In the Eye of the Tweetstorm

Although some journalists are leaving social media entirely after flame wars and trolling, some are staying on despite the hatred their work receives. Illustration by Christina Dommer.

How journalists deal with social media controversy, backlash, death threats, Troll wars and more

By Christina Dommer

If you’re in the journalism industry and you don’t look forward to checking your Twitter account, you are not alone.

“I once got tweeted a really blurry photo of a black person lying in a pool of blood,” freelancer Anita Li recalls. Li currently runs The Other Wave, a blog devoted to reviewing film, TV and movies through a diverse lens.

But during her three years as a reporter at Mashable, an online site that specializes in science and technology developments, Li sometimes found herself covering cases of police brutality.

“I would occasionally get really negative comments or slurs on articles that had nothing to do with race or diversity because of my reputation [on those police stories],” says Li.

Globe and Mail reporter Frances Bula was at the centre of “some fairly famous fights with people on Twitter,” particularly focused on the housing crisis in Vancouver. As Bula describes it, some people were blaming wealthy Chinese immigrants for the crisis— buying property and choosing not to live here.

“I had a few blog posts where I looked at the statistics and I said, ‘we need to be careful in assuming it’s just them, and there’s a lot of other factors to think about here.’ I wrote
a story where I profiled some immigrants from mainland China,” Bula says. “It just got vilified by many people.”

With never-ending fires to fight on social media, how do these journalists find the strength and courage to keep logging on?

“I know myself, I know my skills, I know my intention, I know my skills as a reporter in particular, and as an editor,” Li says. That self-confidence allows Li to distinguish genuine criticism from trolling, and the occasional attempt to convince a naysayer to see things from her point of view.

Li remembers when that wasn’t the case, though. During her first paid internship at The Globe and Mail in the summer of 2011, she was much more sensitive to criticism.

“I remember somebody making a critical remark on my [work] that had nothing to do with race or gender, and I was so upset,” Li recalls. “Now I’m a cool, calm, collected type of person.”

Bula’s social media philosophy is a little different. “ do want to expose myself to different ideas all the time an keep learning,” she says, noting that she’s very reluctant to hit the block button.

“I’ve had people who have criticized me, libelled me, abused me on Twitter for two or three years before I’ll finally go, ‘Okay, I really can’t have a conversation with this person—it’s time to go.’”

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