The U.S. midterm elections will be held on Tuesday, November 8, 2022, in an increasingly polarized political climate. During this midterm election year, all 435 seats in the House of Representatives and 35 of the 100 seats in the Senate will be contested.
Online abuse and digital threats to journalists have been steadily increasing, as has political violence across the United States. “The 2020 election season was an inflection point that led to a step-change in acceptance of violence as a political tool,” according to Rachel Kleinfeld, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
CPJ is a founding partner of the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, a comprehensive database of press freedom violations in the United States. The organization has tracked the rise of anti-press rhetoric and violence in recent years, including at least 30 assaults of journalists in 2022 through October 3.
Although most assignments might not involve risk, covering rallies, protests, and campaign events could potentially be hazardous for journalists. Some vote-counting centers and polling places are potential hotspots, with self-appointed poll observers and even armed protesters a disruption concern. Election workers themselves have been targets of violence and intimidation.
For journalists, having a simple conversation with your editor can increase risk awareness and enhance your safety. The following checklist enables editors to best prepare journalists and other media workers as they cover election hotspots or risky assignments.
When selecting your reporting team, consider:
- How experienced are the journalists?
- Have they covered stories with elevated tension or emotions that can lead to violence?
- Do they have a history of good decision-making under pressure?
- If they are inexperienced, what support mechanisms can you put in place to increase their safety? For example, could a more senior journalist cover the desk and provide guidance if needed?
- Is your team mentally prepared to be confronted by aggressive individuals?
- On higher-risk stories, can you assign two journalists, so no one works alone?
- Bear in mind that exposing the identity of the journalist may increase their risk of harm, and plan accordingly. In some cases, a journalist’s identity may also help to keep them safe.
- Do they have local knowledge about the area they will be working in?
As part of your risk assessment, discuss:
- Establishing a check-in procedure.
- What footage or other material will be needed to complete the assignment. There is no point lingering at a risky crowd event gathering material that will not be used.
- Conducting a dynamic risk assessment and consider using CPJ’s risk assessment template.
- The potential for online attacks as a result of reporting on the election. Review CPJ’s editor’s checklist on protecting staff and freelancers against online abuse.
- What indicators to look for that would trigger a withdrawal of the team.
- Recording the emergency contacts and details of all staff being sent on the assignment.
Guidance for journalists in the field
- Maintain a low profile and gauge the mood of crowds toward the media before entering any situation. Always use discretion when reporting or filming, especially around people who are armed or aggressive.
- Plan for regular check-ins with your editor or newsroom point of contact. If working as a freelancer, consider having a check-in procedure with a fellow journalist, family, or friend.
- Take the time to plan an exit strategy in case the situation turns violent. Identify where you can take cover if you are able to escape, or until help arrives.
- If you are working alone or after dark, be extra vigilant, as the risk potential increases.
- Avoid individuals who are under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
- If possible, try to build a rapport with individuals before interviewing them.
- When conducting an interview, consider your situation. Are you surrounded by others who may take an interest in your reporting? It is often individuals on the periphery who start causing trouble, rather than interviewees.
- When you are on the phone or filing copy or footage, ensure that you are in a protected space where you can see threats coming.
- In general, be prepared to be verbally abused, intimidated, or even spat at. Remain calm and do not allow yourself to be provoked.
- Consider your choice of clothes. Avoid wearing flammable materials, such as nylon, or anything that is loose-fitting and can be grabbed. Avoid newsroom logos and political slogans, as well as military fatigues and black-colored outfits, which are often worn by far-left anti-fascist (antifa) groups.
- If an incident occurs, take notes on what happens and notify the relevant authorities.
- Continuously observe the mood and demeanor of the authorities. Visual cues such as police in riot gear, shield walls, or thrown projectiles are potential indicators that aggression can be expected. Pull back to a safe location when such “red flags” are evident.
- In general, be prepared to leave the situation if you feel the level of risk escalating or that appealing to the authorities would be to no avail.
- If you leave, retreat to a safe location before reporting into your newsroom or point of contact.
Dealing with aggression:
- Read people’s body language, and use your own body language, to pacify a situation.
- Maintain eye contact with an aggressor, use open hand gestures, and talk in a calming manner.
- Keep an extended arm’s length from the threat. If someone grabs you, break away firmly without aggression. If cornered and in danger, shout.
- If the situation escalates, keep a hand free to protect your head and move with short, deliberate steps to avoid falling. If part of a team, stick together and link arms.
- Be aware of the situation and your own safety. While there are times when documenting aggression can be newsworthy, taking pictures of aggressive individuals can escalate a situation.
Digital safety: Protecting your devices and their content
It is important to maintain best practices around securing your devices and the content contained within them. If you are detained while covering the election, your devices may be taken and searched, which could have serious consequences for both you and your sources. The following steps can help protect you and your sources:
General best practices:
- Lock your laptop and phone with a PIN or password. This will better protect the content on your devices if they are taken from you.
- Be aware that the authorities may be able to access your phone even if it is secured with a code. Using biometrics can be helpful if you need quick access to your phone, but journalists should be mindful that it can also give others, such as the authorities, easier access to your device. Know your rights with respect to what the authorities can and cannot do with your devices and the content stored on them.
- Update your operating system when prompted to help protect devices against the latest malware, including spyware.
- Turn on encryption for your devices if it is not already enabled by default.
- Do not leave devices unattended in public, including when charging, to avoid them being stolen or tampered with.
- Avoid using USB sticks that may be handed out at election events. These could contain malware that could infect your devices.
- Be aware that any phone conversation or SMS message sent via a cell phone provider can be intercepted, and the content obtained. To avoid this, use end-to-end encrypted messaging services, such as WhatsApp or Signal. Learn more about how to use these apps securely in CPJ’s guide to encrypted communications.
- Be aware that contacts on your phone may be stored in more than one location, including in apps on the phone and in a cloud account linked to the phone, such as Google Drive or iCloud. Take time to review your contacts and remove anyone who could be at risk if your devices are taken and searched.
- When reporting at the event, have a process for safeguarding material that you have already collected. That way, if you are detained, the authorities will only have access to your most recent content, not all of your materials
- Write down on paper or your arm the contact details of key people, such as your editor or a trusted colleague, in case you are detained and your devices are taken. You may also consider writing down the number of a legal contact. The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press (RCFP) has a legal hotline for journalists reporting in the United States.
- Consider setting up your devices to wipe remotely. This will delete all content on your phone or laptop once activated, but only if it is connected to either WiFi or mobile data. You will need to set up remote wipe in advance, and you should give a trusted person access to the password so they can erase your content in case you are detained.
- Be aware that live streaming from an event gives away your location.
- Ideally, journalists should avoid carrying their personal phones to cover an election rally or protest. If you work for a news outlet with budget to cover a work phone, you should request one.
Journalists who are carrying their personal phones should take the following precautions to protect their data:
- Review what information is stored on your devices, including phones and computers. Anything that puts you at risk or contains sensitive information should be backed up and deleted. You can back up your device by connecting your phone to your computer using a USB cable or in the cloud. Journalists should be aware that there are ways to recover deleted information if your devices are taken and inspected.
- When reviewing content on your phone, journalists should check information stored in apps and in the cloud.
- Think about what apps you may need on your device while covering a rally or protest. Apps for email services and social media providers contain a lot of personal information about you that the authorities or others could access if they take your phone. Think about temporarily uninstalling apps you will not need. You can install them again once you have finished covering the event.
Digital safety: Protecting your personal data online and safeguarding against online harassment
Journalists covering the U.S midterm elections could be subjected to online abuse and the unwanted publication of their personal data online. Media workers are facing an increasingly hostile online environment.
To minimize the risk:
- Be aware that there is often an uptick in online abuse during election periods. This could include targeted smear campaigns against a journalist or their media outlet.
- If you can, speak with your newsroom or editor about any concerns you have about potential online abuse. Check if the outlet has an online abuse policy or support system for journalists who are targeted online. Editors can review CPJ’s pre-assignment checklist for projecting journalists against online abuse.
- Different stories carry different online risks. Speak with your editor about possible threats and how to mitigate them, including any preventative measures you can take. Be aware that you are most at risk of an online attack after publishing a story.
- Review your online profile for images and information that could be manipulated or used as a way to discredit you. Journalists should take steps to remove any information that they feel could be used against them.
- Check to see if your address or other personal data, such as your date of birth or telephone number, is available online. You should take steps to remove that information yourself or request for it to be removed, where possible. See CPJ’s guide to removing personal data from the internet for more information.
- Sign up to have your personal information removed from data broker sites, using services such as DeleteMe, which is owned by the company Abine. Be aware that these services remove data from the most common data broker sites, so your personal information will likely continue to exist on the internet in some form. Consider signing up family members if you consider yourself at high risk of being targeted. Be mindful that it can take up to a month to have your data removed.
- During the election period, monitor your social media accounts for increased levels of harassment or abusive commentary.
- Protect your accounts by creating long, unique passwords for each account. Turn on two-factor authentication for all your accounts, and ideally use an app, rather than your phone number, to receive the code. See CPJ’s Digital Safety Kit to learn more about account security.
- Review the privacy settings on all of your social media accounts. Read more about what data is best kept private in CPJ’s guide to removing personal data from the internet. Social media accounts can also reveal your location, so disable location tracking if you feel it puts you at risk.
- Turn off geo-location for posts on all accounts. If you are going to post photos showing your exact location, consider waiting until after you have left the area.
- Where possible, create professional accounts for social media.
During an online attack:
- Consider making all of your social media accounts private, and ask family members to do the same. In many cases, journalists can be doxed or targeted with content posted by friends or family members.
- Inform your family, employees, and friends that you are being harassed online. Adversaries will often contact family members and your workplace and send them information or images in an attempt to damage your reputation.
- Speak with your newsroom to see what support is available to you. If you are a freelancer, or your newsroom does not have a policy in place, you can find resources at the Coalition Against Online Violence’s Online Harassment Resource Hub.
- Try not to engage with those who are harassing you online, as this can make the situation worse. If you are targeted by an orchestrated smear campaign, it may be helpful to write a statement outlining the situation and pinning it to the top of your social media accounts. Media outlets can also write statements of support as a way to counteract a targeted campaign.
- Be vigilant for any hacking attempts on your accounts and ensure that you have locked down your privacy settings, set up two-factor authentication, and create long, unique passwords for each account.
- Review your social media accounts for comments that may indicate that an online threat may escalate into a physical attack. This could include people posting your address online and calling on others to attack you or increased harassment from a particular individual. Ask a trusted person to help you review your mentions or monitor your account to protect your mental health or if you are unable to monitor it yourself.
- Document any abuse that you feel is threatening. Take screenshots of the comments, including the social media handle of the person who is threatening you. This information may be useful if there is a police inquiry.
- You may want to block or mute those who are harassing you online. You should also report any abusive content to social media companies or email providers and keep a record of your contact with these companies.
- Be aware of the possibility of fraud if private information about you has been publicized. Consider contacting your employer, bank, or utility companies to let them know if you have been doxed.
- You may want to consider going offline for a period of time until the harassment has died down.
For more information and suggestions for keeping yourself safe online, consult CPJ’s Resources for protecting against online abuse.
The Committee to Protect Journalists is a member of the Coalition Against Online Violence, a collection of global organizations working to find better solutions for women journalists facing online abuse, harassment and other forms of digital attack.