With the killing by police of George Floyd in Minneapolis, demonstrations against police violence and racial injustice erupted from big cities to small communities across the United States and reporters took to the streets to cover them.
Shockingly, police and people in crowds attacked hundreds of journalists. Newsrooms, industry associations and journalists used to covering war zones issued guidance for physical safety and protective gear, and implored government officials to honor the free press’ right to cover the unrest.
Seeing reporters physically harmed is jarring. Yet every day journalists face digital threats that can be devastating and drive away talent from the industry. Digital harassment is intensifying as tensions between political and social groups accelerate and hostility toward the press increases. Studies show women and journalists of color are more likely to be at the receiving end of abuse. In fact, female journalists say it’s their largest safety concern, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Nikole Hannah-Jones, The New York Times reporter who won a 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Commentary, shared a tweet she received — “U One Ugly Skank” — that is typical of messages she gets.
“Every day I get something like this,” Hannah-Jones wrote on Twitter. “And at least in this one, he didn’t call me a n—–. But on top of everything else, black women journalists deal with daily abuse on social and in our inboxes and on our voicemails and it takes a toll.”
Unfortunately, Hannah-Jones’ experience is not unique.
News professionals are often expected to use social media to share their work. Social platforms can foster public discussions about issues in the news, but abusive and harassing comments targeted at journalists can create difficult-to-navigate toxic environments. Harassment can range from personal attacks about the journalist’s intelligence, race, gender or sexuality, to threats of violence or sexual assault.
Digital harassment is disruptive to journalism. It can lead reporters to change how they tell a story, such as intentionally leaving out specific facts they fear will spark a cyberattack. Harassment also takes an emotional toll on journalists and may even push them out of the profession. A 2018 study by the International Women’s Media Foundation and Troll-Busters.com found nearly two-thirds of the female journalists who responded reported being harassed, prompting nearly one-third of them to consider leaving news — especially younger journalists. This is particularly troubling at a time when women and people of color are already underrepresented in the press.
Journalists have had to come up with strategies to cope with these attacks. Some use digital tools to prevent the public from posting comments containing certain words — such as “boobs” or “sexy” — on their public Facebook walls. Journalists also limit the content they post on their own accounts to prevent attacks.
Social media platforms have user agreements intended to prevent online harassment but don’t always take action against policy abusers. Even when they do, the process can be slow, with underwhelming results. For example, when journalist Elizabeth King was targeted by harassers in a scheme to have her account removed from Twitter, it took the intervention of a journalist advocacy group to bring enough attention to the case to get Twitter to reinstate her account.
Social media platforms must do more to ensure that freedom of the press is protected. This might involve reevaluating algorithms that prioritize angry posts to hit our feeds and grab our attention. The vitriol may be good for business, but society benefits from prioritizing informative and positive threads.
Ultimately, the burden should not be on vulnerable reporters to solve the problem.
News leaders can put in place mechanisms to protect staff and contributors before there is a crisis. They can start by creating a culture where employees feel safe raising concerns about online abuse and harassment, without the fear they will appear weak or be removed from a high-profile beat. When journalists are digitally harassed, newsrooms should take it seriously and enforce a consistent procedure to report the problem to platforms or law enforcement, as needed.
A 2018 study about women journalists and online harassment found newsrooms didn’t do enough to assist them. Many women said if they reported the harassment, they were afraid of being perceived as “hypersensitive.” They said they wanted their newsrooms to offer training on how to deal with online abuse and to support them when harassment occurs.
News organizations must take digital harassment as seriously as physical threats. Consider this example: As a young reporter decades ago, Gina Masullo, the co-author of this article, received a threatening letter written in what looked like blood from a prisoner. Her newsroom called authorities. Why shouldn’t our response to online abuse and threats of violence be taken just as seriously?
Addressing digital harassment will remove one of the obstacles to achieving diverse media workplaces where every journalist can feel safe. Failure to wipe out this scourge threatens more than individual journalists. It endangers the integrity and freedom of the press, imperiling the very foundation of our democracy.
Gina M. Masullo, Ph.D., is an assistant professor at The University of Texas at Austin and associate director of the Center for Media Engagement. She spent 20 years as a print and online journalist. Her research focuses on online incivility, and she has published several studies on online harassment of journalists. She is the author of “Online Incivility and Public Debate: Nasty Talk” and “A New Town Hall: Why We Engage Personally with Politicians.”
Carolyn McGourty Supple is a Visiting Professor at UT and Cofounder and Executive Director of The Press Forward, a nonprofit and nonpartisan initiative dedicated to advancing culture in newsrooms through training, education and research.