Journalists regularly endure harassment on the basis of their work, gender, sexuality or ethnicity, among other factors.
This consistent online harassment raises the question: Among individual journalists, newsrooms and social media platforms, whose responsibility is it to deal with harassment, and how should they manage it?
Harassment is a reality of existing online
Generally, harassment is an unavoidable part of existing online. A 2017 Pew Research Center study reported that nearly four out of every 10 Americans have personally experienced online harassment. Two out of three have seen harassment affect others. In particular, harassment often focuses on personal or physical characteristics such as gender, race, physical appearance and political views.
For anyone out there in the Twittersphere who isn’t a journalist: Every newsroom I know of, regardless of size or geographical area, has at least a handful of people who regularly harass its journalists. Every one.
— Audrey Cooper (@audreycoopersf) June 29, 2018
For journalists for whom social media is an unavoidable part of both their personal and professional lives, the problem is equally pervasive if not more severe. In one study, researchers interviewed 75 female journalists based in the United States, Germany, India, Taiwan and the United Kingdom. The results showed that women in journalism regularly face online harassment focused on their gender, receiving comments that were “threats,” “death threats,” and “calls for rape.”
Online harassment can quickly progress past a base-level hum to targeted, persistent attacks. While working as a producer at MSNBC, the reporter Mary Emily O’Hara was targeted by right-wing social media users following an erroneous Tweet made on her personal account. In the original post, which was deleted, O’Hara said that John Feely, the former U.S. ambassador to Panama, was the first official to resign after President Trump used an expletive to describe Haiti, El Salvador and various African countries during an immigration discussion.
After learning that Feely had resigned prior to Trump’s comments, O’Hara returned to correct her tweet only to discover that it had already gone viral. Even after deleting the original tweet and clarifying the inaccuracy in another tweet, the matter was far from resolved.
“Somehow that just made it worse,” O’Hara said. “It was like people just seized on the fact that I admitted that I had done something that was not perfectly factual.”
What followed was a barrage of comments, ranging from violent to nonsensical, on O’Hara’s Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. Conservative outlets such as Fox News and the Daily Caller picked up the story.
“I got suspended from MSNBC for a week,” O’Hara said. “I was told to just go home … I was on probation, like no more tweeting, no more nothing, you know. You need to lay low, so that was all very disturbing.”
It has always been a fact of newsroom life, but I doubt many would disagree with me when I say it has worsened in the last two years.
That said, I also personally get a lot more people pledging unsolicited support than I got two years ago. So there’s that.
— Audrey Cooper (@audreycoopersf) June 29, 2018
After a shooting at the Capital Gazette newsroom in Annapolis, Md., in which five people were killed, The Washington Post wrote that “journalists generally say the number of threats they receive has increased in recent years.” According to the Pew Research Center, online harassment has been rising, with 41 percent of adults reporting harassment in 2017 compared with 35 percent in 2014.
Furthermore, the Post article stated that while there isn’t an explicit single factor to which they can attribute the problem, anti-media sentiment is likely a large part of it “[journalists] say President Trump’s rhetoric demonizing the press hasn’t been helpful.
[ Related article: Journalists at NLGJA convention react to Trump’s anti-media attacks ]
“There’s this whole other level that kicks in sometimes where people are actively targeted,” said Ina Fried, chief technology correspondent for Axios. “You know, doxxing, people are posting personal information online; coordinated harassment campaigns. That’s sort of the scariest level I think that’s out there.”
Doxxing is a form of online harassment in which an individual’s personal information is exposed in a public space.
“I get periodic hate mail, periodic hate Twitter, I’m — I’m okay with that,” Fried said. “I don’t love it, but I feel capable of handling it. I don’t think anyone is prepared to be doxxed. I don’t think anyone’s ready for that level of harassment.”
So, whose problem is it?
The 2017 Pew study reports that 79 percent of Americans feel that online services are responsible for intervening when harassment occurs on their platforms. Regardless, that typically isn’t the case, especially on Twitter.
“I think Twitter is probably the most angry of the social media platforms,” O’Hara said. “I’ve noticed whenever these things do happen, most of the hate that gets thrown my way is via Twitter.”
In a House hearing Sep. 5, Rep. Diana DeGette, a Democrat of Colorado, confronted Jack Dorsey, Twitter’s chief executive officer, about the company’s problem with harassment, citing threats of rape, bodily harm and death, only some of which violated Twitter’s guidlines.
“We don’t believe that we can create a digital public square for people if they don’t feel safe to participate in, in the first place,” Dorsey said. “That is our No. 1 and singular objective as a company is to increase the health of this public space.”
However, Dorsey said that Twitter’s report-based system for recognizing abuse has been used to suspend users from the platform is less than optimal given that it forces victims to report their own abuse. He has stated that Twitter hopes to develop technology that will recognize abuse before it is reported.
Twitter’s current harassment problem traces back to its original purpose as a neutral platform with minimal censorship. However, as Vox states in a video published in Nov. 2017, this original purpose began to collapse. “The same features that made Twitter so attractive to citizen journalists and political dissidents also made it a perfect environment for trolls, neo-Nazis, white supremacists and misogynists.”
Fried, believes that there is a role for platforms such as Twitter to play in moderating harassment. Breakthroughs in artificial intelligence and content monitoring were technologies she cited as having further potential to be applied to social platforms.
“There are ways to build into [Twitter’s] algorithm’s senses for what might be harassment, what might be hate speech, and you know, dramatically down-filtering it without necessarily outright banning it,” Fried said.
Dealing with harassment in the newsroom
Following the incident that affected her, O’Hara returned to MSNBC before eventually moving to Them. last May. She said the lack of support from MSNBC was upsetting. “Rather than sort of rallying an employee like me and protecting me or defending me and saying, oh, you, these things happen, they seem to sort of really spooked by these people and want to kowtow to them,” she said.
Unlike O’Hara, Sarah Jeong was defended by both The New York Times and The Verge, which called for newsrooms to defend their reporters from harassment campaigns. “It’s time other newsrooms learn to spot these hateful campaigns for what they are: attempts to discredit and undo the vital work of journalists who report on the most toxic communities on the internet.”
Recode, another Vox Media brand, partnered with Intel, Lady Gaga’s Born This Way foundation and Vox Media to sign the Hack Harassment pledge in 2016. Hack Harassment is an organization that works to make online harassment less prevalent and severe. Taking the pledge was meant to signify bringing major tech executives into the fight against online harassment.
She says that newsrooms must support their employees. “I think that, again, the biggest need comes when people are being expressly targeted for harassment, doxxing,” Fried said. “That was some of the conversation I’ve had at past employers. If this happens, how would we protect our employees?”
Trish Bendix, managing editor of Into, said it’s her responsibility to make sure her staff members feel supported. Her reporters are currently working on a story that has to do with an underground anti-trans community that is known for doxxing people, including reporters.
“We are now investigating best practices in preparing for this kind of thing,” Bendix said. “We have many discussions on mental health, self-care and the ability to take on stories that can mean personal threats.”
On an individual level, dealing with online harassment is tricky but ultimately comes down to consumption. “For the individual journalist, I think engaging to the degree that you feel it’s helpful and productive and taking care of yourself to the degree that it’s important for your own mental health,” Fried said.
“I made a conscious decision when I first started posting videos to YouTube,” she said. “I would get an email every time there was a comment, and then for a while, I wouldn’t get the emails but … there’s this saying that typically members of targeted groups say, you know, don’t read the comments. And it’s unfortunately more or less true for different people.”
For those who sustain harassment or fear threats of doxxing without an employer directly backing them up, Pen America’s Online Harassment Field Manual provides resources for individuals to protect their information and manage other harassment.
Bendix said that Into would also support contracted writers that are harassed as a result of content published on the site. “We are going through precautions not just on their behalf, but for all of Into because of it.”
Ultimately, harassment is a relatively unavoidable facet of existing online as a journalist. While social media platforms like Twitter are working to mitigate harassment on their platforms, a certain degree of responsibility still falls to newsroom leadership.
“News organizations have for a long time recognized the need to protect their workers in the physical arena,” Fried said. “And I think the same applies with the digital world.”
About the Author
Palmer Haasch is a senior at the University of Minnesota — Twin Cities majoring in English and French studies and minoring in political science. Learn more about her here.