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Saturday, March 07, 2015

Five little words...the impact of online bullying

I love you so much, you are everything to me, will you get milk please? These are all simple examples of small sentences of just five words, which might make you feel loved, happy or useful, but recently, I saw the impact that just five words can have, when I was a victim of online bullying, as I was trolled on Twitter. 

I entered a Ryanair competition to win free flights and had to post a picture of myself with my partner and where we wanted to go. 

Even though I use social media a lot and have quite an active online presence, I thought about this competition first and made sure my boyfriend was comfortable with it, but once the possibility of a free flight was put out there, he was grand with it. 

Naturally, I chose a photograph where we both look nice and I happened to have one that had been taken at a family barbecue by professional photographer Eddie Hennessy in Cork. 

Within minutes of posting the entry, a Twitter user @celticpaddy2 had commented "@quinnsandra go to Weight Watchers first" - it's worth noting that he had just 13 followers and I have more than 1,200, but as soon as I read the comment I felt as if someone had punched me in the stomach. 

I didn't even know how to react, but I immediately blocked him and reported the comment as abuse to Twitter. As the day wore on, I felt worse and worse - I had a pain in my chest, I felt sick and I kept crying (almost hysterically). 

For anyone who knows me, they know that these are not my usual reactions if someone says something a little harsh to me. I come from a big family and would consider myself to be quite thick skinned and resilient, but I was shocked by how much those five little words had affected me. 

In the photo I chose, you actually cannot even see my body, so I realised pretty quickly that he had made the comment simply for the purpose of being nasty and cruel, without any true cause or justification behind the remark (not that a mean comment is ever justified). 

A quick perusal of his Twitter page also showed that he had gone on a spate of hurling abusive and mean comments at people he didn't know, who, like me, had innocently entered an online competition. 

Quite often when I put things online, I am not only expecting interaction and engagement from the public, but I invite it. This was different – it was a personal photograph and was, quite honestly, one of the most innocent online interactions I've had. 

I've been working as a journalist for the past five years and as someone who has covered court, personal and neighbour related disputes and a number of controversial issues - I have been on the receiving end of my fair share of abuse, but it was the unexpected nature of this comment that got to me. 

It was cruel, nasty, unprovoked and unwarranted - I think I would have been less shocked if someone had actually walked up to me and slapped me across the face. 

While I got over the comment itself quite quickly, as I didn't think he put all that much thought into it, what got to me was that this one comment had deeply affected me. I’m a self-assured and confident young woman, happy with my own self-image and it made me consider how someone more vulnerable might react to such an attack. 

What if it had been said to someone with low self-esteem issues or someone who was on the cusp of a mental breakdown - those five words could have been the catalyst to tip them over the edge and cause them to do something drastic.  

The other side of this incident is that because it was online, there was no recourse for me, aside from blocking the user. If someone said something nasty to my face, I could just turn around and tell them that it wasn't acceptable for them to speak to me like that. 

It was a classic case of a 'keyboard warrior', where someone made a comment from behind their laptop or smart phone and knew that there wouldn't be any consequences. 

Following on from the comment, that night I contacted every radio station, television show and newspaper I knew and by the next morning, my phone was on fire with people hoping to talk to me about it. 

I spoke to Patricia Messinger on C103 about it on Wednesday, February 11 and was really impressed not only by her empathy, but the way she dealt with the topic, as the incident had ironically happened on Internet Safety Day. 

I then spoke to Neil Prendeville on Red FM on the Thursday, there was a front page article in The Avondhu, my own paper on the same day and The Evening Echo ran a story on it on the Saturday. Then I was in Dublin speaking to Matt Cooper on The Last Word on Today FM about it on Tuesday, February 17. 

I felt sick, couldn't eat and didn't sleep for days - I was quite thrown by the physical manifestation of the emotional turmoil that one comment had caused. 

It was a horrible thing to happen, but it was just one comment – some people have to cope with this kind of abuse on an ongoing basis, which I can only imagine eats away at them and breaks down their resolve piece by piece. 

On the other hand, in a way I'm kind of glad, in a weird way, that it happened to me, because I became quite pro-active and used the incident, vile and disgusting as it was, as a catalyst to prompt discussion about online safety, cyber bullying and what can be done to get people to stop and think before they post something online. 

Hopefully nothing like this will ever happen to me again, but I feel like the experience has made me stronger and it is something that I will probably draw upon at other points in my life. 

I will not let someone I don't know make me feel worthless or small – I am a strong, successful professional and I do not need to let a stranger impact negatively on my life.

Sunday, March 01, 2015

How the blog seed was planted

As a young child, I was always a talker and once I could read and write, there was no stopping me, so perhaps a career in journalism was always going to be my destiny. 

Now, I know that being a journalist might not sound all that exciting or ground breaking, but you'd be surprised - you really would; in my time, I've gotten to do some pretty cool things and speak to some amazing people. 

I didn't always know that I wanted to be a writer and in school, I was equally divided between pursuing a career as a barrister or studying English, simply because I liked reading and writing. 

If I was to give any young person a bit of advice about their career choice, it would be to think about what they like and not about what will end with a job offer. 

If you are passionate enough about something, you will make a career happen, but if you choose to do something because of the wage packet, you won't be happy or fulfilled and inevitably will end up changing careers later on in life, which can be a tough adjustment. 

From my experience, it's quite alright being an intern or trainee when you're just out of college and in your twenties, but doing that and going back to that formidable 'square one' is much more daunting, when you're in your forties and have a family to support. 

I've just realised that my little tangent there was very relevant, as exam students will have submitted their CAO applications and now have until the summer to change their minds on www.cao.ie - I'm sure that career choice and course possibilities are dominating most dinner table conversations in the country at the moment and there's many a parent fretting and trying to guide their child without telling them what to do. 

Anyway, to get back to my original point, I did a degree in New Media & English in the University of Limerick and by the end of my degree, realised that I had a flair for writing and I also seemed to have a knack for honing in on a unique angle of an essay (something that has stood to me as a journalist with many the article). 

However, by the time I graduated, I still didn't really know what I wanted 'to be', so I decided to do a Masters in Journalism and figured that if I hated it, it would still be an MA under my belt and I could then go on to do a PhD, which would enable me to become an English lecturer in college. 

The MA course was good and very interesting, but an unlikely career path for me, as I was (and still am, to an extent) allergic to watching the news, I cringed at all things related to current affairs and I literally couldn't tell you anything about politics or economics. 

I was, however, very good at chatting to people, getting information on events and seemed to have a talent for making people feel at ease. 

I learned a lot from the course, but the most valuable aspects were the Media Law module and shorthand (I use this all the time and it's so natural that if I'm leaving a note in the house, I almost automatically write it in shorthand - I suppose whenever I do end up doing that, my boyfriend will have a legitimate reason for not getting dinner ready). 

Everything else was ok, but not mind blowing and I've got to say, I think my degree helped me a lot more with the writing side of things. There was also an unrealistic, almost Hollywood-esque focus on investigative journalism, which is interesting and wonderful in an ideal world, but not realistic, because most newspapers don't have the resources to let a journalist work on a big story or something huge, when they could be churning out hundreds of smaller stories in that time. 

As part of the course, I completed a month's work experience in The Evening Echo in Cork (one of the country's largest regional papers) and it was from the first day in that newsroom that I knew I had come home - I had found my place in the world and I loved it. 

From then on, I was hooked and so I used my very small window of time to my advantage, by making sure that by the time I left, I wouldn't just be another student who they forgot about immediately. 

I wanted to be the girl they thought of if a job came up, the person they thought of when a cool feature idea arose and 'the one who got away' to a degree - I didn't half have notions of myself like. 

In a way, my plan worked out and I had my first article published the week I started and boasted an impressive (if I do say so myself) portfolio of work by the end of the month. 

I then made sure that I wouldn't be disappearing into the unknown of graduates with no direction, so I kept in touch with the editors and throughout the summer, while working on my thesis, I did a few freelance articles and even managed to get two parts of my three-part thesis published in the paper.  

The following January, I was offered a nine-month internship with The Evening Echo through the JobBridge scheme (www.jobbridge.ie) and I worked from 8.30am-4.30pm, Monday-Friday for nine months, working on news, politics, features, arts, human interest stories, book reviews and sports (I basically did anything and everything I could in there and there was no job too big or too small). 

In a way, it was hard because I was in a newsroom with journalists who had all been doing this for years and while that could have been intimidating, it was the opposite - without the help and support from the 'Echo lads', as I still fondly call them, there's no way I'd have done so well from that internship. 

I really enjoyed my time there and when it was time to leave, I missed it and I'll admit, I still do (sadly, they weren't in a position to take me on afterwards, but without that opportunity, I would not be at this point in my career now).

Immediately after, like with a day in between to move house (all a bit mental really), I got a job in The Waterford News & Star for nine months on a maternity cover contract and this really strengthened my coverage of court and council reports, before moving to The Avondhu (www.avondhupress.ie) in June of 2012 and I've been there since, writing the news snippets for our readers in North East Cork, South Limerick, South Tipperary and West Waterford. 

Starting a blog is something that I've been toying around with for quite a while and now just seemed like the right time. 

I've always been a writer, whether for work or pleasure, and in the past two years, I've started regularly writing in a journal, so I thought that this might be a good way to build on that and also to boost my own profile and online persona (something that cannot be underestimated in our current world of Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest). 

The blog will be a mish-mash of my feverish scribbles, I'll talk about current events and my opinion on them, review books, films and products, as well as local hotels and restaurants and I'll also have different sections dedicated to various areas of interest. 

I will be giving my readers and followers at least one new piece a week and as the blog evolves, I would warmly welcome any feedback or ideas for articles - here's to Quinn's Quandries - let the rants, tangents and random tidbits commence.