Newsrooms need an open-door policy to combat online attacks on journalists

Online hate and harassment have infiltrated the world of journalism and newsroom leaders need to set up policies and protocols to support reporters who face cyberbullying.

This is according to Viktorya Vilk, director of digital safety and free expression at PEN America.

“I really think some of that stuff has to be modelled at and set off at the top and then kind of permeate all the way through so that people feel that if they went to a senior leader in the newsroom, they would not be dismissed, they would not be mocked, they would not be told to get over it,” Vilk said.

Vilk spoke as a panellist at an International Press Institute (IPI) virtual World Congress discussion on October 6 called ‘Newsrooms On The Line: Combatting Online Harassment and Smear Campaigns’ alongside Jason Reich, VP of corporate security for The New York Times Company, and Sofia Diogo Mateus, audience development editor at Politico. Javier Luque, IPI head of digital communications, moderated the discussion.

According to a Reporters Without Borders’ report on online harassment, “the impact of online harassment can be dramatic because new technologies are manipulated to amplify hateful messages.

“Artificial intelligence is used to nefarious ends. Bots automate censorship. And social networks provide press freedom’s enemies with an unprecedented echo chamber for magnifying hate speech and disinformation.”

Reich highlighted that the range of news topics that expose journalists to online harassment is growing.

“Nowadays, if you write about Taylor Swift, you can get doxed, abused, and harassed,” Reich said.

Luque pointed out that ordinary people are not the only cyberbullies but that state actors often target journalists and work to dent their credibility. He added that they try to control the narrative, circumstances, or events in the country.

"I think it's important for journalists in a newsroom, but also for freelancers working in a more isolated environment from home or from different locations to feel that there is a conducive environment for them to come forward and talk to the editor,” Luque said.

In her experience and working in audience development, Mateus said she has prepared journalists to realise that they may encounter online harassment but also provide support and resources to help them combat the attacks.

“In that, I’ve found in the last two or three years that that really is conducive to having staff come up to you and be like, ‘look, I'm getting a lot of emails, I'm getting a lot of comments, or I'm really not able to cope with this,’” Mateus said.

Vilk said journalists can be reluctant to open up about online attacks if they feel they will be dismissed or that there will be negative professional consequences for coming forward.

She added that newsrooms need an institutional policy that gives the organisation’s stance on harassment. Vilk also said that newsrooms also need protocols that not only work for journalists but also help managers effectively support affected journalists.

“A protocol that gives some guidance for someone on the receiving end of the target and some guidance for the person who is trying to talk to them about it is a really good place to start.”

Find PEN America’s manual on dealing with online harassment here.

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