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NUJ champions digital reporting & online safety

21 November 2018

At a joint event organised by the Courts Service and the Dublin press and PR branch last weekend, the discussion was devoted to journalists working online.

Speakers at the event included NUJ president, Sian Jones, and the Chief Justice of Ireland, Frank Clarke.

Chief Justice Frank Clarke praised the media's court reporting and he highlighted specific examples of difficulties associated with social media and court cases. He said:

"It needs to be noted that the print and broadcast media have given very little cause for concern in how they report and comment on court cases. In general they do so honestly, diligently and with great skill."

Emphasising the right to a fair trial, the Chief Justice then announced a new practice direction limiting the use of live texts, messaging and electronic devices in court. In Ireland only bone fide members of the media and lawyers in a case will be able to use digital media in court from now on.

He said: "Both sets of professionals know the limits of what they can report and when. Others in court will be unable to text or message from the courtroom – in any form."  

He went further and added his support for reforms saying the "issue of legal reform of contempt and privilege should be addressed to take cognisance of the new reality of instant communication" and he also emphasised that "the key legitimate concern of the courts is to ensure the integrity of the trial process and the maintenance of a fair trial system."

"There are several areas we need to address in protecting the right to a fair trial of an individual in this era of social media. The fundamental right to a fair trial does not change in the face of any new means of communication. But rules can, and must, reflect the new reality."

He warned of the potential and damaging consequences of social media, saying "online lies and bullying can, and have, led to death for some".   

NUJ president Sian Jones also highlighted some of the negative implications of social media and she focused on the impact it can have on NUJ members, warning that employers who insist journalists should maintain a social media presence must exercise a corresponding duty of care towards their workers.

Sian also called for journalists to take steps to protect themselves online and said we had a duty to consider the consequences of social media on public discussion and on union members. 

"Journalists are pressurised to develop a social media persona and many become brands. There is nothing inherently new in this phenomenon - newspaper columnists have long been the mainstay of many publications. The immediacy of digital media and the interaction with the audience is very different from being on the receiving end of letters to the editor.

"Health and safety extends to the digital sphere. Cyber hate is not an acceptable occupational hazard and there is no obligation on a worker to put their mental health on the line – just as they would be required not to take physical risks in pursuit of the best photograph or the most up-to-date quote.

"Training should be provided on how to respond - or if to respond at all – and then how and when to respond to online comments. Online discussion can be constructive, stimulating, rewarding. It can also be damaging. Trolls trade on exploiting the emotional response of their targets. The golden rule is - don’t feed the trolls. There is no shame in admitting that trolls are having an impact on your well-being and we would always encourage NUJ members to be alert to the danger of engaging in endless online arguments.

"It’s important to remember, it is ok to have an un-Tweeted thought; an un-Instagrammed meal. Frequently it is best to keep the quick, sharp retort to yourself, especially if it is going to trigger a chain reaction. Take a breath. Get a second opinion. Vent in private.

"Feeding the trolls is fraught with danger. Bullies hate being ignored, and trolls are an extreme form of bully. Silence can be a more effective weapon than sarcasm although, for a journalist, silence can be counterintuitive. It is not a question of giving in to the trolls, merely a question of exercising – and being allowed to exercise – editorial judgement. That judgement includes the right to block or mute offensive abusers and to report abuse to the relevant authorities.

"The right to freedom of expression brings with it the right not to tolerate cyber hate or obnoxious views. Prominent journalists with large numbers of followers should always be aware that by engaging with trolls they risk enlarging the audience of individuals who otherwise preach to each other. It is necessary to take basic steps when trolls cross the line. Taking a screen shot is an important precaution so that you have proof if they delete it. Remember this works both ways – however quickly you also delete.
 
"Report unacceptable abuse to providers but also, in the case of staff, to your employer. If you are required to have a social media presence, then your employer has a role in your security. The 2017 Byte Back Campaign by the International Federation of Journalists was a constructive response to the threats posed by social media abuse. That was a response by the IFJ gender council to trolling and abuse aimed at women. It contains practical advice on what you can do. Options include: ignoring, filtering, blocking, name and shame, shout it out, and saving and documenting.  

"The NUJ is here for you. Please don’t suffer in silence."