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Long before Elon musk took over Twitterthe social media platform had become an integral part of journalistic work.
As Emily Bell recently pointed out“Of all the social media platforms currently operating, Twitter is the most embedded in the realm of journalism.” The platform enables journalists to create stronger and closer connections with their audience, cultivate their own professional identity or “brand” and themselves campaign for improved working conditions in their organisations.
However, Twitter has also created new risks and challenges for journalists, primarily in the form of online harassment. And now Twitter is owned by a man who seems to condone (if not encourage) this harassment in the name of “freedom of speech” It’s time editorial chiefs asked themselves: What should newsrooms do to support journalists and protect them from increasingly intense online abuse?
We investigated this question in a recently published study in the communication journal Social Media + Society. Using interview data collected from those who suffer most from the dark side of social media – journalists of color – we examined the interventions they believe would help create a more sustainable path forward for news producers, finding the news audience and social media platforms where they increasingly meet. (This data was originally recorded for a Tow Center report on editorial social media guidelines published last year.)
We found that while women and journalists of color face the most hostility online, they also tend to be the least represented in editorial leadership. Furthermore, with senior executives charged with setting the social media policies for newsrooms, these circumstances mean that journalists of color face the highest risks when it comes to social media, while having the least control over resources and keep the protection their organizations provide for them.
The journalists we spoke to agreed on what it would take to improve their circumstances: Editorial management must become more diverse so that editorial policy is put together by a group of people who are representative of their staff – as well as the general public.
For journalists, Twitter is both a resource and a risk
Social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook — once seemingly optional tools utilized by some journalists and scorned by others — have become implicit (and sometimes explicit) prerequisites for journalists wishing to thrive in today’s news media environment. But the increasing use of social media platforms by journalists comes with the realization that these platforms can often become extremely inhospitable places for journalists. Journalists routinely face online harassment via social media in the form of abusive, sexist, racist, and even threatening language. These abuses are expressed not only in threats and insults, but more recently in malicious attempts to reach journalists fired out her jobs— Efforts that many journalists find frustratingly effective. Taken together, the threats and challenges journalists face from the public, coupled with a sense that their own newsrooms will not protect them, have left many journalists feeling on the run “Twitter balancing act” when they connect with people through social media.
Not all journalists walk this tightrope in the same way. Research has shown that women journalists’ experiences of online harassment significantly more oftenas well as those of younger journalists. The experiences of harassment that journalists make online are also greater “vicious and personal” compared to male journalists. And online harassment is particularly aimed at journalists of color. in one global study Looking only at women journalists, researchers found that 81% of black women journalists experienced online harassment, compared to 64% of white women journalists. This type of abuse “can lead to the silencing of various voices in the media.”
Unfortunately, journalists don’t get much support from editorial management when it comes to overcoming the pitfalls of social media. Studies have shown that the leadership of newsrooms – those in the United States usually consist predominantly of white, male employees—do little to protect their journalists from social media harassment. These circumstances raise an important question: What is the relationship between the makeup of editorial management, the policies they set for their editorial offices, and the impact of those policies on the journalists they oversee?
Newsroom’s social media policies only make matters worse
Our study attempted to answer this question by drawing on in-depth interviews with 37 reporters, editors, publishers, freelancers, and social media/audience engagement managers who were current or former employees of local, national, for-profit, nonprofit, print, digital and broadcasters in the United States. The dataset mainly includes female journalists (22 female and 15 male) and journalists of color (18 journalists of color) as journalists from these two groups are more likely to face abuse and harassment on social media.
A key theme that emerged centered on a lack of representation. In particular, the management of journalists and the development of social media policies by chief editors, who tend to be predominantly older, white males, has been seen by many as symbolic of the disconnect between active social media journalists and those in charge. Interviewed journalists often found that a lack of diversity and representation within leadership meant that their views and experiences were not considered when creating and implementing social media policies for newsrooms.
For example, many interviewed journalists found that social media guidelines often prohibit them from posting things on social media that would create the appearance of bias. This raised questions for many journalists about the nature of objectivity and when a journalist could be truly impartial. “I think it’s just stupid to pretend your reporters aren’t human — and that they don’t have prejudices,” remarked one respondent. “It’s up to the white people to decide. They cannot see their own prejudices because they think they are neutral and objective.”
As respondents explained, they view their position as neutral and neutral when defined by a group of people who share a similar background and consequently have a narrower lens through which they define objectivity (i.e. older white males). Positions and experiences of some journalists of color as inherently biased. One respondent described wanting to tweet “Black Lives Matter,” but said some news editors considered such a statement political and biased.
This discrepancy in background between editors and reporters extended to journalists’ perceptions of the protection they received from their organizations when it came to online abuse. As many of the respondents explained, it seemed to them that because white men experience far less online harassment than women and people of color, they were less concerned about online abuse when it came to social media or broader editorial policies Resources for journalists went. As a result, journalists from more diverse backgrounds and experiences said they felt they did not receive support. “On that newsroom, I was the only person of color,” said one journalist of a case of social media harassment. she explained
At my first job, it was very disheartening to feel, ‘Well, I don’t know who to go to. It’s really scary.” Apparently my news director was saying, “It’s okay if you just wait it off. It’s going to be fine.” He’s an old white man who probably hasn’t been on social media I haven’t even seen the invite to a Facebook group event, whatever it was. Its scary. . . I think it’s really important to have different collaborators, to have other people to lean on.
The solution? Increase representation on the editorial board
Given these circumstances, interviewed journalists often advocated promoting younger journalists from more diverse backgrounds to senior positions and should also be consulted on the editorial staff’s social media policies. “I would start first with who is in the room and when [social media policies are] developed, which should be a much more diverse group of journalists,” said one journalist.
According to the journalists interviewed, these shifts would lead to (1) the creation of social media policies that protect both organizationsandjournalists, (2) creating policies outlining how to respond to social media harassment against their journalists, and (3) a more aware and equitable response plan to allegations of bias against journalists on social media.
Finally, it would result in journalists from marginalized backgrounds feeling more supported when faced with online harassment, rather than being further marginalized by newsroom chiefs who neither identify with nor understand those journalists’ backgrounds Background could lead to increased online harassment and segregation It’s about the social media policies of newsrooms, which favor traditionally white notions of “objectivity.”
This cultural change is not an easy task. journalism has consistently lagged behind the national average when it comes to representing diverse voices. However, respondents consistently argued that changing these circumstances is the surest way to improve journalists’ experiences both in their newsrooms and on social media platforms.
As one journalist interviewed said, “You need to create an environment where journalists of color are valued just as much as white male journalists are.”
Kaitlin C Miller and Jacob L Nelson