No matter how seemingly innocuous your beat is, you can find yourself a target of online abuse. The effects are deafening; indeed so because coming under threat of violence from readers, random Twitter users, extremist groups, state actors and even your own sources can chill speech and even drive writers offline. (According to a 2017 PEN America survey, 14.5 percent of respondents said they stop publishing their work because of online harassment). In a world where so many people’s livelihoods depend on being online—not to mention a global society grappling with what constitutes “fact”—such outcomes are unacceptable. More, not fewer, voices need a presence in the public sphere.
Harassment is even more acute among certain groups and identities. According to a 2019 study by the Committee to Protect Journalists, female and gender non-conforming journalists overwhelming cited online harassment as a top concern (90 percent in the U.S. and 71 percent in Canada). Black journalists, journalists of color and LGBTQI+ journalists also face more frequent and intense harassment.
Threats from Anyone, Anywhere
Threats can come from multiple perpetrators—angry readers, disappointed fans, coordinated networks and even disgruntled sources—and through multiple mediums, like DMs, emails, message boards and article comments.
Erosion of trust in the media has made journalists even more vulnerable to threats or intimidations, making contingency plans all the more urgent. Labeled as the “enemy of the people” and as spreaders of “fake news”, journalists face frighteningly normalized attacks for simply doing their jobs. Whether heckled while reporting on the streets or harassed online, the intended consequence of such abuse remains the same: to intimidate and silence writers and journalists. This Action Plan aims to neutralize such efforts; to help you retain your voice and feel empowered to take action.
As we wrote in our 2019 report about online harassment, journalists “face...scrutiny, exposure and danger and therefore have unique considerations in security, their safety, or responding to harassment.”
While getting the story written at all costs is often par for the course for journalists, there truly is no higher priority than your safety. This Action Plan covers how you can assess and respond to threats of violence in your line of work. The Plan was researched and written by Jacob Silverman, a journalist and the author of the book Terms of Service: Social Media and the Price of Constant Connection. Runa Sandvik, a journalist digital security expert and former senior director of information security at the New York Times advised.
Who Should Use This Plan?
If you have been threatened with violence, whether you feel the threat was implicit and explicit, consider reviewing this Action Plan. You’ll learn about what to do first and foremost, what next steps to consider, and how to access additional resources like direct support or emergency funding.
While these Action Plans were researched and written with journalists in mind, anyone can use the resource to help them decide on the best next step for their situation. Follow along line-by-line to relieve the stress of these typically overwhelming moments and situations. You only need to take one step at a time.
Special thanks to Jacob Silverman, who researched and wrote this Action Plan, and to Runa Sandvik, who contributed her expertise and feedback on this topic.