Credit: Image by BHernandez on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

The immediacy of social media has opened up a new world of access to potential sources, contacts and stories around the globe, but the tide of communication flows both ways.

Increasingly, journalists and media professionals are subjected to online abuse, and so at the University of Central Lancashire, researchers are hoping to better understand the issue, its impact on individuals, and consider ways to tackle it.

I know the culture is a bit macho and to laugh it off, but that culture may be deceiving management in to thinking there isn't a problemAmy Binns, University of Central Lancashire
"There have been a lot of anecdotes and evidence [of abuse] in the comments on news stories, but no hard data," Amy Binns, a senior lecturer and former Yorkshire Post reporter who is leading the research, told

"So we want to know what's happening, what journalists are having to deal with and prepare journalists appropriately."

Media professionals are invited to respond to an online survey that "takes less than a minute", said Binns, answering nine multiple choice questions about the nature and frequency of online abuse and the effects it may have.

So far more than 160 journalists have responded, with nearly 50 per cent saying they have been "very upset" by online abuse and more than 30 per cent feeling "frightened or intimidated" by abuse, she said. The majority of the abuse has come from comment threads on news stories or Twitter.

"It's something management need to know," said Binns, "I know the culture is a bit macho and to laugh it off, but that culture may be deceiving management into thinking there isn't a problem."

There used to be a filter system where if a letter came about me it would go to the news desk secretaryAmy Binns, University of Central Lancashire
When asked if online abuse had changed their behaviour, 20 per cent of respondents said they had changed the profile picture of an online account, 16 per cent said they had changed the way they research or write articles and 60 per cent had stopped reading comment threads on their articles altogether.

"When the comments sections went on, everybody rather optimistically thought it would be a great way to engage readers," said Binns, and while this has happened, it has also served as a platform for abuse by disgruntled or malicious readers, she said.

"There used to be a filter system where if a letter came about me it would go to the news desk secretary," she said. "They would then go to the editor and if there were any genuine complaints that needed dealing with he would speak to me."

With comments systems that filter has largely been removed, she said, meaning a journalist involved in the comments system would have to read every personal insult or remark directed at them or their work.

A possible solution, said Binns, is for journalists to read the comments on each other's stories and flag up any remarks or contributions that are worth pursuing.

"That might mean that we all know a bit more about what each other is doing and be aware of what our colleagues are writing," she said, "but not have to face some really personal, vitriolic abuse."

The survey is open until Friday 14 March, after which Binns will be collating the results for a report and looking to interview professionals about their experiences and elements of best practice.

"There definitely can be solutions and it's a matter of making life easier," she said. "Leveson painted the whole industry as thick-skinned, morally-repugnant throwbacks, but there are so many people who just write their local stories, have feelings and go back home to their kids."

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