mental health

Image: AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews

Trolls “radicalised” by social media have “put people off from coming into journalism”, a BBC journalist warned at a City event discussing mental health and journalism.

At the City event held last month, BBC Monitoring journalist Shayan Sardarizadeh also made the disclosure that up to eight of his colleagues at the wider BBC had left over the past 18 months due to the online abuse they had received. The BBC said that they do not comment on individual staff matters so would not verify this claim. 

Shayan Sardarizadeh, who investigates media disinformation and extremism for the BBC, said: “I get messages from people, students studying journalism, constantly who ask ‘how bad is it? How terrible is it? How much abuse do you get?’ And that then becomes worrying because journalism needs young, capable, talented individuals to come into it to shake it up.”

A BBC spokesperson said: “The welfare and mental health of our staff is of paramount importance and we have a wide range of measures in place to support them. In News and across the BBC, staff are offered wellbeing support, including the option of counselling. They can access our Employee Assistance Programme 24/7, from anywhere in the world, and we also have trained Mental Health First Aiders inside many teams.”

“A quarter of the 1200 women surveyed had received threats of physical violence”

The virtual panel, which was moderated by freelance journalist John Crowley on 14 April, explored whether news organisations were doing enough to protect journalists’ mental health.

Mr Sardarizadeh also noted that the abuse the women he works with receive is “on a completely different level” to the abuse men receive. He said: “It’s far, far worse despite the fact all of us do the exact same role.”

A recent survey commissioned by UNESCO and implemented by the International Centre for Journalists revealed that nearly three quarters (73 per cent) of female journalists had experienced online abuse in their line of work.

A quarter of the 1200 women surveyed had received threats of physical violence, while 18 per cent of respondents said that they had been subjected to rape threats.

During last month’s event, Mr Sardarizadeh recounted how a female colleague of his was the victim of stalking. He said one stalker tracked her commute to work and put up signposts with her name and messages such as “we’re watching you”.

Marianna Spring, who works as a Specialist Disinformation and Social Media Reporter at the BBC, on 25 April took to Twitter to reveal the “horrific abuse and threats” she had received following her recent report on conspiracy theories and protests.

“We shouldn’t be sending anybody anywhere where their mental health might be compromised”

In response to the abuse, Ms Spring praised her “supportive colleagues”, while Mr Sardarizadeh noted that he was “fortunate” to work for a “massive organisation” like the BBC that has “practices in place” to help employees deal with online hate.

The same, however, apparently can’t be said for smaller news organisations. At the event, Mr Sardarizadeh said that “there are tonnes and tonnes who have nothing”.

Hannah Storm, CEO of the Ethical Journalist Network, was also a panellist at the virtual event. In considering how newsrooms can be more mindful of their workers’ mental health, Storm said that more media organisations need to arm their journalists with “emotional flak jackets”.

She said: “We wouldn’t send somebody to war without a physical flak jacket, so we shouldn’t be sending anybody anywhere where their mental health might be compromised without an emotional flak jacket. That means talking to them about how their work is going to impact them and thinking about resources and risk mitigation.”

Meanwhile, New Delhi-based journalist Pamposh Raina, who works with Agence France Presse (AFP) and the New York Times, emphasised to the panel the importance of “mainstreaming” conversations around journalists’ mental health.

Ms Raina suggested that newsrooms should invest more in trauma literacy to help prepare their employees for emotionally challenging situations.

The virtual panel was facilitated by Professor Jane Singer, City’s Journalism Innovation research lead.

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