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Feeling harassed? Managing, avoiding, and preventing threats and abuse in journalism

What is the impact of harassment on journalists and how can news gathering activities lead to harassment of people in the news? What are the pressures on journalists of reporting on controversial and sensitive issues? How can journalists avoid becoming the target of threats and abuse?

Harassment is a growing problem in the modern world of digital journalism. This session of Trust in Journalism Conference 2020 explored the issue from both sides of the page, as well as its impact on mental health with insights from chair Dr Holly Powell-Jones (Online Media Law UK); Mark Lewis (Patron Law); Gavin Rees (Dart Center); Paul Giannasi (National Police Hate Crime Advisor) and Anna Lekas Miller (Media Diversity Institute).


How do we define harassment?

Mark Lewis of Patron Law started by defining in broad terms what constitutes harassment: "It can take many forms (...) Something that seems innocuous if it is a one off, if it happens again and again, the repetitive nature of it becomes harassment."

The role of social media:

“Everything has been magnified by the event of social media which provides the ability to harass and contact people who do not want to be contacted. This never used to happen; for example, journalists could write an article and maybe people would have written in saying why they disagreed with that article – now you just go on their Twitter feed and you can hurl abuse at them (…) It’s a very difficult situation.” - Mark Lewis


Who is at risk and from whom when it comes to harassment?

Independent journalist Anna Lekas Miller, of the Media Diversity Institute: “Harassment is very broad. It can be lone wolf actors, but it can also be much more organised a political group like white supremacists or agents of the state itself in certain countries. So when you go to why people are actually being targeted, in this case journalists, that can depend on what they are reporting on; or their identities. It’s really important to bring up how intersectional this is."

"It is no secret that women are particularly harassed in a way that can be very personal, very sexualised, very frightening. And for people of colour, and women of colour in particular, it gets even worse in terms of being racialised, abused based on race, ethnicity or even the country that they are coming from.” - Anna Lekas Miller, Media Diversity Institute.

The impact of harassment on journalists; and the difference context makes:

Gavin Rees, Director of the Dart Centre, described the impact that both high-level and more commonplace harassment can have: “The repercussions vary a lot depending on the kind of experience that people have. So, if stuff is really traumatic, it does not take very much of it to become a fundamental problem. The low-grade stuff, that is not directly threatening - mean, nasty, demeaning comments - can also have a really negative impact. What makes a difference also is the context.

- If journalists in the world, outside are more likely to be on the end of that violence, then it is more likely to be undermining. If you are a community that has experienced lynching for example, it is likely to bite much harder [when threatened with that violence online].

- Negative comments can have a potentially corrosive effect. If we continually think about negative things or are confronted with negative things, then the next things we might think about are likely to be negative.

Gavin suggested the example of a content moderator at a newspaper. In this case, if 70-80% of the content that they read is miserable, it’s quite easy for that to have a mental health impact and it can leech into one. They might think they are a failure, and there they might believe this is about their personal life, "where in fact it could be about that steady drip, drip, drip of negative stuff that one’s been consuming.”


The personalisation of harassment and victim blaming online

Paul Giannasi, National Police Hate Crime Advisor, highlighted the fact that harassment is becoming increasingly personalised: “It's because of how direct and all-encompassing [harassment] has become. If I wanted to complain about a journalist 15 years ago, I would have written to their editor who may or may not have shown them or may have put it straight in the bin. The fact that so much of our lives is online means that it can be so personalised... it’s so much more personal than it used to be.”

Anna Lekas Miller stressed the importance of avoiding victim blaming when listening to victims of online harassment: “With social media, with so many journalists being encouraged to be ‘brands’, whether they are freelancers or whether they are a staff reporter somewhere and they are encouraged to interact with their audience and to be interacting with their community, that sense of accountability, all makes you so much more vulnerable."

Anna also pointed to the difficulty of escaping social media as a place to starting out, particularly those traditionally marginalised:

Particularly between older and younger generations of journalists, there can be victim blaming – 'if you don’t want someone to know that information about you don’t put it online'. In this environment, especially when you are someone who has been traditionally marginalised by the journalism world when you are a woman, or a young woman of colour, social media is where you start out, where you find your voice and community, where you get noticed.” Anna Lekas Miller, Media Diversity Institute.

Inclusivity vs. verification online, and where hate speech and harassment come in

Dr Holly Powell-Jones, founder of Online Media Law, raised the issue of inclusivity versus verification: “There are a wide variety of people claiming to be journalists these days and on the one hand we obviously want to be more inclusive, we want to be diverse. But at the same time... this complicates some of these issues, particularly when there is a battle ground for truth when it comes to hate speech and harassment."

Gavin Rees pointed to the role that state and industry bodies have to create an established framework to recognise journalists and protect them: "We have to recognise the role that democratic states can play in standing up for independent journalism and standing up for an established framework of truth.

"We need to make sure that our leaders take a lead on this and we also as an industry need to support journalists who are harassed, this is where IMPRESS, the Society of Editors, the Committee to Protect Journalists all come in. We need to see this not as 'do good' activity but activity which is vital for the ecosystem.” Gavin Reese, Dart Centre.


Advice for independent and freelance journalists, dealing with harassment and its impact on mental health

Anna Lekas Miller offered her perspective as a freelance journalist: “My biggest support has always been peer-to-peer networks. Meeting as many other people in the same position as possible and creating and giving that support to other people coming up.”

Gavin Rees provided advice on dealing with the mental health impacts of harassment: “From a trauma viewpoint, it’s helpful to process things, but not to ruminate. That means acknowledging things, giving one the opportunity to try and distance oneself from things. Whereas if we just say 'that shouldn’t affect you', 'it’s like water off a duck’s back', that’s useless.

"The first step is to acknowledge impact and to think what effect is this having on me, what’s it stopping me from doing? Am I not going out as much as I used to? What can I do to counteract that impact and to think through the feelings. Having a group to talk [things] through with is brilliant." Gavin Reese, Dart Centre.

Dr Holly Powell-Jones highlighted practices she has adopted to help protect herself from falling victim to certain kinds of harassment: “Training workshops on risk assessments, digital security, making sure that your sources, contacts and information is all secure and locked down is massively helpful.”

Paul Giannasi also reminded the audience that the police and other authorities are ultimately always there for reporting and support: “There is a police facility for dealing with hate speech and reporting hate speech through True Vision. The police will and can protect people from targeted abuse and threats online.”


If we could change one thing today to protect journalists from harassment, what would it be?

The role of employers

Gavin Rees emphasised the role that employers of journalists can play: “News organisations need to open up a space for acknowledgement and that’s real acknowledgement. This is not just saying online harassment is a problem, it’s allowing people to say 'I’m affected by this, and it’s fine to be affected by this'.”

Compassion online and models for appropriate baheaviour

Anna Lekas Miller urged compassion for others online and the importance of establishing and using a model of appropriate behaviour: “Remembering that social spaces are places that we as humans and users all create together and modelling good communication, good debate and engaging with the ideas that journalists are putting out there, instead of making things personal and being mindful of ourselves and how we engage can all hel ... So many of the people who are perpetrating this are quite hurt themselves.”

The role of social media platforms

Mark Lewis laid responsibility at the door of social media platforms: “Social media is effectively unedited journalism, whereas historical journalism was edited. You might not agree with the view of that editor … but the unedited version is just as dangerous because somebody can see something, form a view on it very quickly and put it out there in 280 characters and there is a polarity, no middle ground, no discussion.”

The need for a holistic approach

Paul Giannasi argued a holistic approach was necessary to effect change: “There is no single solution ... The disparate nature of the media means that self-moderation is going to be tougher to get uniform. So, something that provides a holistic response, something that has standards setting and support for journalists from within the industry would be really important.”




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