Tips for Newsrooms to Support Journalists Targeted by Online Harassment
Journalists have always been the target readers’ ire. Until around fifteen years ago, critics of reporters voiced their distaste in the form of hate mail sent to the newsroom address, calls to editors, reporters or the front desk, occasional emails, complaints submitted as letters to the editor, posts on low-traffic blogs, message boards or in more extreme cases, mail sent to a journalist’s’ home. This was often mitigated by front desk associates and editors screening letters and calls before the hate reached reporters’ desks.
But things have changed. Today journalism demands reporters maintain an active presence on social media, a public email address and a dedicated cell phone number, offering critics direct access to reporters. Social media also provides a platform for individuals and groups to make their own videos, blogs, , and social media posts that can go viral, sometimes reaching thousands or even millions of viewers. While at times critics focus on the content of a story, increasingly it's the reporter herself who is targeted by waves of online vitriol. The harassment can get so bad that it may hamper a journalist’s physical safety, emotional health, family relationships and professional reputation. The cadence and volume of harassment greatly increases depending on the race, gender, sexual orientation and religion of the reporter, according to extensive interviews with journalists. Women are harassed and threatened more than men. Reporters of color receive more hateful comments than reporters who are white.
The harassment journalists endure happens on the job. Yet, according to a dozen interviews with journalists from a range of beats, outlets and experience levels, very few newsrooms have responded in ways that reporters say makes them feel supported and safe. Journalists who cover beats that put them in position to witness and often become the target of online hate and harassment are given little, if any, training for this increasingly dangerous assignment. Internet reporting, like combat or crisis zone reporting, carries with it its own risks.
The Technology and Social Change Project offers the following tips for newsrooms ready to update their practices and protocols to better support journalists caught in a crossfire of racism, sexism, bigotry, personal attacks, false accusations, threats and reputational damage they endure online as a result of doing their jobs.
We focus on three key areas of intervention.
- Enhancing newsroom digital security
- Developing a responsive culture of editorial support
- Building new protocols to shield journalists from bad faith and bigoted attack
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Enhance newsroom digital security.
Offer digital security support prior to publishing hot-button stories. This requires allocating resources and budget. Reporters in newsrooms that offered robust digital security support shared that they felt confident and prepared to do more hard-hitting stories.
Provide every journalist, prioritizing those whose beat puts them more at risk, an annual check-up of their digital security.
This can be performed by someone on a tech team or an outside consultant, but should include working with journalists to inventory and rotate all their passwords across digital assets, adding two-factor authentication, removing old posts from social media that could spark more harassment and removing publicly listed ties to family members that could open their networks to attack. By sitting down with journalists once a year to assist with digital security, staff can unobtrusively ask about specific vulnerabilities that may arise on their beat and newsrooms can get a clearer sense of where journalists feel unsafe.
Provide every journalist with a subscription to a password manager.
Also offer an annual service to remove their personal information from data brokers that often populate websites with their home addresses, phone numbers and the contact information of their families, like DeleteMe and 1Password. Journalists who have access to services that wipe their personal information report feeling safer when harassment ensues.
Security professionals that help journalists undergoing online attacks likewise say that one of the top sources of harassment that becomes dangerous originate from databroker and phonebook-type websites, like White Pages and Spokeo. Removing one’s information from those sites is best done through a private service, since information can repopulate after it is taken down.
Have at least one person in the newsroom or on call who is a digital security specialist.
This person should have expert knowledge of online harassment and more shady corners of the Internet where these communities like to gather. Groups like Tall Poppy and Equality Labs offer these services. Experts in online harassment can help monitor forums in case a journalists’ personal information is being leaked or credible threats are being made. They can help communicate to social media platforms that attacks are underway in case mitigation can occur on the backend, document threats, and can provide support to journalists catered to their particular experience. Having someone a journalist can work with directly when they are attacked online during the course of doing their job not only protects journalist safety and sense of support.
Enhancing digital security is especially important for newsrooms that are television-focused.
Some newsrooms have honed the vast majority of their security posture to protect on-air talent. This is important, but reporters who publish online, producers and radio journalists are all targets of hate on the internet, too, and experts in physical security more often than not lack the expertise needed to keep your staff from fast-developing online threats.
Develop a culture of support.
This is easier said than done. But across newsrooms, journalists shared in interviews they felt newsrooms failed most often by making reporters undergoing online harassment feel as if they are the problem. Reporters shared that they were hesitant to speak up about the hate they receive for fear of being seen as difficult––or if reporters did share their experiences, sources we interviewed said they were often told to stay quiet on social media, ignore it, or in some cases were even punished or ostracized for raising the concern.
While at times it is best to say nothing or even delete a post, this posture can also backfire. Silence can give bad faith harassers the benefit of the doubt. Deleting a post or a tweet can provide fodder for harassers who regularly keep a close eye for any misstep that may be used to diminish a journalist's reputation. Moreover, recommending journalists stay silent can give reporters the impression that their newsrooms either will not have their back or that speaking up internally could negatively impact their career.
For reporters of color who receive a deluge of hateful tweets, comments and emails, those reporters often take the hate on quietly––or attempt to brush it off. Racism and sexism is a constant fixture for many reporters. This should be addressed, not ignored, in order to improve the news we make and the newsrooms where we make it.
Regularly communicate to staff that your newsroom cares about their well-being and demonstrate it by offering reporters an intake mechanism for sharing when they’re undergoing harassment.
In weekly editorial meetings or before potentially contentious stories are published, reporters should know from the outset that hate and harassment they encounter as a byproduct of their job is a concern to their bosses and coworkers. While some level of negative feedback is expected with any controversial reporting, when it includes bigoted slurs or threats to the reporter, there should be a dedicated intake process where they can send the material. Wherever this is sent, it should be reviewed and at a minimum archived in a file to review if hate escalates again or for legal matters.
Have a chain of support ready to help.
When a reporter is undergoing an intense online harassment campaign, she should know who to contact about it. Editors should know who is next in line to notify. If newsrooms do not have internal digital security support, newsrooms should consider hiring an outside firm or consultant to have on-call when needed who knows the landscape, how to help a journalist safely through the span of the harassment and where to monitor for escalation online. Newsrooms may also consider having a therapist on-call to offer to reporters who are being inundated with hate. If the harassment is intense, consider offering some time off to staff. If a journalists’ home address is posted online, newsrooms may consider having a budget on hand to help temporarily relocate the reporter.
Validate reporters’ experiences and provide places to communicate about their well-being safely.
Encourage journalists to support each other, not by engaging or responding to the harassment campaign, but by reading each other’s stories, sharing positive feedback internally or sharing the story online, and having employee resources groups, like a Slack channel or regular meeting, where journalists can share their stories with each other and collectively asses their experiences. If one employee is asked to facilitate an employee resource group, find a way to compensate that employee for the extra work, like with comp time or payment.
Build new protocols as new threats emerge.
Internet culture moves under our feet. Beats that become suddenly mired in adversarial online cultures can turn high-risk, and newsrooms should conceptualize protecting these journalists as they might for crisis zone reporting. It’s critical to look around corners in journalism, not just for potential stories, but also potential points of vulnerability to the credibility of newsrooms and safety of journalists. One of the best ways to spearhead this discussion is to cultivate a culture of support and through regular digital security check-ups with reporters. Journalists are smart and when pressed to think ahead of how they can do their jobs best, they probably have some fantastic ideas.
Culled from interviews with reporters, here are some examples of what newsrooms can do to make their newsrooms safer and thus more conducive for stellar journalism.
Help journalists with online reputation management, like in terms of SEO optimization, including YouTube and Google searches.
One of the goals of online harassment is to alter a targeted individual’s search results on Google and YouTube by quickly publishing blog posts across websites and videos on YouTube detailing a dust-up about an article or a targeted reporter, editor or photographer, essentially giving the appearance of a controversy being much larger than it is. The reputation of a reporter and their editor is central to their ability to do their job well.
Most newsroom social media managers have some relationship with liaisons from major platforms. We recommend working with newsroom social media staff to set up a meeting with their platform liaison to discuss ways to mitigate search engine gaming by downranking search results, for example, from unverified accounts that attempt to embroil the reporter with counterfactual claims about their work or bad faith attacks on the reporter. Remember, it’s not just Google. YouTube, though also a Google property, is the second most popular search engine in the world.
Build email filters that scan for racist, sexist, and bigoted language.
Newsrooms routinely test journalists’ cybersecurity chops by sending fake phishing emails that reporters are then supposed to report. If phishing attacks can be scanned for and largely prevented, then newsroom technology teams should be able to build simple filters to look for common racist, sexist and bigoted slurs. The use of these slurs are so common in reporters’ inboxes, offering journalists a tool to keep their inbox clear of them will help to reduce much of the hate that comes their way.
Monitor and report the journalists’ social media threats for them.
Have an inbox or shared folder where journalists and their editors can archive the vitriol they receive online. Unfortunately, social media companies require that someone report harassment, often forcing people who experience the onslaught to dredge through hate lobbed against them in order to do something about it. Editors, fellow reporters, social media managers or an outside consultant should be assigned to help with this reporting and cataloging of serious threats should they be needed to review later. Sharing this responsibility alone helps to lessen the burden on the victims of online abuse.