As in any profession in life, part of being a journalist is learning to deal with criticism of your work. However, as a young student journalist starting out and trying to forge a career in the industry, receiving personal abuse or attacks, particularly over social media, can be both off-putting and upsetting. Nevertheless, it is important to not let criticism affect your work or divert you from your chosen career path.
Last year, I was subject to both intense criticism and vindictive personal attacks after being heavily involved with an investigation into university sports team culture. As the then Sport Editor for my university newspaper, I was seen by many as having betrayed the Athletic Union and its members by exposing an AU club that was practicing banned initiation-style ceremonies and peer pressuring new students into drinking.
Among other things, I was called a ‘traitor’, a ‘f*cking tw*t’ and accused of going behind the backs of my sport co-editors. I would be lying if I said that this was easy to take. It was the first time I had encountered any form of backlash for my work, and obviously it made me deeply uncomfortable and I even started to question whether I had made the right decision.
However, the abuse did subside eventually, and on reflection I am convinced that I did the right thing. If you strongly believe in something you have done or written, then fear of personal abuse, no matter how severe, should never be a deterrent. In fact, criticism or abuse is usually a sign that you are on the right track. The whole purpose of investigative journalism is to challenge previously accepted concepts and try and expose wrongdoing, and this will usually inevitably lead to backlash in some shape or form. For every person who actively speaks out against you, there are probably several more silently agreeing with you.
Of course, conviction that you have done the right thing is not always comforting in the face of vitriolic abuse, but the best course of action is to ignore said abuse and even take it as a compliment that your work is having an impact by ruffling the feathers of those who you have exposed. If the abuse gets too much, or oversteps a line (threats of violence, for example), then confide in your co-editors, friends or family and, if you feel it necessary, report it to the police.
Student journalism is meant to be divisive, controversial and ambitious, and part of what this entails is opening yourself up to criticism. By all means take this criticism on board if it is carefully constructed and eloquent, as this will only help improve your work and enable you to make better judgments in the future. Personal abuse and bile, however, is best ignored, laughed at or taken as a sign that your work is having the desired effect.