Online Harassment Can Sway Coverage. How Should Newsrooms Respond?

Online Harassment Can Sway Coverage. How Should Newsrooms Respond?

In a booklet published to help journalists who face online harassment, the Brazilian Association of Investigative Journalism (Abraji) writes, "By the investigative nature of his profession, the journalist is susceptible to criticism...But it’s important to separate criticism of work from insults to the person.” 1

Journalists are well aware of the precariousness and public nature of their profession; that their work is subject to public debate. However, they increasingly face a barrage of personal attacks, intimidation, or threats, for reasons that range from a topic they cover to personal characteristics like gender or appearance.

The booklet continues, “It is also vital not to naturalize the harassment as if being targeted was part of the job." Some journalists suffer these attacks silently and in isolation, but they shouldn’t have to. Newsrooms are particularly responsible for making sure harassment is not perceived as just “part of the job.”

Employers set the conditions of employment (or contracts) and rely on journalists’ work and public online presence for financial success. It makes sense, then, that newsrooms need to establish and protect the boundaries between staff’s personal and professional lives.

Presumably newsrooms around the world—whether local or global outlets—want to assess and manage attacks on journalists so they can keep doing their job and, therefore, contribute to the publication’s success. But how are they doing?

Acknowledgment as a First Step

It’s unclear exactly on what scale newsrooms are responding to online harassment, but it is clear from anecdotal evidence and a range of studies (see below), that there’s a bigger role newsrooms can play to support journalists facing online harassment.

In a focus group of Finnish women journalists who have experienced online harassment—organized by the International Press Institute (IPI)—the participating journalists “insisted that even a simple sentence communicating support and understanding together with an offer to provide necessary measures would have been enough to ease the emotional toll [of online harassment].”

In online harassment-focused studies or surveys from around the globe, acknowledgment of the harassment is heavily cited as a critical first step for newsrooms and publications. (You can find these common responses, concerns, and attitudes towards online harassment in publications by the Knight Institute at the University of Texas, Reporters Without Borders, PEN America, Electronic Frontiers Foundation, and IWMF, from varying angles and perspectives).

Newsrooms and publication leadership can:

  • Acknowledge the harassment
  • Develop response strategies, including how to assess threats or anticipate them
  • Work with the targeted journalist to decide how best to show their support (taking safety into account, first and foremost)

For example, earlier this year, Sarah Jeong, a technology journalist and lead technology writer for The New York Times editorial board, received strong, public support from The New York Times and her former employer, The Verge, after becoming the target of online mob harassment.

A Responsibility to Take Online Harassment Seriously

In their Online Harassment Field Manual, which was developed based on the results of a survey of writing and publishing professionals, PEN America notes that “some employers see online harassment as stemming from an employee’s personal use of digital spaces, and thus argue that it’s inappropriate to intervene.” However, as noted in the IPI Finnish survey and elsewhere—and as can easily be observed—a public online presence is increasingly important for a successful career in journalism.

Newsrooms know this. In fact, many encourage journalists to maintain an online presence and develop guidelines for their participation in the public sphere.

PEN America said it best when they wrote, “Employers have a responsibility to at least take the harassment seriously, listen to the needs of their writers, and, ideally, offer or help develop a plan of action for addressing the abuse.”

So, how might we convince leadership to take online harassment more seriously and more decisively support journalists?

Reframing Online Harassment as a Threat on Press Freedom

If a newsroom faces apathy or indifference about online harassment, it might help to reframe individual online harassment cases as attacks on press freedom that directly impact the publication’s ability to operate and succeed. While online harassment is a very personal and individual experience for the target, it’s an existential threat to the publication.

Online harassment aims to silence targeted individuals. For journalists, that means the intimidation is meant to drive them away from certain topics and remove them from public forums.

Distribution

According to the PEN America survey, “67 percent of survey respondents reported having a severe reaction to their online harassment, including: fearing for their safety or the safety of their loved ones; refraining from publishing their work; and/or permanently deleting their social media accounts.”

Without journalists—including freelancers—to publish their work and promote that work through social networks, where does that leave employers? Will journalists who decide to remain in the industry shoulder even more emotional burden and risks to their safety? Or, in another way to look at it, what topics will remain in the shadows?

Coverage

Similar findings are echoed in the aforementioned Finnish survey. While no journalist interviewed for the survey admitted to “self censoring,” many thought more about how to leave little room for misinterpretation in their writing or even “re-considered the angle of articles.” Furthermore, “journalists said they thought twice about whether to write about immigration,” effectively setting a dangerous precedent that could leave a topic unreported or underreported.

These aren’t isolated findings. A Miami Herald journalist earlier this year recounted to NPR how a fake Tweet affected her ability to report on the Parkland shootings. A Center for Media Engagement study also worried about self-censorship because journalists—particularly female journalists—feared escalating harassment and attacks. Or, take, for example, that more than a third of PEN America survey respondents said online harassment forced them to reconsider covering certain topics.

Sources

In another take that should raise alarm among editors, the Finnish study reports that editors from Finland’s largest daily paper were concerned that online harassment was further hindering reporters’ work because some interviewees feared hate or threats and therefore were refusing to appear in reports. Rightly, “The editors perceived this development as a serious threat to a free and open society that embraces freedom of expression.” What’s credibility reduced to without sources to cite?

This concern is echoed in a survey of nearly 600 female journalists by the International Women’s Media Foundation, which notes that “journalists report having either abandoned their pursuit of specific stories or having difficulties with their sources as a result of the threats and abuse.”

What's Next?

Together, these studies and examples form a concerning picture that publications face operation and existential threats not only from the decline of print—as is frequently covered and cited—but perhaps, these days, even more so from online harassers’ ability to silence voices and sway coverage.

What do you think? How do you address online harassment at your organization? Or, what best practices or policies do you think should be shared?

For a comprehensive set of best practices for employers of writers and journalists—including those who use freelancers and contractors—please read this chapter of PEN America’s Online Harassment Field Manual.

For steps on how to approach an employer or publication about online harassment, please visit this OnlineSOS Action Plan.

1 As translated from Portuguese in an article by the Knight Center