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What is a journalist? How the Nicola Bulley case highlighted a worrying trend

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Published on 27 February 2023

Nicola Bulley
Nicola Bulley

In the wake of the tragic death of Nicola Bulley, it’s becoming apparent that many people can’t distinguish between the mainstream media and social media users.

Carole Watson, Associate Head of School (Journalism and Communications) and media law lecturer at the University of Sunderland, asks: what is a journalist?


I should know what a journalist is. I was one for over 20 years at newspapers such as the Daily Mirror and Sunday Sun and magazines including Grazia before moving into higher education. As a child, I grew up in a home where my dad was a national newspaper reporter who’d regale me with all the latest stories. The Collins dictionary’s rather old-fashioned definition of journalism is “the job of collecting news and writing about it for newspapers, magazines, television or radio.”

But journalism is so much more than that these days. Journalists tell stories with multimedia-rich content online and via social media platforms such as Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and TikTok.

Which brings me neatly to social media users who livestreamed their “reporting” on the case of mum-of-two and mortgage advisor Nicola Bulley who went missing while walking her dog and whose body was later found in the River Wyre in Lancashire.

Whether spurred on by an obsession with true crime Netflix documentaries or podcast, or a desire for attention as wannabe detectives, some social media conspiracists (aka ghouls) took to social media to discuss their theories about Nicola’s fate and attempt to solve the mystery. According to the BBC, they descended on the area, dug up woodland, and tried to break into an abandoned house to get better footage of the river.

And, just as seriously, some made highly defamatory comments about Nicola’s anguished partner Paul Ansell, an innocent party in her disappearance and death.

These amateur sleuths armed with smartphones are certainly not police officers.

Nor are they what I would define as journalists.

Worryingly, the mainstream media (journalists hate that phrase) are increasingly becoming confused with social media users who play fast and loose with the law and ethics.

Don’t get me wrong: I am a true believer in freedom of expression and everyone’s right to make creative content. But professional journalists know that right comes with responsibilities and restrictions.

On our journalism courses at the University of Sunderland, every student must undergo rigorous exams and assessments in media law and ethics to ensure they do not break the many laws including libel and invasion of privacy which the Nicola ghouls flouted. That’s whether they aspire to a career in hard news, sport or fashion. And students on our social media management course are also thoroughly schooled so they know that a single Tweet or Facebook share could land them in jail or with huge damages in court.

All our journalism courses are accredited by the National Council for the Training of Journalists (NCTJ) which scrutinises our teaching to ensure students know that accuracy and ethical behaviour is at the heart of all their content-gathering.

Real journalists would not trample over an area cordoned off by police. Nor would they make unfounded accusations against people without strong evidence which would stand up in a libel court.

I’m not saying journalists never make mistakes nor that there hasn’t been wrongdoing in the past.

But please do not confuse the “mainstream media” with the Wild West of social media where I spot illegal posts, Tweets, Reels and videos every day.