“Mean Tweets”: How Canadian journalists face incivility

By Kawther Ramadan and Ossama Soffar

The University of Ottawa’s Centre for Law Technology and Society hosted a virtual webinar yesterday titled “Journalists Facing Mean Tweets: What It Means for Our Democracy.” Panelists discussed online harassment, discrediting journalism, and what incivility means for Canadian democratic systems.

Elizabeth Dubois, the host, facilitated the discussion with Rosemary Barton, chief political correspondent for CBC, Fatima Syed, host of The Backbench podcast Canadaland and vice-president of the Canadian Association of Journalists, and Mark Blackburn, online producer for APTN.

“For me, you can usually identify online discourse just by the words that are being used against you and distinguish between just a tweet or a post that is criticizing your work and either what’s written or what you’re doing, versus something that’s attacking you for you know, racist or sexist reasons,” says Fatima Syed. “The latter is obviously more concerning. But that’s always been the line that I draw between what worries me and what I don’t care about because there’s always going to be people who are unhappy with what you write and disagree with your reporting.”

“I think that’s normal in any sort of political and public discourse, but when it veers towards hateful rhetoric,” she says. “That’s when I start getting concerned, and that’s when my life starts becoming difficult.”

“It’s interesting at HVTN I haven’t had a lot of reports of reporters, saying they’re experiencing online attacks and that sort of thing,” says Mark Blackburn. “You can call it negativity, incivility or anything. I call it a lack of education and racism. Essentially, the comments coming into our pages, the messages coming into our Facebook inbox, and on YouTube are mostly about complaints from people who don’t understand, for instance, the treaty process. They don’t understand the relationship between indigenous peoples and the Canadian government. So that’s really where the negativity, a lack of education, lack of awareness, and racism really come into play.”

“Mine is probably just quite the opposite of what Mark said, mine are very personalized,” says Rosemary Barton. “They are attacking me, which isn’t surprising, given the profile I have. And given that I work for the public broadcaster, and that I cover politics, those are all sort of, big red flags. Like Fatima, I’m perfectly fine to accept criticism, even hard criticism about my work. That doesn’t bother me much. I wouldn’t say it’s incivility, or I would say it’s abusive, misogynistic, harassment, threatening; all those kinds of words would be how I would characterize the kind of abuse online that I have experienced. I’m certainly not the only person, but that’s been my experience.”

According to an IPSOS survey of Canadian journalists conducted in November 2021, 72% of journalists had experienced some form of harassment over the past year, with 65% of this abuse occurring online. The accusations directed at journalists vary between personal attacks to bias or being “fake news.”