We must demand a safe work environment for members of the news media

On social media, reporters are regularly the target of messages filled with racial slurs, misogyny, homophobia and other forms of hatred, write Sean Tucker and Heather Persson.

When journalists are fair game for abuse, hostility becomes normalized

A protester holds a sign accusing the media of lying during an anti-COVID lockdown protest in Winnipeg in July 2020. Journalists are used to being unpopular, but recently, the hostility and psychological cruelty has amped up, according to Sean Tucker and Heather Persson. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

This column is an opinion by Sean Tucker, an associate professor of occupational health and safety at the University of Regina, and Heather Persson, the former editor-in-chief of the Saskatoon StarPhoenix and Regina Leader-Post. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

How long would you last in a job where angry, expletive-laced insults and threats were an almost daily reality? 

"Welcome to journalism in 2022," one reporter recently tweeted after relaying a story of a profanity-laced attack while out on the street reporting. On social media, reporters are regularly the target of messages filled with racial slurs, misogyny, homophobia and other forms of hatred

Don't shoot the messenger takes on a new meaning in this current reality where journalists are being threatened with violence — some are even told they should face execution. This is happening regularly, in Canada, right now.

An important measure of the health of a democracy is the freedom of its press. Media hold governments, public institutions, businesses, and groups to account. An abusive and toxic climate impedes the work of journalists. 

In response to the current protest in Ottawa, the Canadian Association of Journalists noted: "Efforts to dehumanize and intimidate journalists from telling stories in the public interest… is antithetical to the very notions of 'freedom' that are being sought through this protest." The CAJ recommended safety measures, including working in pairs or small groups and assigning reporters with prior experience covering conflict zones. 

Last week the editor of the Prince George Citizen went further, stating: "It's simply not safe for me to assign my staff to these events anymore… The shop steward representing our unionized employees has stated clearly that he believes those events are unsafe and I agree with him."

In October 2021, 19 media companies and outlets (including the Globe and Mail, Postmedia, and the CBC) came together in an act of solidarity. "While criticism is an integral part of journalism and democracy, there can be no tolerance for hate and harassment of journalists or for incitement of attacks on journalists for doing their jobs," it read. "That these attacks inordinately target women and racialized journalists speaks to the motivation of the people engaging in this behaviour."

Hostility has amped up

Journalists are used to being unpopular. Asking tough questions can make powerful people and advocacy groups angry. Recently, the hostility and psychological cruelty has amped up, fed by baseless rhetoric about "fake news" and "mainstream media."

There is a widespread, false narrative that journalists are puppets of government or establishment actors, conspiring and seeking to mislead the public. In reality, the vast majority of reporters are dedicated professionals who compete to find compelling stories that inform the public.

We have lost sight of the fact that journalists are workers and as workers they are protected from harassment and violence under occupational health and safety law. The Canada Labour Code defines harassment as "any action, conduct or comment, including of a sexual nature, that can reasonably be expected to cause offence, humiliation or other physical or psychological injury or illness to an employee." 

Repeated abuse or a single serious incident can have a significant negative psychological impact. A 2021 IPSOS poll found that one in four journalists who were targeted with online harassment experienced sleeplessness and other mental health issues. One in five felt scared for their physical safety.

When individuals and groups feel journalists are fair game for abuse, such behaviour becomes normalized, and journalists become dehumanized. This is unacceptable. Journalists are human beings. Reporting on illness, death, and mental health during the pandemic and the protests across Canada has taken a toll.

Avenues for complaint are available

Because journalists are human, they are also imperfect. 

If you believe a journalist or media outlet has been working in an unfair or biased manner, appropriate avenues for complaint are available. You can write a letter to the editor. The National NewsMedia Council has a formal complaints process, facilitating conversations between the public and media. The CBC has an independent ombudsman who handles complaints from the public and enforces journalistic standards. The Toronto Star and other outlets have a public editor or similar position that works with feedback. You can also write the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council.

If you see a journalist being harassed, don't be a bystander. Speak up. Report the incident to protest organizers or the police. And when you see or hear balanced reporting and you have the opportunity, say "thank you" to a journalist. 

The press still holds great power — even as the sector faces significant financial challenges. Media outlets aware of the responsibilities attached to that privilege are rightfully reluctant to use their platform to speak to their own issues. Average Canadians need to speak out in defence of the safety of journalists whose work is foundational to our democracy.

The vitriol and abuse many health-care professionals and other public-facing workers experience has increasingly, and necessarily, been acknowledged and challenged. For the safety of journalists and the well-being of our democracy, it is time we demand a safe work environment for members of the news media.

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Sean Tucker is an associate professor of occupational health and safety in the faculty of business administration at the University of Regina. Heather Persson was a journalist for 27 years, and most recently was the editor-in-chief of the Saskatoon StarPhoenix and Regina Leader-Post. She is now the director of research profile and impact at the University of Saskatchewan.


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