Late last month, as the election campaign kicked off in earnest, the ABC’s Michael Rowland wrote an interesting article. It wasn’t about policies or promises, it was about himself, and the abuse he received on Twitter.
‘Twitter is a double-edged sword for political journalists,’ he wrote.
‘It’s an invaluable source of breaking news and allows us to keep track of campaign developments in real time.’
But, Rowland added, ‘it allows voters to have their say – and this is where things are getting particularly willing.’
Other journalists chimed in, agreeing that Twitter in particular becomes difficult for them during election time.
Radio National’s Patricia Karvelas, a regular presence on the platform, agreed:
I’ve been on Twitter a long time and have covered many elections but the over the top targeting of journalists and hyper partisanship I have not witnessed like this before. What an erosion of diversity of voices and decency #AusVotes2019
— PatriciaKarvelas (@PatsKarvelas) April 20, 2019
Nine’s Chris Uhlmann was typically blunt. ‘Twitter is a peanut gallery of hyper-partisan tools,’ he told Rowland.
More worryingly, The Australian’s social affairs reporter Rick Morton tweeted about the toll of the constant abuse on his mental health.
The level of vitriol in my Twitter feed over the past few days is off the charts. I don’t even see the worst of it, obviously, but this place has never been great for my mental health as it is. I really do despair at the state of discussion. It’s not healthy.
— Rick Morton (@SquigglyRick) April 23, 2019
Is there anything in these complaints? I think there is. But I would say that – I’m a journalist on Twitter, and I too have been targeted by partisan accounts attacking me in personal and abusive terms. It’s not pleasant, and it does affect me.
But if it’s bad for me, a white man with a relatively robust sense of self-worth, I can only imagine what it must be like for women or people of colour. If you ask them, they’ll tell you – it’s horrific. Outright hate speech is widespread on social media, and journalists, as prominent figures on the platforms, cop way more than their fair share of it – a fair share of hate speech, of course, being no share at all. A 2018 Amnesty study that tracked 778 female politicians and journalists on Twitter found they received 1.1 million abusive tweets across a single year – one every 30 seconds on average. Women of colour received even more abuse than white women.
Despite this, Rowland’s remarks about the abuse directed at journalists received a shellacking on Twitter. Perhaps predictably, many users derided him and other journalists for what they saw as defensive posturing, as patronising their audiences, or as simple denial of the problems in their own profession.
Outright hate speech is widespread on social media, and journalists, as prominent figures on the platforms, cop way more than their fair share of it.
‘It’s not journalists, there’s good and bad in every profession,’ one user tweeted back to me when I posted on the topic. ‘It’s the fact that 80% of our media is hyper-partisan. Media is an oligarchy in Australia.’
‘The crux of this entire debate is that Twitter allows us the people to express our feelings at the rubbish trotted out by the media,’ another tweeted. ‘Karvelas being feted for doing her job is symptomatic of the rubbish offered as journalism.’
Other commentators, including other journalists, rightly pointed to the hypocrisy of prominent journalists complaining about being publicly attacked, when their own news organisations regularly monster ordinary citizens with weeks of negative personal coverage for such seemingly innocuous actions as a social media post about Anzac Day, or daring to go on Q&A to ask for a tax cut for low-income earners.
There’s no doubt that there is some truth to these critiques. Australian news media is indisputably an oligarchy, with one of the most concentrated ownership structures in the western world. It’s also frequently inaccurate or skewed in its reporting of crucial issues, from climate change to tax policy to immigration.
It’s a difficult moment to be a journalist in the public eye, just now. The profession has never been high in the public’s esteem, but recent developments in national and international politics make it more difficult than ever, particularly for those trying to report on events where they’re not welcome. The Monthly’s US correspondent Richard Cooke wrote recently on being advised to purchase body armour when reporting on political rallies there. Northern Ireland journalist Lyra McKee was killed in April, caught by a bullet apparently aimed at police during a riot in Londonderry.
Journalism has never been high in the public’s esteem, but recent developments in national and international politics make it more difficult than ever.
Around the world, the rise of populism and the ability social media gives ordinary citizens to vent their feelings has targeted journalists and news media organisations as purveyors of falsehoods and representatives of the powerful elite.
Both charges have an element of truth. News media organisations, and the journalists that work for them, regularly trot out demonstrably false stories in return for eyeballs and clicks. This is most obvious in Australia in the News Corp newspapers, but it is a problem worldwide. And there is little doubt that high-profile media proprietors and their senior managers – men like Rupert Murdoch’s CEO Robert Thomson, who takes home $12 million a year – are part of the very elite their organisations routinely decry.
And yet, while it’s easy enough to attack journalists as shills or hacks, dedicated to the bias demanded by their billionaire proprietors, that doesn’t make the task itself any easier.
Anyone who has ever done some journalism will tell you, the craft of reporting is hard work. Genuine investigative reporting – finding things out that people would prefer stayed hidden – is difficult. Checking facts rigorously is time consuming. Working with sources, particularly sources facing genuine threat of persecution or even violence, is ethically challenging and technically difficult. Even for those doing more mundane work, such as reporting in the courts, there can be serious trauma.
Perhaps most challenging of all, at least in the current moment, is finding a way to sustain yourself while you carry out the task of newsgathering. Around two-fifths of Australia’s journalists have lost their jobs in the last decade. There are fewer and fewer chances to do the work, let alone to get paid for it.
When I posted about this on Twitter, some accused me of sooking. Was journalism really that onerous? After all, teaching a primary school class is also difficult. Intensive care nursing is also hard work. Working on a construction site is more dangerous than sitting at your computer chasing quotes.
All this is true, of course. As a practice, journalism isn’t in itself special, or noble, or unique. But it is useful, especially if you want to find out what’s going on.
Journalism is an imperfect exercise at the best of times, and it is sometimes practised by ethically challenged individuals – but we still need it.
Even if journalism is a profession desperately lacking in ethics as well as business models, we still need it. This is true even in regards to social media, where a huge amount of the content shared between users takes the form of news reports. Indeed, the phenomenon of ‘fake news’ is an aspect of this. Hyper-partisan stories gussied up to look like genuine news reports, widely shared amongst networks of like-minded citizens, are able to exert their baleful influence at least in part because they mimic the look and feel of the real thing. Fake news would not make sense if there was not an existing standard of ‘true news’ to base it off and distinguish it from.
Journalism is an imperfect exercise at the best of times, and it is sometimes practised by ethically challenged individuals. But the same could be said for medicine, or waste removal. As a society, we continue to fund the activities of hospitals and sewage works, because we recognise that if we don’t, sick people will die and rubbish will pile up on the streets.
Citizens who value their democracy require information about their ruling governments and parties if they are to make decisions when they come to cast their votes. For better or worse (and it is often for the worse), much of that information comes from the news media. Ultimately, it comes from human beings doing journalism. Like journalists or loathe them, the indisputable fact is that we’re stuck with them.