'Careful, don't catch a bullet!' experiences with hostility in media

Microphones belonging to the major media channels in Estonia: Private media firms Postimees, Ekspress Meedia and TV3, and public broadcaster ERR.
Microphones belonging to the major media channels in Estonia: Private media firms Postimees, Ekspress Meedia and TV3, and public broadcaster ERR. Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

The title comes from a letter an investigative journalist from Estonia received after covering a controversial topic. In a recently published article, Signe Ivask, a sociologist from the University of Tartu, examined the assaults on Estonian journalists in greater detail.

Without quality journalism, democracy is in jeopardy. Signe Ivask, a sociology researcher at the University of Tartu, is concerned about the well-being of journalists. She explained that while some journalists are exposed to only a few forms of hostility, others are exposed to more than a few, and all at once.

"We need to know what politicians are doing and what decisions are being taken, which means that decision-making processes must be transparent. Journalists give us this information," Ivask told ERR's Radio 2.

While in the past journalists in Europe have not received a great deal of attention, this is gradually changing. According to Ivask, one of the reasons why this topic has not been much discussed is because of how journalists are perceived. "It is as if there is a default assumption in Europe that being a journalist is difficult and that there are certain challenges that you have to face," the researcher said.

It is often emphasized that journalism is not a simple profession, but not all journalists find it particularly challenging. "I know a lot of journalists who are surprised that other journalists in Estonia face any difficulties," she said. "Some people may not be suited for a job because they do not have the right personal qualities. For example, not coping with pressure or finding it difficult to accept constructive feedback," she explained their reasoning.

So while the job of a journalist is not especially challenging for everyone, there are journalists who experience attacks and threats—in other words, hostility. Ivask's recent research looked at how much and what kind of harassment Estonian journalists face in their jobs.

In short, the survey discovered that journalists face a wide spectrum of different types of hostility in their places of work. Again, there are exceptions; some journalists claim to receive only a few unpleasant comments a year. Ivask, on the other hand, said that the majority of journalists encounter hostility regularly in some form or another.

The study showed that there are many different forms of work-related hostility. Commenting on articles is one way to create a hostile environment, but journalists are also approached on social media, phoned directly on their phone number, or messaged. Journalists also receive threatening or abusive messages on social media and are tagged in threatening or mocking posts. There are even websites dedicated to insulting journalists and undermining their work.

There are also legal threats aimed at silencing a journalist regarding a particular issue. Ivask labeled all of these behaviors as work-related hostility. "However, we must keep in mind that journalists face more than one type of hostility; when hostility pours in through all the doors and windows, the journalist is at the center of it all." But how should a journalist respond? What defense do they have?"

Mobilized attacks will also be encountered: in the age of social media, it's very easy for people to call their friends and acquaintances to action. "For example, suppose a journalist produced a piece about something that upset someone, and that person is now encouraging others to write to the author of the story. A swarm of strangers begin bombarding the journalist on social media," the researcher said. For example, a journalist can receive 500-1000 messages a day.

According to Ivask, certain Estonian trend-setters dislike being written about by journalists and encourage their followers to mock journalists that write about them. Social media groups are a similarly interesting phenomenon. There are groups or pages that target a particular journalist. For example, private information from a journalist is being shared there and people start spreading it.

Ivask disagrees with the common assertion that being a journalist is a public occupation and that it is all part of the job. "None of us deserves this hostility or such behaviors. I would rather not normalize such behavior," she said.

If you write about conflicting issues, there will inevitably be parties who dislike it. This is understandable, but I do not believe that the only acceptable response is to attack, mock or intimidate the journalist. Ivask said that there has been a change in the way this has been regarded.

Recent studies indicate that journalists are still affected by various assaults, despite the fact that they may feel unaffected at times. As journalism is a team effort, Ivask's research found that if a journalist does not want to cover a topic, colleagues usually take over. So important issues are not missed because of negative attention.

"But what makes my heart ache the most, is that journalists cannot fully defend themselves in the online world," Ivask said. "One option is to use social media sparingly in your professional life, even to hide from your friends or avoid disclosing private information, and in general to limit social media activity to some degree."

Nevertheless, all attacks should be taken seriously. "We never know when these messages will move from the online world to the real. If threatening emails are being sent, can you ever be 100 percent sure that you won't be stabbed while jogging?"


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Editor: Kristina Kersa

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