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A photographer sets a remote camera before Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg's appearance at a joint hearing on Capitol Hill in April 2018. Online harassment is perceived as the biggest threat for journalists in the U.S. and Canada, CPJ's safety survey found. (AFP/Brendan Smialowski)

Why newsrooms need a solution to end online harassment of reporters

By Lucy Westcott/James W. Foley Fellow on September 4, 2019 9:00 AM ET

Stef Schrader was on vacation in Germany last year when spam messages started to flood her inbox. Seeing random emails from Macy’s—and job alerts for the position of “Chief Idiot”—she realized someone had signed her work email up to dozens of email lists.

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Schrader, a freelance automotive journalist based in Austin, Texas, said she had an inkling of who was responsible. A persistent commenter had been repeatedly banned for making sexist, racist, and homophobic comments on Jalopnik, the automotive and transportation website she wrote for at the time. But she added that the experience was “kind of scary.”

Schrader was never able to prove who was responsible for the deluge of emails. She said that while her workplace was helpful, it was unable to track the IP addresses of commenters, meaning they couldn’t pinpoint the user either.

Her experience shows the lack of control journalists have over their online lives, and the power that someone who is upset or angered by an article can wield.

Schrader is one of 115 female and gender non-conforming journalists in the U.S. and Canada who responded to a CPJ survey on safety. Journalists described a tension between needing to be on social media for work purposes, and having to prepare and protect themselves from harmful, almost inevitable, online harassment.

“Despite greater attention to this in recent years, I still don't think managers are fully aware of the differing levels of targeting women face during their work and as backlash to it,” an online reporter and editor, who did not provide a name, said in the survey. “Women whose work is published online face costs, in the form of threats and harassment, for almost every single piece they publish.”

Ninety percent of U.S. journalists and 71 percent in Canada described online harassment as the biggest threat facing journalists today. And 50 percent of those surveyed said they have dealt with online threats. But only a handful had received digital safety training.

In response to these findings, CPJ has updated its safety notes on Digital Security, including guidelines on how to remove personal information from the internet, how to deal with the psychological impact of online harassment, and DIY digital security guides that provide best practices for protecting yourself online.

A global problem

Online harassment of female journalists is not unique to the U.S. and Canada. CPJ has documented threats and harassment in South Africa, India, Brazil and Italy of journalists covering beats from sports to politics. The Organization of Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) recognizes the online harassment of female journalists as a serious threat, noting that they face a “double-burden: being attacked as journalists and as women.”

Yet despite a near-universal acknowledgement that it is a deeply entrenched problem, little has been done outside of low-level action such as recommendations to remove comments and block or mute users. It seems that no one has a solution. While it’s the responsibility of a newsroom and its employees to keep themselves safe online, there is only so much they can do if social media platforms don’t take action to remove threatening accounts or protect their users. Separately, freelancers lacking the support of a newsroom structure are at a greater risk.

The incidents detailed in responses to CPJ’s survey represent, in many cases, a chronicle of worst-case scenarios. A Vancouver-based broadcast and online journalist said she was threatened by bots after reporting on Saudi Arabian women. An online reporter and producer in New York who did not provide her name, said she was the subject of a “strange identity theft attempt” on an online message board, in which a user posed as the reporter and posted a controversial, insensitive question. Her Twitter mentions were soon flooded with abuse. “I reported it immediately to my company, but other than monitoring the situation, there was really nothing they could do,” the journalist said.

Beats such as politics, extremism, and the internet trigger the worst abuse, the survey found. Journalists who report on these topics said their likeness was photoshopped on to pornographic images, or they were sent images made to look like they were decapitated. Threats to rape and murder reporters have been publicly broadcast on podcasts and radio shows. The journalists said they’ve experienced doxing not only of themselves, but also their relatives. A Canadian reporter said trolls threatened to call child services and authorities showed up to investigate the false claims.

“This stuff it so commonplace, but so isolating,” a U.S. writer, who covers far-right extremism and online toxicity, said in the survey.

For Schrader, the comments sections on various websites she’s written for are the center of harassment and abuse. “The kind of comments that I get can be a lot more sexual than the ones that the guys I work with get,” she said. “When people insult a woman, it’s always like, you’re a slut, you’re a whore. It’s just so much more graphic.”

The level of hate in comments sections has prompted many news outlets, including Reuters, NPR, and The Atlantic to shut them down. A study from the Center for Media Engagement, part of the Moody College of Communication at the University of Texas at Austin, published in July, discussed the mental toll experienced by comment moderators on news sites, and showed that the moderators’ trust in their news site declined as a result of having to sift through them.

Finding a solution

The ease of contacting reporters online and the importance placed on being active on social media adds to the burden. “With the push for journalists to have social media and to be incredibly online, it is easy for [people] to quickly access large amounts of information about me,” a Long Island, N.Y.-based reporter, said in the survey.

Lauren, a community reporter in New England, told CPJ she was so fed up with sources contacting her through social media to ask her out on dates— “on top of the usual harassment through Facebook comments,”—that she stopped using Facebook. She says she received endless abuse in the comments of Facebook Live videos, which she was required to do for her job, and felt relieved when she no longer had to do them.

“It affected me to the point that I was willing to cut off that valuable source of community discourse to feel safe,” said Lauren, who is using her first name only to protect her privacy. “We are, as reporters, semi-public figures, so it’s up to us to draw the line between private and public.”

Journalists said in the survey that employers and newsrooms could do more to protect and prepare them for online threats. But those in charge don’t always know how to protect their staff online, and see a lack of concrete action taken when reports of abuse and harassment have been made to social media platforms.

A security manager for an international news organization, who asked for anonymity in order to speak freely, told CPJ that a generational divide between those in charge of security and internet-savvy reporters creates challenges.

“You’re talking to some people who don’t know how to pull up TweetDeck,” he said, referring to how newsroom security managers tend to be older. Speaking about reporters, he said, “If you as a 23-year-old millennial have never seen the need to separate your personal and private life, we can’t train against that.”

Gaps also persist between the level of support and protection afforded to staff versus their freelance colleagues, even within the same organization. Schrader, the Texas-based freelancer, said that readers had previously contacted her editors to complain, in an attempt to have her dismissed. “That’s one of the creepiest things; they didn’t go to me, they went to the main feedback line,” said Schrader. “People straight up want to see you fired sometimes. It’s terrifying.”

The mantra of blocking and reporting accounts responsible for harassment isn’t always enough. “This can make [harassers] even angrier and the problem only worsens and the cycle repeats,” Hayley Sperling, a Wisconsin-based online reporter, said in the survey.

“Workplaces should offer more tools to women and all employees to keep themselves and their online information secure,” an online and print reporter, based in New York, said in the survey. She added that she has received harassing comments on Twitter and Instagram, as well as phishing attempts that impersonated her editor and boss.

One solution is training and better digital hygiene. (According to the survey, 94 percent of journalists who did not receive digital security training would like it.) Tools such as DeleteMe scrub the internet of personal information and make it harder for that information to be used against you. However, some of that information will never disappear.

Through the Partner Support Portal, Twitter has a way of letting newsrooms file priority reports, a Twitter spokesperson told CPJ. Twitter advises freelancers and journalists who don’t have a newsroom to report issues via the app and let the company know if they disagree with a decision.

The journalists who responded to the survey had clear ideas about what they would like: a direct line of communication with a digital security team at Twitter and other social media platforms. Journalists cited a lack of tools available to protect them from online harassment, including doxing and physical threats made against them. For some, above all, they just want online threats to be taken seriously.

For information on how journalists can protect themselves, see the CPJ emergencies department’s Resource Center


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