Risks will grow for news subjects — especially minorities

“Almost all of the female voters I have interviewed who spoke to the press last year experienced some form of harassment afterward, ranging from insulting social media messages to threatening calls and letters.”

In 2018, ordinary people who agree to speak to reporters will continue to be the great unsung heroes of journalism. But the risks of talking to reporters are growing in a divided America — especially for minorities.

I’ve spent the last 10 years studying what it is like for people to become the focus of news attention. As I explore in my book Becoming the News: How Ordinary People Respond to the Media Spotlight, talking to journalists has always been risky, inconvenient, and potentially traumatic for private citizens. There are benefits, too, of course — otherwise no one would do it. But as the media landscape changes, so do the consequences of being named in the news. On balance, the risks have grown more than the benefits in recent years. In 2018, that trend will continue.

If there was any doubt that ordinary people’s stories are still essential to news production, 2017 cleared that right up. Try to imagine the biggest news stories of the last year without the input of homeowners in Houston or concert attendees in Las Vegas. Or voters and demonstrators. Or survivors of sexual abuse. Take out a smattering of celebrities and politicians and there’d be almost nothing left. The Trump stands alone.

Reporters will win prizes for those stories, and they should. But they would be the first to say they can’t get the job done without help from people who were on the ground — or the casting couch — before the media showed up.

What would prompt a private citizen to talk to a journalist in the current media environment when she can easily take her story to social media? Most social media audiences are tiny compared to the audience of even a small news outlet. So talking to reporters can be invaluable for raising awareness, publicizing a venture, or bearing witness to an event. In an attention economy saturated with social media self-promotion, the status and credibility associated with being selected for inclusion in a mainstream news story grows.

Which brings us to the risks. Many of the costs of becoming a news subject today actually predate the Internet. Talking to journalists takes time, energy, and a willingness to be in the spotlight. Those can be hard to muster when you’re reeling from life-altering events. And there’s always the chance news coverage will be unflattering, inaccurate, or damaging.

But the loss of privacy and reputational risks to news subjects are greater now than in the past, and getting worse. Search algorithms reward the authority of established news outlets, so even a brief news mention can completely reshape a person’s online reputation. Think it’s hard to hide those naked pictures in your search results? Try hiding a mainstream news article that features you. In Europe you can try, but in the U.S., it’s basically impossible.

Under pressure to weed out fake news, in the coming year search engines and social media platforms will continue to experiment with ways to highlight and privilege established news brands. That’s a positive step in many ways, but it will probably make news stories loom even larger in the online profiles of the people named in them.

People named in controversial or morally loaded news stories also risk getting a lot of negative online feedback, which can easily spill over into offline harassment. Those effects are likely to get worse in a hyperpolarized political climate, and will disproportionately be directed at women and people of color who come forward to express their views. Almost all of the female voters I have interviewed who spoke to the press last year experienced some form of harassment afterward, ranging from insulting social media messages to threatening calls and letters.

It’s nothing new that minorities get more abuse for speaking out in public — just ask female journalists. Some recent surveys find men and women now report similar levels of online harassment, but that women are more likely perceive it as serious and to self-censor because of it.

We should be worried about that. The news subjects I have spoken to over the years who weathered the harshest digital feedback were those who were named in news stories related to issues like hookup culture and adultery. They were stories that challenged entrenched gender norms and that audiences interpreted in moral terms.

Sound like anything you’ve seen in the news lately?

That was before the recent wave of women coming forward to speak to reporters about sexual harassment. I hope women will continue to feel emboldened to tell their stories. But it’s going to take a lot of courage. When women’s voices get louder in spaces normally dominated by men — as mainstream news still is — there is almost always a backlash. We can expect one in the coming months.

So, on that cheery note, to all the survivors, family members, voters, activists, witnesses, and others who sacrificed their time, comfort, privacy, digital solitude, and more so the rest of us could understand the important stories of 2017 — and to those who will do so in 2018 — happy new year! The rest of us are in your debt. You deserve a Pulitzer and more. This honor by Time is a good start.

Ruth Palmer is assistant professor of communication at Spain’s IE University.

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