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Rebecca Whittington: Why we need to Stop The Cycle

Rebecca Whittington newIn an opinion piece to mark the launch of the Stop The Cycle campaign and the publication of the open letter to police chiefs from 100 industry leaders, Rebecca Whittington explains why there needs to be a change in police response to online violence against women in the journalism industry.

Rebecca, pictured, argues that, while there have have been some positive police responses to reports made by journalists who have been targeted by online abuse, the varied nature of the responses highlights the need for a more consistent police approach.


In November 2021 I started as the Online Safety Editor for Reach. It was the first role of its kind in the industry – a job created after Reach recognised the increasingly problematic issue in our industry of hate and harm being sent to journalists by online users. Journalists who were being targeted simply for doing their jobs.

Soon after starting, I was asked for support by a journalist who, following coverage of a story about Covid restrictions in her local town, was experiencing an overwhelming backlash. On Twitter she was sent Nazi iconography and horrifying pictures of people being hung, one user sent the threatening sign off ‘your hour is coming’.

A pernicious harasser with a large following also shared her phone number and email address within the thread of abuse, inciting users to besiege the journalist.

At one point he also shared her location with thousands while she conducted a live video. And in the hundreds of messages she received from scores of accounts, she was abused and vilified for her looks, accent, professional ability and more.

The strength of character that it takes to recover from such online abuse should not be underestimated. Even if platforms take action or perpetrators are held accountable, there is always the fear that it might happen again.

There is also, especially for journalists in smaller communities or those who might be recognised in public, the realistic fear that the violence may move offline into a physical confrontation; research shows the palpable connection between online harm and physical violence.

The journalist in question was distressed, but remarkably resilient. She continues to work as a journalist now, covering the same community. In times since when we have talked, it is often the same issues that she highlights – the misogyny and the personal vilification that seems to come with being a woman working on the front line of journalism.

She is most certainly not alone. Sadly, while we know all journalists are at risk of online violence, there is evidence that women in the industry are targeted more regularly and that the threats and violence they receive are more explicit and more extreme.

Research I conducted for Reach and Women in Journalism last year demonstrated the extent of the problem. Of the more than 400 participants (all women working in journalism in the UK), three-quarters had experienced some kind of online threat connected to their work.

Almost half said they restricted their online visibility and a quarter said they had experienced sexual harassment or sexual violence online. A worrying 20 per cent said they had considered leaving journalism altogether due to the threat of online violence.

And the fact is, that alongside the horrific impact online harm has on the individual, it also has significant implications for our industry and society more widely. If journalists and the verified, factual information they produce is traduced and reduced in online spaces due to online violence, there is space created for misinformation and disinformation to thrive.

The fact that women and particularly journalists of colour, LGBTQ+ journalists and journalists with disabilities or from lower socio-economic backgrounds are targeted more regularly, also threatens the diversification of the journalism industry and the content produced as a result. In a time when we need more than ever to tell diverse stories from different perspectives, online harm threatens to significantly diminish diversity.

It is for all these reasons and more that action is being taken in a number of ways. Groups such as the NUJ, the NCTJ, the Rory Peck Trust and more have taken steps to make support, resources and training available to journalists. News organisations have invested more and researchers have continued to highlight the problem and solutions.

In 2020 the National Committee for the Safety of Journalists held its first meeting. The committee brings together representatives from government, journalism, policing, prosecution services and civil society, with the ambition “to work in collaboration to make sure that journalists in the UK are able to operate free from threats and violence.”

There is a genuine and real appetite within industry, government and supporting groups, to challenge threats to journalists and journalism. The Online Safety Act, which came into force in October, has strengthened some areas of legislation that should benefit women in journalism. This includes criminalisation of sending false or threatening communications and an amendment to the sexual offences act to include the sending of unsolicited sexual images.

Within policing, there has already been some firm action. Police Northern Ireland and Police Scotland have designated journalism safety officials, as do several forces in England and Wales. In the time I have been working for Reach, there have been some positive responses to reports made by journalists who have been targeted by online crime in connection to their work.

What has been striking though is the varied response, even within the same force, to reports of these kinds of crimes. While one journalist might find their report of threats are logged and responded to promptly, another might not hear back at all or be told there is nothing that can be done. For those in the latter camp, the decimation of trust in the systems designed to keep us safe is damaging to the individual and journalism itself.

That’s why today, on International Women’s Day, Reach has joined with non-profit groups Women in Journalism and Reporters Without Borders and written to police leaders sitting on the National Committee to call for the foundations already established to be strengthened even further.

If we can establish a way for forces to consistently document when a journalist makes a report to police that they are being targeted with criminal level harassment, threats, hate crime or sexual violence in connection to their work, we can really start to understand the scope and scale of the problem of online violence against journalists. It is only with verified data that the government can assess the issue and take steps to strengthen legislation and hold powerful platforms accountable.

By offering training to police across our forces, the impact of online violence on the democratic function of journalism, as well as the individuals targeted, will be understood. And by continuing to strengthen the understanding and connection between police and journalism, we hope to carry on developing strong links which will challenge online violence at a local and a national level.

By signing the letter, more than 100 media leaders are indicating their support to make these positive changes. In this election year, when so much is at stake for the democratic process in the UK, US and elsewhere, we hope to be able to stand up together against online violence and its impacts on women in journalism.

As we say in the letter, for too long women in journalism and media have been subjected to unacceptable online harm, we have to work with police to break this cycle and make our industry safer for women now and in the future

* Dr Rebecca Whittington is Online Safety Editor for Reach PLC.