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Jan. 18, 2022, 9:27 a.m.
Audience & Social

This is what it’s like to be a media company’s first-ever online safety editor

“What’s really struck me is the variety of issues I’ve seen reported in recent weeks. Not one of them has been the same.”

Ask any journalist today — especially a woman, person of color, and anyone else from a marginalized community — about how it feels to be a journalist on the internet and the answer will probably be along the lines of exhausting, unpleasant, and scary.

For most, if not all, journalists, having a public profile online is expected or required as part of the job. And while that can be helpful to build trust, get tips, and create community, it also makes a person more susceptible to online and potentially offline abuse.

And if journalists need to put ourselves out there for work, what responsibility do employers have to protect them?

At the United Kingdom’s largest news publisher, Reach PLC, the company — which employs 3,000 journalists across nine national newspapers, 110 regional papers, and 80 online-only sites — has decided to shoulder some of that responsibility. In November, Dr. Rebecca Whittington started as its first-ever online safety editor. She’s in charge of making the internet a safer place for Reach’s journalists and readers.

That’s hardly an easy or straightforward job. I recently caught up with Whittington to talk about what it’s like to be the first online safety editor in the U.K., how Reach currently addresses online abuse, and how she plans to help journalists feel safer while they work. The interview is lightly edited for length and clarity.

Hanaa’ Tameez: How did you come across this role?

Dr. Rebecca Whittington: I have different experiences as a journalist and as an editor. But it was very much in the times when we were starting to get to grips with what digital really meant for journalism. And so from that point, I went to do my PhD and to teach in journalism. I taught journalists for seven years at Leeds Trinity University and did my PhD with the University of Leeds, looking at the impact of digital tools on news production processes and journalistic and product identity within regional and local newspapers in the U.K.

[I found] that journalists recognized the opportunities posed by online tools — but also a lack of understanding, from news organizations and from individual journalists, about how to manage the changes that these tools bring about in terms of news production.

For example, if you have social media and you’re using social media to promote your work and to interact with communities online, that’s great. That also means that when you’re chilling out at night after a day in the office, you get messages coming through. They can be invasive or abusive and it makes you more vulnerable in some ways, while also strengthening your position as a journalist in the community in other ways.

I don’t think I’d be doing this role if it weren’t for the research skills that doing my PhD gave me. I’ll be applying quite a lot of those in terms of gathering evidence at Reach and hopefully contributing to some of the amazing research that’s already been done in this area.

It’s very early days, but I am starting to find out already from journalists I’m working with what their personal issues have been, what the issues are that their colleagues have faced, and what Reach [has already] done.

Tameez:Why is this important work to do now?

Whittington: Now is a real crunch point. Reach is the first media company [in the U.K.] to have this kind of role. I imagine that we will see other organizations follow suit.

[Online abuse] is an unfortunate fact of life. The opportunities that are opened by the internet have also resulted in clear disadvantages to people working as public figures or as journalists within the online sphere. The UNESCO Research Group demonstrated the rise in online hate against women journalists. Really interesting research conducted at Cardiff University, called the Hate Lab, demonstrates that there is a correlation between online abuse and violence in the physical space.

In the U.K., the Online Safety Bill is being considered. A member of Parliament was recently stabbed to death and he’d been receiving threatening messages online. So it’s not just journalism, and it’s not just Reach; it goes into our public spheres and society as a whole.

How do we regulate online spaces that have so far been difficult to regulate? I’m not going to be able to solve this issue by myself. Nobody is going to be able to solve this issue solely. We need to work collaboratively with online platforms, we need to look at accountability within our own networks, and we need to get other people to do the same. I think collaboration is going to be absolutely key to this, because collaborative voices can be heard more strongly.

Tameez: What are some of the most common issues you’ve seen so far at Reach?

Whittington: What’s really struck me is the variety of issues I’ve seen reported in recent weeks. Not one of them has been the same. Anecdotally, we are hearing that there is more abuse and hate taking place against women and people of color. I’m hearing that there’s been quite a few Twitter pile-ons. We had a journalist write a balanced, fair report about Covid and measures being taken within a community to protect it, and there was a real backlash online against that journalist. It looked reasonably coordinated. Her pitch was put out there and people responded to that. I’m fairly sure that some of that response was not connected to the community that she was working in. But obviously, there were elements where it made her feel very vulnerable. That was this kind of rising hate that was just dumped on that one individual.

Not all of it is as extreme as that in terms of volume or number. But we are also seeing journalists, on a daily basis, being told they’re worth rubbish, why don’t they go and get another job somewhere else. That kind of thing, being undermined and demoralized on a daily basis. It goes from one extreme to the other.

We have seen hate crimes take place, racism, threats against life. In those circumstances, we always encourage the victim to report it to the police and we support them with that reporting.

In a case recently, where there were very indirect threats being made on a social media platform, it was really difficult to know who they were coming from. We ended up having our security people involved with that so that they could support that journalist.

It’s a real variety of things that we’re seeing. And I think that’s why it’s such a challenging issue in some ways — we don’t expect anyone to take any kind of abuse or to accept any kind of abuse, but there is a variety of abuse. Not only that, but there are lots of different reasons that people engage in abuse and so we’re not going to find a one-size-fits-all solution. We can find a series of solutions that hopefully work together.

Tameez: What are some of the challenges that you’ve faced in this role so far?

Whittington: I think [the challenges are] the variety of the types of abuse that have taken place and the reasons why. I’m tracking and documenting abuse as it happens so that we can look at the demographics of the people who are being victimized, the platforms, and the ways that abuse is taking place. If we see a certain type of abuse become more prevalent over time, this helps us hopefully get in front of that.

As part of that, we need to work out good systems so that people can report easily and so that we can then help them be heard within the organization. Reach has got some really good policies and procedures in place but part of my role is going to be making sure that they are up to scratch.

Tameez: Where do you see room for improvement in Reach’s current policies?

Whittington: I’m really glad that I’ve come into a company that is interested in diversity and inclusion, and that has thought enough about this to actually have policy and procedure in place. However, there is definitely room for improvement. I want to make it really easy for people to report. I want them to be able to report [even] when they feel like they don’t necessarily want something else to happen — they just want to be able to tell someone. I want to make that as easy as possible. And then obviously, for those people who are reporting who do want to see action take place, I want them to feel supported and satisfied with the conclusion.

[Reach did] a health survey in 2021 that asked journalists about online safety issues. Of the editorial staff who responded, half said they’d had some experience of online abuse. And out of that, 85% said that it was in response to something that they’d published or promoted or shared online. That’s a big challenge, because we need to help our workforce be confident in working in these online space.

The other key thing, for me, is going to be working with the audience that’s there for the right reason: Because they’re engaged, because they’re interested in what we’re producing, because they’ve got a connection to our products. I think it’s really important to help them feel safe online, too. We’ve got some people that are coming into those spaces and making [others] feel unsafe. It’s not just our journalists who are offected by that.

Hanaa' Tameez is a staff writer at Nieman Lab. You can reach her via email ( or Twitter DM (@HanaaTameez).
POSTED     Jan. 18, 2022, 9:27 a.m.
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