers. This could have serious consequences for a free society.
“We plan to carry out more detailed research into the scale of the problem, its impact on journalists and way they do their jobs, and how to address the problems raised.”

For further information please contact:

Paul Holleran, NUJ
Fiona Davidson, NUJ
Dr Sallyanne Duncan, University of Strathclyde
James Doherty  Mobile: 07867 474135



Tags: , scotland, bullying, cyberbullying, twitter, online, University of Strathclyde, survey, sexism, homophobia, threats, safety