November 25, 2020

Like many professors, I follow journalism graduates on Facebook to keep up with their achievements, and recently came upon a disturbing post that inspired this column. An alumna received a signed message from a reader who called her “a f—— idiot” and told her to “go and f— yourself, b—-.”

Jessie Opoien, opinion editor for The (Madison, Wisconsin) Capital Times, broke journalism convention by sharing the offensive message. That same convention asks news workers to ignore slurs and threats, promote their work on social media, and focus on their assignments instead of their detractors.

That’s a prescription for PTSD, especially for women journalists.

In October, Ms. Magazine ran a article titled, “Online Harassment, Physical Threats: The Cost of Reporting for Women Journalists,” emphasizing these points:

  • In the first half of 2020, some 25 organized troll campaigns targeted women journalists, up from 17 cases during the same period last year.
  • By publication time, there had been 267 attacks and threats against women journalists.
  • Many of these attacks focused on appearance or sexuality, including death and rape threats, as well as incidents of doxing in extreme cases.
  • Women of color were 34% more likely than white women to be mentioned in abusive tweets.
  • Black women received racist messages in addition to being addressed in sexist or profane slurs.

The article concluded:

As trolling often falls into the gray zone somewhere between freedom of speech and online anonymity, we believe that a real, honest conversation with actual journalists who experience online abuse firsthand, is crucial to get some more clarity and sense of solidarity.

Solidarity is fine. What isn’t is journalism convention.

For 14 years I served as director of Iowa State’s Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication. Women journalism instructors get trolled, too. As supervisor, I reported threats to authorities, asked tech support to identify the abusers’ IP addresses and took risk-assessment measures to ensure safety. Policy also required me to provide support services to the employee, if requested.

In the wake of the #MeToo movement, threats against women professors have increased. An Inside Higher Ed article cites a study that found 91% of instructors reported at least one act of student incivility or bullying. “Women, racial minorities, younger faculty members and those with less experience and credentials reported more such instances.” Another study found women academics more than male peers suffered “anxiety, stress-related illness, difficulty concentrating or wanting to quit.”

The impact of sexist and racist slurs is devastating. An essay by Kristina M.W. Mitchell titled “It’s a Dangerous Business, Being a Female Professor” documents the emotional trauma of a rape threat. “I was made to feel vulnerable in my office — my professional space — which is perhaps the one place in my life where I feel most empowered and assertive.”

Reporters are empowered at their desks, too, using cutting-edge technology to disseminate content instantaneously to subscribers. Their articles, photographs and commentary influence decisions from school boards to board rooms. They are influential members of the Fourth Estate, informing the electorate and keeping government in check.

When journalists are targeted, trolled and threatened, the intent is to disempower them. Editors know this. However, if employees honor journalism convention, ignoring the slurs and intimidations — because, well, they’re reporters — their work may suffer along with their psyches.

RELATED POYNTER TRAINING: #UsToo: Building Trust in Newsrooms

Conversely, when editors support employees, the climate in the newsroom brightens.

“What a difference it makes, as a woman in a newsroom, to have editors who make it very clear that they want to hear about harassment,” Jessie Opoien said. “For years, I kept a lot of incidents and patterns to myself, only talking about them with other women who understood or were dealing with the same thing.”

After a handful of incidents, Opoien mentioned online harassment “in an offhand way — maybe a joke or a ‘hey, can you believe what this guy just said to me’” — and then realized her editors did not want her to suffer such treatment, reassuring her that they would support her any time she decided to take action.

“It’s incredibly empowering just knowing that, even if you don’t decide to act on most of the stuff people say or do.”

Opoien would like editors to reassure all reporters, no matter their gender, that management would support them anytime they feel uncomfortable or endangered.

For that to happen, editors must rethink conventional practice and address this pervasive problem. They can use technology to identify the IP addresses of abusers, reporting any threats to authorities. They can contact abusers and demand apologies, take risk-assessment measures to ensure the safety of their newsrooms and offer an array of support services to ensure the mental wellbeing of employees.

Editors also are empowered by the First Amendment.

When I saw the offensive message that Opoien posted on Facebook, I wrote this response:

Your editor should write an op-ed about it. People who send these outrageously offensive messages should be asked for a formal apology and/or a response or statement to be included in the published piece. Yes, every journalist gets these, but women journalists get far more. If editors want a safe newsroom, they need to let the public know and expose those who abuse news workers.

I hope editors, publishers and general managers respond to the call here to leave a comment about best practices to support news workers from continued online harassment. Perhaps Poynter can assemble those responses in a follow-up piece about best practices.

Trolls have power without consequence. It’s time to give them a taste of their own toxic medicine.

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Michael Bugeja, a regular contributor at Poynter, is author of "Interpersonal Divide in the Age of the Machine" (Oxford Univ. Press) and "Living Media Ethics"…
Michael Bugeja

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