Pain and possibilities abound for journalists in the digital age

NASH 79 features several female journalists sharing stories of abuse on social media

By Steve Cornwell


Tim Currie, director of the School of Journalism at the University of King’s College

As the print-heavy side of newspaper industry continues to shed jobs and shut down newsrooms, conversations about how journalism will look and survive in an increasingly digital age are thriving. At the Canadian University Press’s national student journalism conference (NASH 79) in Fredericton, New Brunswick last week, the conversation covered both the hopeful possibilities and the fresh challenges of journalism today.

Many journalists are searching for more opportunities to meaningfully impact their communities. In an interview at NASH, journalism professor Tim Currie said he believes that this focus will help journalists find their way forward.

“I think that journalists need to mean more to their communities,” said Currie, director of the School of Journalism at the University of King’s College. “If there is an opportunity in the digital age, it’s cliché to say, but it’s engagement, it’s community,”

As tools like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and email allow for quicker and more immediate connections with readers than before, Currie said that journalists are well-positioned to make positive contributions to their communities.

“I think it’s an opportunity for journalists to certainly be curators, guides, experts in their field of interest and to become more involved with helping make those communities better. I don’t think it’s breaking some impartiality to say that we want to improve the quality of life of whatever community we want to serve,” he said.

There is, however, a darker element for journalists related to the connectivity of the digital age. At NASH 79 several female journalists discussed the litany of threats and insults that they face on social media. In a panel discussion called “Disproportionate Hate Towards Female Journalists,” Jan Wong, Shireen Ahmed, Sarah Ratchford and Lee Thomas each outlined instances where they received hateful backlash on the regular.

Ratchford said that she doesn’t engage with the trolls on Twitter and in the comment sections of her articles because it’s not her job.

“Is it my job to fight these individual trolls and convince them of my personhood?” she asked. “Realistically my job is to be a journalist and get paid for my work, put it out there and leave it, and so that’s what I do.”

NASH attendees also heard a keynote talk from Scaachi Koul, senior writer at Buzzfeed news, who, in February of 2016, temporarily left Twitter following a barrage of abusive tweets.

“I can’t make Twitter build a better interface, I can’t even get them to block people when I report them,” Koul told the NASH audience.

Currie agreed that the anonymity and openness of Twitter can turn the platform into a dark place, particularly for marginalized people.

“Hate, bullying, and trolling is much easier to do on Twitter. You can praise the openness of Twitter and the real time aspect of it but for those people who tend to be targets of attacks like women, minorities, people of different sexual orientations, it can be a really savage place,” he said.

For young journalists entering and industry where social media nastiness, Currie recommended the old adage “don’t feed the trolls.”

“Mute them and block them and try to shut them out any way you can,” he said.

Building a strong network can help, as well.

“In many cases, the bullies can’t thrive in a strong network of people who do the same as you do,” he said. “You do have to have a tough skin, I think everyone needs a tough skin these days.”

And being transparent about your sources and the strength of your research is essential.

“By publishing pieces that have a lot of links that show the sourcing for your reporting, that shows that you are confident in what you do and you are willing to show in any way you can that you have done your research,” he said. “I don’t think you can beat trolls on opinion and loose sourcing.”

While social media raises new challenges for journalists, Currie said that working in an increasingly digital industry has also brought some of the fundamentals of the trade back into focus. He pointed to the study “What makes online content go viral?” by Jonah Berger and Katherine Milkman as an example. Berger and Milkman found that stories, photos, and video that arouse heightened happy or angry emotions are more likely to go viral than content that evokes sadness.

Currie said that although findings like Berger and Milkman’s might push some publications to produce sensational content, thinking about the shareability of a story is part of considering your reader and ensuring that you’re doing good work.

“I think that research pushes us to be good journalists,” he said. “We should always be telling stories that matter to people.”


Steve Cornwell is a journalist based in Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at @steve_cornwell

Posted on January 13, 2017 at 9:00 am by editor · · Tagged with: , , , ,

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