Journalists demanding more action against online harassment

During internal meetings after the departure of Arizona-based reporter Emily Wilder, several reporters expressed concern about whether the AP would have the backs of staff under attack from outside.

“Emily Wilder’s situation triggered this for many people on staff,” Jenna Fryer, an AP player who spoke at the meeting, said in a later interview.

Wilder was fired last month because what the company said were tweets on the Israel-Palestinian conflict that violated the AP’s social media policy against giving opinions on controversial issues. Prior to his firing, a conservative group had launched an online campaign against him over his pro-Palestinian views, and while the AP has said it was not responding to pressure, his dismissal ignited a debate as to whether the news The organization was too hasty.

Journalists are often subjected to racist or sexist abuses, downright insults and threats of rape, dismemberment or other violence by online readers.

Online harassment is hardly unique to journalists. But journalists’ visibility makes them particularly vulnerable to attack, said Victoria Wilk, program director for digital security and free expression at the literary and human rights organization Penn America.

Fryer, who covers auto racing, said she was “in tears everyday” over the online abuse she received last year for coverage of a noose she found in an Alabama garage stall used by NASCAR’s only full-time black driver. She said she only heard about harassment from the company when a manager commented that Fryer got a lot out of it.

“Sometimes you feel like you’re on a total island,” she said.

The news agency says it has worked with law enforcement in several cases when its journalists were attacked online. Nevertheless, after the meetings, the AP ordered a study on what more could be done.

“I can speak from personal experience that we are not ignoring this,” said Julie Pace, the AP’s Washington bureau chief. “What we have to do is to handle the way we traditionally see security threats to our journalists – if you are going to Syria, or if you are covering protests that could potentially can be chaotic.”

Wilk, who has worked with more than a dozen media outlets on the issue, said news organizations often pressured their journalists to create social media profiles over the past decade, seeing it as important to their brands, but its dangers. were slow to see. .

It is usually worse in women and minorities. Wilk believes that the predominance of white people in management has contributed to the industry’s delay in responding.

Some members of the AP’s race and ethnicity reporting team contacted its editor, Andel Gross, after Wilder’s firing, with concerns about whether the company would support him if his stories or tweets proved controversial, he said. Racist abuses and threats often occur to journalists they monitor, including blacks, Latinos and Asian-Americans, and AP Security has responded to many of them, he said.

The team’s story about racism in the military two weeks ago provoked several hateful messages from people who said they were in the military — essentially proving the point of the article, he said.

“I don’t want people to think it should be accepted or tolerated,” Gross said. “But it comes with the realm of the things we write about. We know we can deal with the onslaught of racism with whatever story we prepare.”

NABJ President Dorothy Tucker said the National Association of Black Journalists offered members help on the problem through in-person information sessions and webinars.

According to a study released in April by UNESCO and the International Center for Journalists, nearly three-quarters of the 714 female journalists surveyed said they had experienced online attacks. Twelve percent sought medical or psychological help. The survey said that 4% quit their jobs and 2% left the business altogether.

Washington Post columnist Margaret Sullivan wrote in March that “getting horribly wrong name-calling and sexual fantasies about defaming me.”

“Unless you’re there, it’s hard to understand how deeply unsettling it is, how it can make you think twice about your next story, or even whether it’s worth being a journalist. ,” She wrote.

Taylor Lorenz, a reporter for The New York Times, wrote on Twitter this spring about the “unthinkable” attacks she received online. She wrote, “It is not an exaggeration to say that the harassment and smear campaign I have faced in the last one year has ruined my life. No one should go through this.”

Journalist Glenn Greenwald and Fox News Channel host Tucker Carlson both downplayed their concerns.

“Destroyed his life? Really?” Carlson said in the air. “Taylor Lorenz’s life, by most people’s standards, sounds great, actually one of the best lives in the country.”

A “suck it up” attitude or the feeling that nothing really can be done about online harassment prompts many journalists to remain silent. A veteran player for the AP, Anne M. Peterson said she found pornographic photos online and received threats from someone who attached a Google image of her home. He has not reported the incident to the management.

AP’s Pace, who also writes stories and appears on television, said she has been the target of abuse and has had to address it for her staff.

“There have been moments when I chalked it up to, ‘Yeah, that’s part of the job,'” she said in an interview. “I know I’m in a high-profile job. … Then there are moments where they really cross a boundary, or if it affects your personal safety or your family where you think, ‘No, it’s not something I should tolerate. It’s unacceptable and scary.'”

“So we don’t want to normalize it,” she said. “We don’t want people to feel like they have to sit there and take it.”

Online attacks in general have gotten worse. The Pew Research Center said in January that 41% of American adults say they have been harassed online, up from 35% in 2014. Pew said that since 2014 the percentage of people who say they have been threatened or sexually assaulted online has doubled.

There are signs that the problem is being taken more seriously in the newsroom.

One sign is a greater willingness to publicly support journalists under attack. It happened last winter, when Washington Post reporter Seung Min Kim was criticized for asking Sen. Lisa Murkowski for her reaction on something that Nira Tandon, President Joe Biden’s unsuccessful nominee for budget director, had accused Murkowski of. tweeted about.

Kim’s boss, the Post’s national editor Steven Ginsberg, said the attack was “wildly misguided and a bad attempt at intimidation. What he did was basic journalism.”

Wilk advises news organizations to conduct an anonymous internal survey to determine the extent of their problems and to examine social media policies. He said most policies focus on what journalists should or shouldn’t do, as opposed to what happens when audiences are attacked.

He said organizations should provide cybersecurity training and support, legal and mental health counseling and access to services that can scour an employee’s personal information from the web. Companies should also be aware that harassment is often more organized than it appears, and be prepared to investigate the source of campaigns, she said.

The AP set a September 1 deadline for a committee of staff members to come forward to bring forth ideas for improving the way they dealt with harassment.


This story has been corrected to show that the percentage of people who told the Pew Research Center that they were harassed online increased from 35% in 2014 to 41% in 2017 instead of 41%.


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