We’ll recognize the harassment of journalists isn’t an individual problem

“The information ecosystem journalists operate in today necessitates an updated understanding of professional danger.”

Calls for newsroom leadership to step up and protect journalists are not new. But for far too long, the focus has been placed almost exclusively on the trauma that results from relatively tangible, physical risks to journalists. For example, newsroom leaders have considered how to keep journalists safe when in a conflict zone. And they’ve addressed journalists’ need for self-care after reporting on a natural disaster. Yet the information ecosystem journalists operate in today necessitates an updated understanding of professional danger — one that includes the risks of online harassment.

The harms resulting from online abuse are very real. In some cases, online threats lead to offline, physical attacks. Yet, as a recent study by UNESCO found, the “slow burn” of lower but nearly constant levels of abuse has particularly insidious effects. PTSD, depression, and anxiety plague journalists and threaten to drive them out of the newsroom.

These impacts are particularly acute for women, BIPOC, and LGBTQIA+ journalists. UNESCO reports that “Black, Indigenous, Jewish, Arab and lesbian women journalists…experienced both the highest rates and most severe impacts of online violence.” And a survey by the International Women’s Media Foundation and Trollbusters found that nearly one-third of female-identifying journalists have considered leaving the profession due to online abuse and threats.

Unless something changes, these reporters will continue to leave the profession in droves.

Given the fast pace and scale of much of the abuse journalists face online, they need a trustworthy, rapid response system that offers a trauma-informed approach that takes their needs seriously. Such a system must be responsive and flexible, offering journalists monitoring tools, support from peers, and connection to resources for mental health needs.

The good news? We are working on it. With the support of the NSF Convergence Accelerator program, our team has partnered with the folks at the Poynter Institute/Politifact and Hollaback! to develop just such a system.

The challenge? We need newsrooms to buy in. We need editors and managers to participate and engage. This is not a reporter-level problem; it is a professional crisis. And it will require institutional investment. If your newsroom is up to the task, please reach out.

Kathleen Searles is an associate professor of political communication at Louisiana State University. Rebekah Tromble is director of the Institute for Data, Democracy & Politics at George Washington University.

Calls for newsroom leadership to step up and protect journalists are not new. But for far too long, the focus has been placed almost exclusively on the trauma that results from relatively tangible, physical risks to journalists. For example, newsroom leaders have considered how to keep journalists safe when in a conflict zone. And they’ve addressed journalists’ need for self-care after reporting on a natural disaster. Yet the information ecosystem journalists operate in today necessitates an updated understanding of professional danger — one that includes the risks of online harassment.

The harms resulting from online abuse are very real. In some cases, online threats lead to offline, physical attacks. Yet, as a recent study by UNESCO found, the “slow burn” of lower but nearly constant levels of abuse has particularly insidious effects. PTSD, depression, and anxiety plague journalists and threaten to drive them out of the newsroom.

These impacts are particularly acute for women, BIPOC, and LGBTQIA+ journalists. UNESCO reports that “Black, Indigenous, Jewish, Arab and lesbian women journalists…experienced both the highest rates and most severe impacts of online violence.” And a survey by the International Women’s Media Foundation and Trollbusters found that nearly one-third of female-identifying journalists have considered leaving the profession due to online abuse and threats.

Unless something changes, these reporters will continue to leave the profession in droves.

Given the fast pace and scale of much of the abuse journalists face online, they need a trustworthy, rapid response system that offers a trauma-informed approach that takes their needs seriously. Such a system must be responsive and flexible, offering journalists monitoring tools, support from peers, and connection to resources for mental health needs.

The good news? We are working on it. With the support of the NSF Convergence Accelerator program, our team has partnered with the folks at the Poynter Institute/Politifact and Hollaback! to develop just such a system.

The challenge? We need newsrooms to buy in. We need editors and managers to participate and engage. This is not a reporter-level problem; it is a professional crisis. And it will require institutional investment. If your newsroom is up to the task, please reach out.

Kathleen Searles is an associate professor of political communication at Louisiana State University. Rebekah Tromble is director of the Institute for Data, Democracy & Politics at George Washington University.

Kathleen Searles & Rebekah Trumble

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