February 19, 2020

Lisa Wilson was just looking for some good news to write about when she posted an inquiry to a local Facebook ask-and-answer group.

“You always hear people saying, ‘Why don’t you ever write any good news?’ and that’s what I was trying to do,” said Wilson, a reporter with The Island Packet in Hilton Head, South Carolina, and The Beaufort Gazette in Beaufort, South Carolina.

But what she got were angry comments from readers frustrated with the local paper’s recent implementation of a paywall on their website.

“It made me feel attacked—personally attacked—because I thought I was trying to do something nice and happy,” Wilson said. That was the last time she posted in the group.

Being on the receiving end of cruel and harassing comments online is part of the job for journalists today. Comments targeted at journalists can include claims of biased reporting, calls for the reporter’s firing, attacks on intelligence and physical appearance, and the now-infamous “fake news” creed. Though these attacks can be wide-ranging in content, they have the same effect on the journalists who are just trying to do their jobs.

More high-profile recent examples of this harassing behavior include Gayle King of “CBS This Morning,” and Washington Post reporter Felicia Sonmez — both attacked online for raising questions about basketball star Kobe Bryant’s 2003 rape allegations after his death.

While attacks on local newspaper journalists don’t get the visibility of King or Sonmez, they are equally vitriolic, intense and personal. And local newspapers are particularly vulnerable to uncivil online comments, as they have fewer resources to combat or moderate them, according to 2018 research by Leona Yi-Fan Su in the peer-reviewed journal “New Media & Society.”

As part of my master’s thesis project at UNC-Chapel Hill’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media, I sought to learn more about the experiences of journalists — specifically those at local newspapers — when engaging with audiences online.

In the fall of 2019, I surveyed 31 journalists from 23 local newspapers across the United States, and also interviewed eight local journalists. I found that more than 90% of journalists have encountered or experienced incivility from their newspaper’s online audiences. (Incivility is broadly defined as a violation of norms and a lack of respect for other people.)

These encounters can be “abusive, insulting and accusatory,” according to one survey respondent. Sometimes uncivil comments are aimed at the story’s source or subject matter, but personal insults against the reporter are also common.

“I’ve been threatened. I’ve been bullied,” said another respondent. “It’s anything from being called racist because someone who got charged with a crime was a certain race, to being told I need to wear makeup in videos, to people accusing me (of trying) to make our city look bad by reporting on crimes.”

Newspaper journalists said the most uncivil comments involve stories about politics (national, state and local), crime and sports. And researchers, including Yi-Fan Su, have found this uncivil online environment has been heightened by President Donald J. Trump.

A total of 71% of respondents to my survey say there “definitely” is a connection between Trump’s statements about the national media and statements made by the local audience about their newspapers. Research by Yi-Fan Su supports this, showing a correlation between President Trump’s rhetoric and online attacks of journalists and mainstream media. One survey respondent describes a time when “a whole room yelled ‘fake news’” when a story she wrote was referenced at a county government meeting.

For the past decade or so, local newspapers have pushed reporters to be more engaged online in an effort to create transparency and trust with their audiences. More than half of respondents (51.6%) say online audience engagement is a high priority in their newsrooms, and 35.5% indicate they have felt pressured to engage with audiences online.

Local newspaper journalists who participated in the study said they are beginning to feel indifferent about their roles, are already stretched thin, and are frustrated by a lack of support and guidance on how to handle online incivility. They avoid reporting on certain stories or ask to switch beats, and in some cases leave the industry entirely.

The pressure on local newspaper journalists will only increase in the coming months, with the 2020 election season already well underway. Here are three suggestions — based on my research — for how local newsrooms can better prepare for a hostile online environment this election year.

3 things local newsrooms can do to prepare for hostile commenters ahead of the 2020 election

Have an ongoing dialogue around best practices for online engagement. Create an environment where journalists share situations and best practices on a regular basis, in both large group and one-on-one settings.

Use the McClatchy Carolinas Audience Growth Team as a model. This team of journalists —  supporting eight McClatchy newspapers in North Carolina and South Carolina — manages online platforms such as social media channels, breaking news alerts, newsletters and more, but also serves as trainers, mentors and sounding boards for reporters.

Audience growth team editor Cal Lundmark, who is based at The State in Columbia, South Carolina, said she has worked to promote an environment in which reporters, editors and growth producers have ongoing discussions about comments and audience engagement. These interactions can take place at morning meetings or one-on-one.

“I truly believe that each comment, like each story, is unique and needs to be handled with nuance and critical thinking,” she said. “… I believe that the level of conversation we have in each of our newsrooms around how to report challenging stories with balance, transparency and fairness, naturally extends into our conversations about how to respond to challenging commenters.”

Newsrooms may not have the staffing to formalize this process, but they can easily mirror the behaviors of the audience growth team.

Formalize a mentorship program for young journalists. Though young journalists may be the most experienced in using social media, they likely need support from more seasoned journalists when it comes to how to best respond to uncivil comments or harassment — online, in person or over the phone.

Steven Doyle, local editor of the Martinsville Bulletin in Martinsville, Virginia, stressed the importance of mentoring younger journalists.

“I think that the responsibility of editors is to prepare young people as much as possible,” he said. “… when they get smacked around… it might even be in … public places sometimes … they have to learn lessons, and they have to learn patience. And they have to understand that it’s not so much a comment on them as an individual, but a comment … on them as journalists and the predilection to blast journalists en masse these days.”

According to my survey, younger journalists are some of the most engaged with audiences online. Of the 64.5% of survey respondents who report being “very engaged” with their newspaper’s audiences through a personal Twitter account, 97.1% of those are ages 18 to 34. In other words, young reporters are on the front lines of online engagement and get the brunt of the attacks.

Make mental health care a priority. And mean it. There likely isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer to preventing burnout in journalists, but making mental health care a priority in newsrooms is crucial.

A total of 41% of survey respondents report being concerned about personally facing incivility when engaging online, and the vast majority of survey respondents (87.1%) say they have avoided engaging with audiences online at some point. 30% of those who avoided engaging are ages 18 to 34. Survey respondents report feeling a range of emotions when facing online incivility, including sadness, anger, discouragement and confusion.

“Sometimes social media can get really nasty, so I just log off for a few hours,” one survey respondent wrote. “If people have valid criticisms I’ll always pay attention, but sometimes you have to prioritize your own health.”

Newsroom leadership should set an example, adjust expectations for online engagement and provide tangible resources for help — even giving reporters permission to take a step back from online engagement. This would not hurt the bottom line, as social media engagement does not bring immediate economic benefit to a newspaper aside from sometimes serving as a direct referral to the newspaper’s website where readers may hit a paywall, according to 2014 research by Stephen R. Barnard in “Journalism,” a peer-reviewed journal.

But prioritizing mental health could save a young journalist from turning away from the profession entirely at a time when their energy and passion for journalism is desperately needed.

Angry readers will always exist — particularly as partisan bickering ramps up ahead of the 2020 election — but how local newspapers react to the ones who take pleasure in insulting and berating their reporters on social media is what will matter. Those who work in local journalism understand the stakes, as newspapers are still trying to recover from a financial crisis more than a decade ago, as layoffs and buyouts ensue, and some papers are shuttering.

Now is not the time to drive away good local journalists. Now is the time to support good local journalists.

Andrea Martin is a former journalist, now working in higher education communications. She recently earned an MA in Digital Communication from the Hussman School of Journalism and Media at UNC-Chapel Hill. Reach her at AndreaMartin328 on Twitter.

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