From the face behind the masthead: Trolling our reporters is not the solution
March 9, 2023
The Cynic receives a lot of backlash for the work that we do. Often, though not always, criticisms are warranted. That being said—even in instances in which we have made an error—there is a right and a wrong way to go about airing grievances.
My news team and I recently underwent a public-facing, multipronged cyber mob attack that took place almost entirely on social media.
Our Instagram post for a recent news article garnered more than a dozen angry comments, some of them racking up 20-plus likes, many of which mischaracterized the degree to which our reporting could have been improved.
The story was a very straightforward news brief that, I’ll admit, initially lacked explicit, comprehensive acknowledgement on the background of the issue at hand and contained slightly more text about the views of one side of a controversial issue than the other.
The error was genuinely overlooked prior to publication on all of our parts and has since been corrected. However, even from the start, the highest number of individual politicians sourced in the article were in political agreement with the readers who took issue with the reporting.
In spite of our best efforts, our Instagram was flooded with comments characterizing the story as “sloppy” and “irresponsible,” with some even going so far as to say it spread “misinformation.”
In addition to the comments on our own post, UVM Union of Students, a student organization with no published list of members or authorship credit line on their posts, posted in response to “condemn” our reporting, calling on us to take down the story. This post received double the number of likes of our own post.
I worry that some who read our story were already primed to read between the lines with a clouded judgment imparted on them by a bandwagon of angry Instagram commenters that drew so much traffic to the story in the first place. I find myself wondering whether some of those who supported the initiative to censor our work even read the story at all.
One user referred to the story, which covered the mayor’s aversion to and others’ support for a controversial ballot measure, as “controlled opposition disguised as student journalism.”
Another user even went so far as to tag the reporter’s personal Instagram account in the comments, placing him in a highly vulnerable position. It was upper-level management such as myself who assigned, edited and okayed the story—and, not to mention, trained the reporter.
The reporter of that story is a sophomore, a student at UVM and a human. I am a senior at UVM, as are my copy chief and managing editor. While none of us are journalism majors—as, unfortunately, UVM has no major for journalism—we do our best with what we can. Always.
Contrary to popular belief, there were no political motivations behind this story.
We are humans, and being human, we aren’t perfect. Furthermore, we are your peers.
When the person who tagged our reporter directly in a comment was encouraged by another user to remove their comment, they refused, under the false impression that the story had not yet been updated at that point.
At the time of the publication of this staff editorial, the comment tagging our reporter remains up, although someone in a now-deleted comment had replied to that user to inform them that the correction had been issued, and to call the action out for what it was: “targeted harassment.”
Sometimes I get the impression that the Cynic is viewed by some of my peers as “The Establishment.” We are a media publication, yes, and with a hierarchical internal power structure, though I’ve made efforts to reform it in such a way that it does not function top-down.
At the end of the day, the Cynic is a club, run entirely by students. What we do on a day-to-day basis is a massively rigorous undertaking, but we are all working hard to do right by our community. The bottom line? Everyone behind the Cynic is a person and a student just like you.
To be clear, our good intentions are by no means an excuse for our mistakes. I should be and would like to be held accountable for all errors that happen at the Cynic—both real and perceived. But, people inevitably make mistakes. Especially when they are full-time students, and are only student journalists on top of it.
My mention of our status as students is not intended to undermine the validity of our work. I’ve been proud of our coverage of complex political issues on countless occasions—on most occasions. What I’m saying is that, strong track record and hard work aside, you’d be hard-pressed to find any newsroom that has never had to issue a correction.
All I am asking for is kindness.
When the public comments section on a Cynic Instagram post floods with negativity, it is jarring, degrading and disconcerting for us at best—in the worst cases, it is overwhelming, distressing and poses a serious threat to the mental health and wellbeing of those of us behind the work.
No person deserves to be yelled at and talked over—literally on the phone or digitally in a social media comment thread—by those who disagree with or are disappointed by their work. It saddens me to say that both have happened on this occasion and on many others.
Often, our errors are characterized as much more egregious than they are, and often, people get carried away in the comments sections of our posts. This phenomenon in its current form is relatively new, arising in the last few years alongside the advent of social media.
The phenomenon seems to be largely a result of our changing information environment and the increased political polarization that has come with it.
Online spaces like Instagram do not allow for people to see their fellow human beings as such, as they are not interacting face to face. The potential for anonymity online reduces the transparency and perceived humanity necessary for people to engage in an empathetic and compassionate manner.
From accounts that are not-so-anonymous, there is also the occurrence of concern trolling, a phenomenon by which “abusers pose as concerned supporters of a target’s work and send harmful or demeaning” messages, according to a presentation about dealing with harassment as a journalist by Gannett Co., the parent company of the Burlington Free Press.
Moreover, social media often functions as a breeding ground for outrage.
“Outrage can be engaging,” as explained in Jeffrey M. Berry and Sarah Sobieraj’s book, “The Outrage Industry: Political Opinion Media and the News Incivility.” Berry and Sobieraj are professors of political science and sociology, respectively, at Tufts University in Massachusetts.
On an internal note, every student who I’ve spoken with at the Cynic about their motivations for being a part of this organization has been driven largely by the compassion and care they have for their community, and the fulfillment that can come from documenting that community.
These are the biggest reasons I personally got into it and are the reasons why I’ve been pursuing journalism as a career—coupled with the fact that I love to write, and news reporting is one of few outlets to realistically monetize that passion full time.
I’ve often heard people express negative sentiments about “the media” without even really knowing what media they are referring to. There is no one single “media.” There are many mediums and forms of media, many styles and political leanings and levels of reliability.
Each media organization, and each social media platform, functions with its own intentions.
In the interest of monetary gain, social media platforms feed users into echo chambers of like-minded individuals, catering material to them often intended to cause outrage, because the algorithm has learned that this approach is something that sucks users in.
Breeding outrage within echo chambers can be a perfect recipe for increased user engagement, and stimulates opportunities to display more advertisements to more users and sell more user data, ultimately allowing social media platforms to rake in more cash as a result.
On the subject of news media, although many newsrooms need to have a paywall or subscription system in place to stay afloat, journalism isn’t an extraordinarily lucrative career.
While broadcast news and social media as a means of getting news have become highly relevant in the media landscape, traditional written reporting is still a medium full of merit.
Every medium has its strengths and weaknesses, but written news is more conducive to more deep-dive content and less to the potential dangers of poorly piecing together decontextualized sound bite journalism. I am a huge advocate for the survival of small newspapers.
In any case, I doubt most people in this field are in it for the money.
It is an unfortunate reality that some newsrooms are biased and unreliable on a consistent basis. It brings me hope and joy to know that other newsrooms, like the Cynic, are constantly doing their best to be responsible, diligent, balanced, accurate and fair.
Additionally, though some commenters on our Instagram posts have made statements like “cancel my subscription I’m over your issues,” the Cynic actually has no paywall.
It is highly accessible. It is not a corrupt, for-profit news outlet. It holds itself to a high standard, always striving to adhere to a set of traditional journalistic ethical principles promoted by the most broad-based journalism organization in the nation.
But from what I have witnessed, a healthy level of skepticism and critical thinking skills in our populus have been largely overtaken and replaced by a level of cynicism that hardly allows editorially-independent student newsrooms to function in the face of controversy.
Ironic, given our namesake, to say that cynicism has gone too far. Yet here we are.
The way we receive feedback at the Cynic is typically indirect—in the midst of our most recent social media frenzy, not a single person emailed me, my managing editor or my news editor with a corrections request.
This is not uncommon. On the contrary, it is one example of a larger pattern I’ve witnessed firsthand as a young journalist time and time again.
This mode of provocative, angry, indirect communication has, on numerous occasions, severely compromised our staffers’ mental health to the point that it became part of the reason they quit.
In a time when strong, traditional journalism is undervalued, it pains me to see young people who may have otherwise considered going into this discipline getting essentially cast out by their peers and community members and ultimately giving up on the dream.
We need good journalists now more than ever. Journalists deserve to be given grace and treated with respect, even in the face of their own mistakes—especially when they are just starting out and in the midst of their process of learning how to be reporters.
We take what we do and our impact on our community very seriously. At the same time, as much as the Cynic is a real news outlet, the Cynic is also a learning lab. We put hours of research and immeasurable effort into the work that we do, and we are learning as we go.
Online violence targeted at journalists is on the rise, according to a study about growing threats to journalists, as are harassment and sense of safety concerns among journalists, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, an American independent, non-profit, non-governmental organization based out of New York City.
While it is uncommon that my staffers have been doxxed or received threats, the backlash has amped up to nearly that degree on several occasions that I can recall. It goes beyond being just inappropriate. My staff should never be in a position of worrying about their safety among peers.
I recall, for example, one moment when a former staffer and friend was once told by another UVM community member to “go get cancer.” I, myself, have been the target of a smear campaign that got blown out of proportion as a result of one of my stories being poorly received back when I was a sophomore.
I was bombarded with messages calling me “dumb,” was told I “scraped the bottom of the bowl” and that I “should be ashamed to say [I] have benefited this community at all” by a fellow student, who later reevaluated the situation and apologized to me for their harsh response.
One of twenty people who left harsh and misguided comments on that story itself—a first-hand account of COVID-19 isolation housing—even went so far as to imply that they hoped another Cynic reporter would be exposed to the virus, so as to re-report on the same conditions.
That experience actually propelled me to give our newsroom a “Dealing with Harassment” presentation, which I modeled off of notes I took from a Gannett Co. presentation on the same topic, cited earlier in this editorial, which I viewed while interning at the Burlington Free Press.
The fact that harassment against journalists has become so commonplace that these presentations are a necessity is absurd. I even recall my presentation scaring off one prospective Cynic member entirely.
I only wish I were more equipped with skill sets and tools to provide this kind of training, as my own limited knowledge and experience can only take us so far. But it would be even better if these training sessions were not necessary. The point is, things have gotten out of hand.
It is unfortunate that media literacy is not always highly valued and that mindful, constructive, good faith communication is not always honored when providing feedback. Both are crucial in a productive, civil and democratic society.
Up until now, we’ve had a history of telling our staffers to have a thick skin and tune out the noise. Our leadership has handled complaints on a case-by-case basis, talking with concerned individuals and avoiding engaging in comment wars so as not to come off as unprofessional.
But there comes a point at which it becomes necessary to break the fourth wall. There comes a moment when enough is enough, and a public statement needs to be made.
This is not how we should treat each other. This is not okay.
Unsurprisingly, the Cynic is not alone.
I acknowledge the fact that having a platform gives me and my staff power and an amplified voice, and I recognize that this fact isn’t something to take lightly.
The story that propelled the most recent bout of backlash has since been updated, in as timely a manner as I was able, with additional context in an effort to balance out the voices represented.
I’m sorry for any negative impacts that may have been related to the publication of the initial iteration of the story.
Data is always important in evaluating impact. One thing I’ll say is that our story—which came out the day before Town Meeting Day and centered around one particular ballot measure—had about 600 views by the day of the election, according to our website analytics.
Undoubtedly, some of these views were drawn by the outrage and collective agitation on social media. If so, those viewers would not have been impacted by any possible bias in the initial reporting.
More than 10,000 people cast ballots on Burlington’s Town Meeting Day. The views on our story up to that point accounted for less than one-tenth of the number of voters who showed up to the polls. It is also worth noting that some of our readers aren’t Burlington voters, such as UVM students who are registered to vote in their hometowns.
The Cynic has, on several occasions, considered turning its Instagram comments off in an effort to minimize harassment and assuage safety concerns. We have not done so because we worry that the public backlash over that decision would be even more extremist and malicious—and truthfully, we do value polite audience engagement.
Though NPR still has its social media comments on, it is one of many media organizations that deactivated the comment feature on its website several years ago in an effort to diffuse hateful rhetoric and harassment that had become rampant among readers who engaged.
Don’t get me wrong, I am a proponent of free speech. I am not and never have been anti-discourse on topics of political relevance to a community. Accountability is crucial, but harassment is violence. The manner in which we engage with one another matters.
Please continue to call us out for our mistakes.
The next time you do so, simply reach out to me directly before getting wrapped up in a public condemnation campaign or targeting my reporters in our Instagram comments.
Ella Ruehsen, Editor-in-Chief