It’s true that we learn very early to be robust in dealing with furious reactions in private phone calls and emails from the subjects of our journalism.
But as those of us who report on media know, that is not the whole story. Journalists ARE thin-skinned, sometimes ridiculously so, when they are criticised in public.
Too often they react like stung cats, lashing out and defensive.
Once, media organisations could largely control this kind of criticism. I used to sit in The Age newsroom next to the man who edited the letters to the editor page. His judgment was final. There was no appeal, no alternative channel. What he called the circular filing cabinet – his waste bin – was liberally used.
That has changed. Journalists are now subjected to constant scrutiny on how they do their jobs. Adding to this is the live screening of major news events – such as the daily COVID press conferences – which is still a relatively new phenomenon. Journalists are being criticised, sometimes unfairly, for doing their jobs in real time.
But some of the criticism has been fair. Some journalists – and Sales has been criticised for this – have gone beyond questioning and taken a stance against public health measures. When we are living with the kind of intrusion on human rights that lockdowns represent, it is right to question. But not, unless there is evidence, to suggest the measures have been imposed in bad faith.
What the public can’t see is all the other work that good journalists do behind the scenes – the background conversations and briefings that inform how they write and report and ask questions.
Nevertheless, given they can’t reveal their sources, journalists are basically asking that they be trusted. On social media, as in life, trust is built through a history of interactions. Journalists who do not interact are missing a professional opportunity.
Finally, when it comes to journalism, Twitter is particularly important because it is not like other social media platforms.
The best source of data on how Australians access news is the annual digital news report, put out by the University of Canberra’s News and Media Research Centre.
Leigh Sales quotes data from the ABC’s Australia Talks survey to assert that only 6 per cent of Australians use Twitter regularly. The University of Canberra figures suggest that is closer to 18 per cent – but these general figures obscure important details.
The Digital News Report data shows Twitter users are particularly news-aware and engaged.
They are more likely to use Twitter mainly for news, whereas Facebook and YouTube users come across news incidentally.
Twitter users are more likely than other social media users to follow mainstream media outlets and journalists, and less likely to get their news from social media personalities and “influencers”.
Importantly, at a time when persuading people to pay for news is crucial to the survival of serious journalism, Twitter users are much more likely to be already paying subscriptions.
The lead author of the digital news report, Professor Sora Park, tells me the data shows 27 per cent of Twitter users pay for news, compared to just 13 per cent of the general Australian population.
By comparison, only 14 per cent of Facebook and YouTube users pay for news, although the user bases are much larger. (Park emphasises that sample sizes are small once cross-tabulated, so the data should be treated as indicative rather than precise.)
In other words, the more serious contributors on Twitter are exactly the kind of people serious media organisations most want to attract.
All this means that news organisations and individual journalists need to think much more seriously about how to engage with Twitter and social media more generally. Instead, a constant swathe of legal problems, Twitter spats and bruised participants shows we are too much at sea.
Media organisations need to provide social media-specific resources, training and support instead of leaving their journalists on their own and without help on this new publishing platform.
Journalists should be participating, in my view, as trusted players – seeking to build the social cohesion which is the most important outcome of sharing news and views.
Withdrawal is not good enough.
But, in a world where anyone can publish, citizens too bear responsibilities.
Sales is right to call out the abuse and bullying, but this should be the beginning of a conversation, not the end.
Margaret Simons is an author, journalist and academic.