Despite the growing ubiquity of online violence against journalists, many reporters still lack the resources to adequately address the threats and harassment that they face simply for doing their job.
Last year, the International Women’s Media Foundation (IWMF) launched the Coalition Against Online Violence, a hub of information to help reporters and newsrooms respond proactively and reactively to the threat of online violence.
With so much online discourse devoted to how newsrooms fail victims of harassment, The Objective wanted to help news workers think through these issues before they happen.
To learn more, The Objective’s Curtis Yee spoke with Nadine Hoffman, deputy director of the International Women’s Media Foundation, about how online violence drives people away from journalism, preparing for online violence before it happens, and the resources available to help.
In 2018, we produced a report with Troll-Busters about the impact that it’s having. We talked to or receive survey responses from over 600 women journalists and this was one of the main threats that emerged: trolling, online violence. Over a third of the respondents said that they had considered leaving the news industry because of the online harassment that they were dealing with. And obviously, there were a lot of other caveats that went with that — feeling that they couldn’t talk to management about it or feeling like management didn’t support them, or being a freelancer and having no one to escalate that to. This is something that’s driving women out of the news industry, and often you hear people speak about it as sort of a silencing of women journalists’ voices. And obviously, not just women, we know that it affects all journalists, but especially women journalists, journalists of color, [and] LGBTQI journalists. If there are additional layers of marginalized identity, that increases risk, so that was sort of the jumping off point.
What we realized was that there are other organizations that are doing excellent work outside of the press freedom space. So in the human rights space, civic tech, and in feminist organizations, there’s also been a lot of really deep thinking done around this issue, because we know it’s not just journalists. It’s really individuals, and particularly women, who are working in public spaces — whether that’s in politics or media or civil society — and so we thought we could actually accomplish a lot more if we work together with our partner organizations and try to understand what already exists.
The first part of building the coalition was just understanding what guides have other organizations developed. What sort of training do they offer? What’s their geographic scope? What kind of services do they provide to journalists who are facing online harassment? And so as a part of that mapping, we were building this coalition. Today we have more than 60 organizations, both in the U.S. and internationally, that are all really engaged from different angles on this issue, whether it’s providing direct assistance, digital safety support, or on the advocacy side and lobbying the tech platforms or trying to shift the newsroom culture. We wanted to really focus all of our efforts together and make it an issue that is treated with the same level of seriousness that physical safety threats are treated in the journalism industry.
In terms of what newsrooms can do, the first thing that we would ask, if we were partnering with a newsroom — which we do to support this area — is do you have any kind of policies in place to address the digital safety and the issues of online harassment that are happening? If someone receives threats, if someone is getting trolled, do you have a process in place? Who do they report to? What is the escalation? And what is the newsroom prepared to offer that journalist? If a journalist is doxxed, is there going to be a provision for them to have a safe place to go and stay while that is addressed? Do you provide for your journalist a service like Delete Me or one of those other scrubbing services to help them to keep their private information off of the internet? There are some really basic things and unfortunately, a lot of newsrooms simply don’t have a policy to begin with because it’s something that they’re just starting to grapple with. And what we’ve seen from the experts who do the training for newsrooms, is that often when it comes to management, which tends to be still very white and very male, this is just not rising to the level of their attention. They aren’t aware that this is happening to many of their journalists, and it’s happening on a constant basis. When we meet with managers, there is often surprise or, if there’s not surprise, the other reaction is: “We want to address this, but we don’t know how to do it like that.” They just need some help getting those structures and policies in place to have a starting point to address it.
Often, what you see is that people start paying attention to their digital safety when something bad has happened. So part of it is shifting the thinking to how you can make digital hygiene and talking about online harassment part of the overall risk-planning process. Just like when you’re sending a journalist out to cover civil unrest, and you’re like, “Okay, this is the gear I need. I need to have my flak jacket, I need to have my gas mask, I need to have my exit plan from this protest. It’s working it in there and thinking about it before the story is published because that could be the point where the abuse really starts.
The other thing that we’ve really seen is that you need to have buy-in at every level in a newsroom for this to really work. It can’t just be that the journalists need to go out and get training and think about how to incorporate this into their risk planning. It has to be assigning editors to really think through the different kinds of risks that could exist both online and offline. It has to be something that every level of the news organization is on board with and is taking seriously.
Another thing as a coalition that we often do is ask the journalist who’s being attacked, if they would like to be supported through positive messages on social media — sort of amplifying that they’re a credible journalist, and we have their back. Sometimes that can be useful and sometimes journalists would prefer not to have that support.