Harassment in journalism won’t get better, but we’ll talk about it more openly

Journalism has a harassment problem. The space in which journalists physically and digitally work is often hostile. This can take the form of sexual harassment, threats, and even physical violence from sources, strangers, readers, and viewers. But none of this is new. Journalists have always held the metaphoric football, and as a result, sometimes they get tackled.

However, this sports analogy has become less analogous. Journalists are mentally and literally being tackled while doing their jobs. Jeff German, a Las Vegas Review-Journal staff writer, he was killed on the front law of his home. In this murder, police charged Robert Richard Telles, a public administrator who was the focus of several investigative pieces by German that were critical of his managerial conduct. While this level of violence is currently limited here in the U.S. setting, general hostility is anything but rare.

For example, there is the increase in assaults on journalists as they take to the streets to cover the growing number of protests in the U.S. This is of course in addition to the deluge of messages they receive online, though this is even more pointed for women journalists compared to men.

This “harassment problem” is not getting better. In fact, the increasing discussions around it have appeared to empower many journalists to start sharing their stories even louder on the injustice they experience in a field that says this abuse is a “badge of honor.” Many are starting to push back against abusers by reporting them or highlighting them on social media platforms. Others are pushing back against management when they feel they are being put in an unsafe position. However, in a field that has seen shrinking staff sizes for years and near constant predictions of their demise, news managers are apprehensive to shift a model that would eliminate solo reporting or the hiring of staff to monitor online vitriol, leaving it very much up to the journalists to deal with themselves.

Nevertheless, the industry is changing — and somewhat in favor of the journalists. A recent conversation with a recruiter from a large media group revealed that the company is raising its minimum wage across the board and beginning to offer free health insurance to its journalists. Recruiters from news organizations are reaching out to colleges more than ever, allowing fresh-from-school journalists to begin their careers by reporting in cities and markets once reserved for veteran journalists.

As journalists begin to speak up about journalism’s harassment problem and push back against the toll it takes on them, they are similarly empowered to make choices that focus more on their personal well-being, and less on simply landing any job with a paycheck. I predict that we will see a push in the industry from journalists for more newsrooms and news organizations to start prioritizing their reporters’ mental and physical health.

As more journalists speak out, and more news organizations grow hungry for motivated and talented reporters, they will have to begin adjusting the norms that have historically ignored abuse as a sign that you are “doing good journalism” and shift more to a model that prioritizes the journalists over the stories. This includes a focus on the well-being of their journalists through growing resources and changes to norms on how abuse and mental health repercussions are handled.

Harassment and fear are causing many journalists to leave the industry, and the industry must do what it can to keep them reporting — both for the spread of important information, and for the health of a democracy that depends on that information to inform citizens.

Kaitlin C. Miller is an assistant professor in the journalism and creative media department at the University of Alabama.

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