Thoughts on online harassment of journalists and how Newsroom can help

I recently went to a meet-up about online harassment targeting journalists and it allowed me to think about this and the things we can do at Newsroom to help journalists dealing with this issue.

Harassment of journalists is nothing new. History has shown us this harassment is often a side effect of being told the truth: some won’t like it and rather than take steps to create a better reality, they might believe intimidating others is the right way to solve their internal conflict. They’re obviously wrong.

What is new is that the Internet allows harassment to be taken to an all-new level.

Today, if you publish a story that some readers may dislike, these disgruntled readers, organizations or sometimes countries might go through your social network accounts, copy your personal pictures, and Photoshop them in demeaning or otherwise inappropriate situations. This may look like they are merely creating memes to mock or humiliate you, but really what they’re doing is airing your private business in public and hoping you get the hint that they could increase the sadism quotient in your direction. In a way, they’re right — this is just the beginning. They absolutely could twist the knife further by bundling your information from different places and anonymously blackmailing you with the data you didn’t even know existed online. They can spam you with bots on Twitter or by subscribing you to thousands of newsletters, making your email inbox unusable. They might spread damaging rumors to your coworkers, your friends, or your family. They might insult you, even send you death threats.

Once thing that is undeniable is that when you’re being harassed, no matter how strong you might feel at that moment, it does affect you. Harassing a journalist is not about tit for tat, it is about keeping you emotionally and psychologically distracted so you can’t do your job. Harassment is not about what you published, it is about what you and your peers are going to publish next.

What can a journalist do to protect themselves and mitigate the effects of an online harassment campaign about them?

Before

  • Teach these things at school. Journalism students should be aware of the potential for harassment from Journalism 101 forward so they can protect themselves by limiting the amount of information they put online. It’s easy to put something on a social network, forget it for many years, only to have it thrown in your face via an angry reader digging into your personal life and gifting the world with out-of-context information about you in retaliation.
  • Lock down your social network accounts. You can keep using Facebook, Instagram, and other platforms if you wish, but it is a good idea to limit the amount of information visible online. Hide everything from the public and when you can’t (such as your profile picture) use something that you would feel ok putting on a professional network such as Newsroom or LinkedIn.
  • Do an audit of your online presence. Put yourself in the mind of a harasser. Where would you go to find private pictures? Try to find personal data about yourself. Out of everything you found, would you be ok putting that in a zip file and handing it over to a harasser? If not, take steps to delete this information from the Internet. It is possible to get help from professionals to do this audit.
  • Talk about online harassment with your newsroom. Work together in creating a check list of things you can do together to limit the impact of such events. Maybe this support entails closing down the comment section of the article, maybe it’s tweeting the journalist a shout out, maybe it’s writing an update to the article to let the reader know what is happening (see below). Either way, having a check list will help everyone who will potentially be involved in this matter be more effective.

During

  • Update the article to let the reader know that the author, the story or the publication is the victim of online harassment. Why do that? Well, some readers can be confused about what they see online. Their first encounter with your article may be through a medium you’re not connected to and have no control over, altering the narrative to suit their reality. You don’t want that. If someone goes to your article because it is denigrated in a YouTube video or a tweet, you and your publication deserve the right to set things straight.
  • Do not block; mute. You do not have to answer to online harassment. Ignoring it is sometimes the safest thing to do and muting is a great way to do that. Online harassers do not know when they’re being muted but they know when they’re being blocked, so it’s better to not give them the satisfaction of being acknowledged by you.
  • Hide notifications. Notifications can have a bad impact on your mood especially in times when you’re being harassed. You do not need to see threats and insults on your Lock Screen, so hide your notifications. You can decide to only get informed of notifications from people you follow.
  • Explain what is happening in a blog post. If you’re the victim of harassment, it might be easier for you to write about it and sending the link to people contacting you (they might receive anonymous emails, they might be concerned coworkers, or other loved ones). An explanatory blog post may prevent you from having to repeat the story and allow you to get some distance from the harassment, so you can get back to work (remember that this is exactly what your harassers don’t want you to do). You can also tweet about it and pin it on your profile.

After

  • Talk to other journalists. It is common for journalists to endure some kind of harassment. If this happens to you, know that you’re not alone. Online SOS is an organization empowering individuals experiencing online harassment with confidential, professional support through resources and technology.

How can Newsroom help?

From day one, we built Newsroom as a private platform for journalists where they can stay current, show their work, and connect with each other. Being a private platform, it creates the safe space journalists need to do anything they must in order to keep their readers informed.

Following that meet-up and the discussions that happened during that evening, we decided to build a feature that will let journalists annotate their articles as being the target of harassers. This annotation feature will take the form of a context block so other journalists writing about that story have better understanding of the situation.

We don’t currently have a communication system built in Newsroom, but we hope this new context block will lead to journalists supporting and empathizing with each other on the social media platforms listed on their Newsroom profile, which is much needed when a journalist is the target of harassment.

If you have any suggestions on how Newsroom could do more to help journalists who are being harassed, feel free to let us know. We’re building Newsroom for journalists and we need your feedback to make Newsroom the best it can be. Please contact me on Twitter.