About News

Students Discover Hating on Journalists Has No Age Minimum

Tom Arenberg is an instructor of news media at the University of Alabama.

Smart college journalism students enhance their classroom work by doing internships or joining a campus outlet. They get to experience the real thing: published stories seen by an audience, with all the potential good and bad consequences that professionals face. Because, really, student journalists are journalists who just happen to be students.

This is a great philosophy. Until it isn’t.

The Washington Post recently published an alarming story with this headline: “Online mobs are now coming for student journalists.” It details severe online harassment of college journalists around the U.S., leaving some spooked and reconsidering their planned career. Primarily using social media channels, attackers hurl physical threats, obscenities and insults about personal appearance. They also doxx (publicly revealing private contact information). Not surprisingly, women, racial minorities and gender identity minorities get it the worst.

Slamming the content of a piece of journalism is fine, even if not always justified. So is criticizing a journalist’s professional standards. Personal attacks on journalists are not fine. Veteran professionals may reach a point where they can shrug it off. Not as easy for someone who is still in college and whose social media profile is a huge part of their life.

Ainsley Platt, one of my students, is news editor of The Crimson White. She’s seen some mean stuff directed at her or some of her 25 reporters — maybe not like the stuff depicted in the Post story, but harsh. Much of it occurs on Instagram, one of the main platforms where the CW posts its stories.

“Especially at first it did screw with me and it was difficult,” she said. “Now, I just accept it as part of my job.”

A couple of CW articles that prompted online vitriol: One about a student/faculty campaign to drop “Dixie” from the UA fight song and another about racist text messages by a leader of a sorority. For about 10 days after the latter article, which she wrote, Platt heard from some anonymous Instagram accounts. “I got a lot of messages that said, ‘You’re going to regret what you wrote.’ … That was extremely scary to me.”

Her worst experience, though, came in person. One day at lunch at a restaurant bar, she told a middle-aged man sitting next to her that she was a news media major and student journalist. He launched into a 30-minute tirade against the media, telling Platt that she was “everything that’s wrong with America.” Even more alarming, he followed her to her car.  “I’ve never been that scared in my life,” she recalled.

As a result, “I don’t feel comfortable telling people that I am a journalist. … There are people out there that genuinely think that journalists are the enemy of the people.”

But she won’t give up on a journalism career. “If you really love what you do, you aren’t going to let (the harassers) get in your way.”

Platt believes, though, that some student journalists need to be honest about whether they can ignore the ugliness, because they’ll continue to face it as professionals. She said, “If you are facing it and you think ‘God, this makes me want to quit,’ then I’m not sure you are in the right job.”

Journalism educators can help by doing a better job of teaching how to cope with hostility against the press. A 2022 survey of 400 U.S. college journalism instructors by Dr. Kaitlin C. Miller of UA and Dr. Kelsey Mesmer of Saint Louis University found that one-third do not discuss or assign reading on hostility in journalism. Mesmer told me by email that some, distressingly, frame hostility “as a badge of honor that was to be expected if (journalists) were doing their jobs correctly.”

So what can campus journalists do? It is wise to use platform tools such as muting, blocking and reporting comments. It is unwise to respond to the bomb throwers.

It is wise to take breaks from social media (perhaps an impossible ask of college students!). It is unwise to take the digital hate personally.

It is wise to remember the value of one’s work and use it for mental fortitude. It is unwise – a victory for the trolls, in fact – to stop reporting on controversial topics. Platt says she won’t.

“I feel a deep, intense desire to do my job … The job of journalists has never been more important.”

Tom Arenberg is an instructor of news media at the University of Alabama. He worked for The Birmingham News and the Alabama Media Group for 30 years. He published this commentary originally as a post on his blog, The Arenblog.

About News is a BirminghamWatch feature that publishes commentary by those who teach the craft and think about the values and performance of today’s journalism, a civic flashpoint. BirminghamWatch is a member of the Institute for Nonprofit News whose members generally rely on individual gifts, foundation grants and sponsorships to support their work. It also publishes About News articles on Facebook and Twitter and invites readers to join the conversation about their news in those forums.