Kat Duncan is the interim director of innovation at the Reynolds Journalism Institute at the Missouri School of Journalism. She founded RJI’s Women in Journalism Workshop and the new JSafe app to empower female journalists experiencing online harassment. It’s in beta testing now, and you can request to be a tester here.
Online harassment can occur without warning. It can be about a tweet you sent, a story you published or a comment you responded to. But journalists cannot shut down their Facebook, Twitter and email. We have to be accessible to the public, which means we are accessible to constant abuse, harassment and personal attacks as well.
Imaeyen Ibanga, AJ+ senior producer and presenter, said “I don’t think you can be a woman or person of color in the 21st century and not be thinking about harassment and online abuse. It doesn’t matter what you cover. I’ve seen it in all spaces.”
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Ibanga’s video work publishes on YouTube in the AJ+ channel. When she produced a piece on what most mass shooters have in common, a man ripped her seven-minute video and broke it down in his own 20-minute video that targeted every aspect of her and her journalism.
“I vividly remember that he stopped to not only make fun of me, my name and people not being able to pronounce it, he then made a sexual reference,” said Ibanga. “That was the first time that anything like that had happened to me. And then his video got many more views, in part because he sent a bunch of trolls to thumbs-down my video to suppress it in the algorithm. He was literally making money off of harassing me and the work I’ve done, while keeping us from successfully reaching audiences that we’re trying to reach.”
Today with every piece she produces, Ibanga said harassment is at the forefront of her mind. She thinks about how she and her subjects could be harassed. She takes great care to distance herself online and not share any personal information that could be used to target her. She doesn’t share photos or experiences from a city she’s in until after she leaves it.
“We can’t prevent people from being terrible, which is why there needs to be a larger conversation,” Ibanga said. “The onus of online harassment can’t be on the journalists.”
News organizations, she insisted, have to be willing to monitor and clean up comments and make their online spaces into places that are safer for their journalists to engage the community in.
Unfortunately, many newsroom leaders fall short when it comes to combating online harassment.
In my years as a photojournalist I have worked at eight newspapers as an intern, staff photographer, videographer or editor. I became an editor in large part because I witnessed indifferent and unkind managers in many newsrooms. They cared about journalism, but not so much the people under them who were working so hard every day to produce it.
I wanted to be what a newsroom staff deserves: a manager who showed they cared deeply about their people’s wellbeing, safety and mental health in addition to their growth as a journalist. But there was no training or guidebook to being a middle manager, and with the addition of online harassment — I had to do the best I could in new, frightening situations.
What do you do when a source threatens your staffer by letting them know that they found their parent’s address online? Or tweets and emails them death threats every day? Comments on every story they publish with vitriol and hate?
I know many newsrooms are underfunded and understaffed. Most of them cannot provide Hostile Environment Awareness Training or online safety training for their women, POC, LGBTQ+ and non-binary staff. But newsroom managers also don’t always encourage their marginalized journalists to advocate for the training, support or resources they need to be safe and healthy in the face of what they cover every day.
After Washington Post reporter Felicia Sonmez tweeted about Kobe Bryant’s rape case following his death, she was attacked online by over 10,000 people. Hundreds of trolls hurled misogynistic comments, graphic images and suggestions of violence at Sonmez. At least one user indicated they knew her home address. Instead of receiving institutional support, Sonmez was suspended.
We watch this angry mob mentality happen online often, especially towards women and other marginalized journalists.
I knew there was more we could do to support journalists who are harassed. So I developed an alternative.
At the Reynolds Journalism Institute, I am lucky that my job encourages me to look for opportunities to create resources that will help journalists with the current challenges they’re facing. Last year, I gathered women, women-identifying and POC journalists to discuss the kind of harassment we’ve undergone online and in person, inside and outside our newsrooms. We brainstormed how to combat it: HEAT training, self-defense classes, sending emails with attachments showing the abuse to your personal account, telling your editor that you need personal health days, seeing a therapist regularly, etc.
Suddenly I thought, there has to be more than this. There has to be something that journalists can turn to when their bosses don’t care or their newsrooms don’t have the resources they need or they are freelance and have no support at all from a structured company. So, we created — with a team of co-workers and student developers, input from the Coalition For Women in Journalism, support from my boss and tons of time — JSafe.
JSafe is an app, which will be available for iOS and Android, where journalists can store evidence of harassment including video and photo files. I came up with the idea, my team at the Reynolds Journalism Institute is currently building it and the Coalition For Women in Journalism is going to run it once it officially launches.
Documenting harassment is key to stopping it, but it’s time-consuming and confusing when it happens on multiple platforms. JSafe makes documenting harassment easier. Now, instead of a folder associated with your work email, journalists can keep the records stored safely in one place that they can access from their phone anytime. Users of the app are able to categorize each incident by threat type (sexual, physical, life threat, verbal, etc.), note the handle (Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, email) of their attacker, add the location it happened and include additional notes about the incident.
If users would like assistance, they can click the “request follow up” option, which will notify the team on the back end that they need help. Free resources can include lawyers, mental health counselors, tips on how to work with police and/or any type of resource a user requests that is within the power of the Coalition to provide.
Is it a full solution? No, of course not.
But it’s something that I hope every marginalized journalist can have on their phone so that if someday they need resources, support or just someone to talk to, they can submit a report, ask for the help they need and actually get it.