HONOLULU – Journalist Maria Ressa wrote a book called “How to Stand up to a Dictator” last year and won a Nobel Peace Prize for her courageous work at Rappler reporting on authoritarian regimes in the Philippines.
Speaking at the East-West Center’s international media conference in July, Ressa talked about another challenging task: standing up for herself and her newsroom when online trolls attack them on platforms such as Twitter, where Ressa has more than 500,000 followers and where the Rappler has 3.6 million.
Trolls attack her personally, zooming in on photos of her face, manipulating the images to exaggerate her eczema condition and calling her “scrotum face.” A study by the International Center for Journalists for UNESCO in 2021 noted that 60% of the troll attacks aimed to damage Ressa’s credibility as a journalist while 40% attacked her personally with sexist, misogynist and explicit themes.
These trolls “meant to kill my spirit,” Ressa said “It didn’t work.”
The same UNESCO study found that 73% of female journalists surveyed had experienced online harassment and one-third experienced physical attacks they believe were related to online harassment.
Reconsidering the openness philosophy
During the early aughts, many newsrooms began to follow the mantra of “everything should be free” with their content. They also embraced an openness philosophy that often involved putting reporters’ photos, phone numbers, email addresses and Twitter handles on the website or bottom of stories.
That helped reporters gain Twitter followers and receive story tips. It also opened them (especially female reporters such as Ressa) up to online harassment.
In recent months, as we have been demonstrating the VettNews.com Cx system to manage reader feedback and corrections requests, some newsrooms have told us that the system fits into their goals for “reporter safety,” a growing concern for them. Some newsrooms want to see less abusive behavior between readers and from readers toward their reporters. They want to promote civility and media literacy and limit (or eliminate) incivility.
Is it time to reconsider how open we should be with our staff bios and contact information? Should we grant more power to reporters to consider what kind of contact information to share publicly and how engaged or transparent to be on various social media platforms? Should we empower editors and technology to better manage reader feedback and foster respect?
Limiting incivility and harassment
Taylor Lorenz, who covers internet culture at The Washington Post (previously for The New York Times), has more than 325,000 followers on Twitter. Her edgy reporting on technology and politics has created intense scrutiny and backlash toward her and her employers at times. Lorenz told MSNBC’s “Meet the Press Daily” in April that she has severe post-traumatic stress disorder from bullying and harassment she’s faced online.
“They’ll threaten children — they’ll threaten my parents. I’ve had to remove every single social tie. I have severe PTSD from this,” she said. “I contemplated suicide, and it got bad. You feel like any little piece of information that gets out on you will be used by the worst people on the internet to destroy your life and it’s so isolating.”
Lorenz appeared on the show segment that discussed a study from New York University’s Center for Social Media and Politics that found one-third of women under age 35 are victims of online harassment. “It’s overwhelming,” Lorenz said. “It’s really hard.”
Meanwhile, Lorenz haters in conservative circles and tech circles seemed to celebrate her public tears on MSNBC and accused her of hypocrisy for her own online behavior, which they argued included harassing and “doxing” sources. When Fox News host Tucker Carlson criticized Lorenz on his TV show, the NYU study showed a sharp rise (115% in one case) in threatening, insulting and sexually explicit tweets toward the journalist.
“The dart guns of social media give more power to trolls and provocateurs while silencing good citizens,” writes NYU social psychologist Jonathan Haidt in a May article in The Atlantic. He notes other research shows women and Black people are harassed disproportionately and that small fringe groups on the left and right dominate the aggressive speech online.
“When our public square is governed by mob dynamics unrestrained by due process, we don’t get justice and inclusion; we get a society that ignores context, proportionality, mercy, and truth,” Haidt writes.
Mental health and privacy concerns
“Part of this was caused by a presidential administration that kept talking about ‘fake news’ and made the press the enemy of the people,” says Jim Pavia, the money editor at CNBC Digital. Pavia spoke to a group of 10 Dow Jones News Fund interns that Garry Howard and I train each year to report for various American City Business Journals publications around the United States.
The group is much more diverse in race/ethnicity, gender and geographic backgrounds than the average newsroom in America. The group focuses on reporting on minority-owned businesses. In each of the last two summers, this group of 10 interns reported more than 300 stories on minority-owned businesses, an incredible contribution to business journalism coverage. Both SABEW and the LOEB awards recognized Howard for this successful program.
Pavia, Howard and I were talking with the students this year about differences in the 1980s and 1990s when we got into journalism, compared to the workplace cultures and concerns in newsrooms today. We noted younger generations are speaking up more about mental health, work-life balance and privacy. And while some of the prodding may seem incongruent with newsroom demands and workflow, many of us from Gen X and the boomers agree that a good number of younger generational concerns are worth considering.
“Back in the ’80s, there was no real support waiting for reporters,” Pavia told the students. Today, he says he makes it a priority to coach and protect reporters on his team through contentious interactions with readers. Pavia urges his team not to engage when there are negative comments on social media. “There’s no upside to getting into social media arguments,” he says. “I tell my reporters to just let it go because you will never get anywhere with these people.”
He sees the challenge of being open with sources counter-balanced by the need to stop trolls and teaching reporters how to have a thick skin and block abusive readers or bots.
“Whatever media outlet you are working with, their responsibility is to protect their journalists,” Pavia says.
Death by a thousand digital marketers … and trolls
While newsrooms are under pressure and have laid off staff in recent decades, more and more people are working in fields like public relations and digital marketing. More technology platforms are allowing marketers to find sales leads and to build lists of journalists that they can contact repeatedly in their marketing “funnel” in hopes of getting mentioned in the media and notching greater brand awareness and sales figures.
Such tools may be wonderful for marketers. Yet, they can be annoying for journalists who are being inundated with more PR emails while trying to report news on their beats.
One such PR software firm is even called “Prowly.” It features an owl logo, claims to have more than 1 million journalists in its database and promises to help paying users “reach journalists more effectively.” Is that what we had in mind when we encouraged journalists to publicly list contact and biographical information?
André Beganski, 24, a Dow Jones News Fund business reporting intern at Decrypt.co this summer, said he thinks journalists should still make themselves accessible to engage with potential sources and promote a sense of transparency in their reporting.
“However, while I think providing an email address or Twitter handle makes sense, providing a phone number can open the door to spyware attacks, such as Pegasus,” he says. Entering the field of journalism “comes with a certain degree of forfeiture to one’s privacy. We put our bylines on articles because it makes us accountable, and we should keep it that way.”
As noted earlier, however, men and women may have different hurdles with transparency as women face more online harassment and abuse.
Ayesha Hana Shaji wrote her first column for The Shorthorn at the University of Texas at Arlington with the headline and thesis “Muslims in America should not be targets of discrimination decades after 9/11.” Shaji, an international student from India and Abu Dhabi, reminded readers that singling out an entire religion based on what 19 terrorists from the same religion did was not fair. “Muslims are allowed to honor almost 3,000 innocent lives lost that day. Muslims are allowed to feel the pain. And they’re allowed to grieve,” she wrote. “Muslims are allowed to be Americans.”
Shaji found herself rattled by strident comments such as “I’ll take ‘Straw Man Arguments’ for $1,000, Alex.” But she says what really hurt were direct messages via Twitter belittling her opinion and identity. She deleted those messages but said the criticism on her first published piece “affected me more than I thought it would and definitely more than I’d like to admit.”
Shaji, now 20 and a senior at UT Arlington, persisted as a journalist. She’s interning this summer at The Dallas Business Journal as part of the Dow Jones News Fund business reporting program. She says she’s learned to develop a thick skin as a journalist. She wrote a piece about the H-1B lottery system for the student paper and again received some nasty responses, such as a direct message via Instagram that said, “If you graduate it’s a testament to the incompetence of the university. Have fun finding a job that hires pisspoor writers with maybe one brain cell.”
“This didn’t bother me as much,” Shaji says. “I started to understand that this is a side of journalism that I’ll have to be accustomed to. When you put your work out to the public, they’re entitled to make their judgments at the end of the day, I guess.”
Some possible solutions
Groups such as Trusting News and The Trust Project often encourage newsrooms and journalists to be transparent with the public. That can include showing how journalists do their jobs and showing they are people, too. It also often means showing journalists’ faces, contact information and credentials on websites, according to Trusting News.
Should it mean journalists must share full contact and biographical information? Or do societal trends allow for some circumspection?
Shaji agrees some journalists’ information should be transparent such as a professional email address, a Twitter handle and a LinkedIn profile. But she thinks reporters should be able to determine what biographical information they release on news outlet staff pages. “Forcing a reporter to release more private and personal information than this seems unnecessary to me,” she says.
Jim Brady, vice president of journalism at Knight Foundation, wrote in an email newsletter in early July that reporter safety is one of three pillars that he and his team at Knight are focusing on with their grantmaking. While many journalism foundations focused on protecting reporters from physical violence in the past, many are recognizing online verbal and psychological abuse is becoming more pronounced and sometimes a precursor or ancillary to physical violence on journalists.
Beyond rethinking staff openness and transparency, perhaps some of the answers include NewsTech products (yes, like VettNews Cx), improved mental health services in newsrooms and dogged reporting.
As attacks on Ressa and Rappler increased after she won the Nobel, Ressa added counseling for staff members at TheRappler.com, where the average age is 23. She and her team continue reporting on authoritarian regimes and their use of social media, leading Twitter to suspend bot accounts in some instances.
Even the day she spoke at the East-West Center conference in Honolulu, she made international news announcing a new government shutdown order against her site. She smiled and gave encouraging words before scurrying off to fight this latest legal hurdle.
“We are living in illiberal times. It takes courage to stand up,” she says. “And we must.”