Despite the growing ubiquity of online violence against journalists, many reporters still lack the resources to adequately address the threats and harassment that they face simply for doing their job.
Last year, the International Women’s Media Foundation (IWMF) launched the Coalition Against Online Violence, a hub of information to help reporters and newsrooms respond proactively and reactively to the threat of online violence.
With so much online discourse devoted to how newsrooms fail victims of harassment, we think it’s important to help news workers think through these issues before they happen.
To learn more, we spoke with Nadine Hoffman, Deputy Director of the International Women’s Media Foundation, about how online violence drives people away from journalism, preparing for online violence before it happens, and the resources available to help.
“You need to have buy-in at every level in a newsroom for this to really work,” Hoffman told The Objective. “It can’t just be that the journalists need to go out and get training and think about how to incorporate this into their risk planning. It has to be something that every level of the news organization is on board with and is taking seriously.”
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Broadly, how did the Coalition Against Online Violence come about?
We launched the Coalition Against Online Violence a little over a year ago. It really came out of work that we’ve been doing for the last five years now. The IWMF focuses on the threats that women journalists face around the world. And increasingly, in our work, we have seen that the threat of online abuse is something that many, if not most, women working in news media are facing.
In 2018, we produced a report with Troll-Busters about the impact that it’s having. We talked to or receive survey responses from over 600 women journalists and this was one of the main threats that emerged: trolling, online violence. Over a third of the respondents said that they had considered leaving the news industry because of the online harassment that they were dealing with. And obviously, there were a lot of other caveats that went with that — feeling that they couldn’t talk to management about it or feeling like management didn’t support them, or being a freelancer and having no one to escalate that to. This is something that’s driving women out of the news industry, and often you hear people speak about it as sort of a silencing of women journalists’ voices. And obviously, not just women, we know that it affects all journalists, but especially women journalists, journalists of color, [and] LGBTQI journalists. If there are additional layers of marginalized identity, that increases risk, so that was sort of the jumping off point.
What we realized was that there are other organizations that are doing excellent work outside of the press freedom space. So in the human rights space, civic tech, and in feminist organizations, there’s also been a lot of really deep thinking done around this issue, because we know it’s not just journalists. It’s really individuals, and particularly women, who are working in public spaces — whether that’s in politics or media or civil society — and so we thought we could actually accomplish a lot more if we work together with our partner organizations and try to understand what already exists.
The first part of building the coalition was just understanding what guides have other organizations developed. What sort of training do they offer? What’s their geographic scope? What kind of services do they provide to journalists who are facing online harassment? And so as a part of that mapping, we were building this coalition. Today we have more than 60 organizations, both in the U.S. and internationally, that are all really engaged from different angles on this issue, whether it’s providing direct assistance, digital safety support, or on the advocacy side and lobbying the tech platforms or trying to shift the newsroom culture. We wanted to really focus all of our efforts together and make it an issue that is treated with the same level of seriousness that physical safety threats are treated in the journalism industry.
To create a baseline for some of our readers, because I know sometimes terms can get a bit finicky, how is your organization defining online violence?
That’s a big umbrella, so all manner of threats can fall underneath it. I would say on the more severe end you would look at a case like Rana Ayyub, an Indian columnist who has just been facing a hugely aggressive assault by forces that are aligned with the [Indian] government: death threats, rape threats, doxxing. All of that’s happening online, but that really has the potential for offline violence. That’s another thing that we’ve focused on a lot: What is that tipping point? It also encompasses this everyday low-level, misogynistic hate that a lot of women in the news media are facing. The trolls may not be organized, it may not be a campaign by a politician or a Tucker Carlson-type figure, it might just be people speaking about their appearance, their lack of intelligence, really just focusing on attributes that have to do with attacking them based on their gender. Obviously, the severity level differs, but all of it has a real psychological impact on the people who are experiencing it.
On your site, there’s a statistic that says 73% of women journalists have experienced online violence, which is a really disconcertingly high number. Are there certain reasons or situations that can lead to greater online violence for women journalists? How can newsrooms better prepare themselves and the journalists that they work with to deal with those attacks when and if they come?
There are so many factors that can go into this. In the United States, for example, journalists who are covering far-right and white supremacist groups are going to attract, potentially, a lot of doxing threats. Covering the Black Lives Matter movement, covering anything that’s really related to race, to gender. But we have also seen, during the course of the pandemic, a lot of harassment that’s been related to science journalists covering vaccines from anti-vaxxers. Even some stuff that would seem benign — we’ve seen journalists get harassed over their coverage of a celebrity if the fans of that celebrity aren’t happy with the way that it’s presented. So it really can be any story, but obviously certain kinds of reporting are really sort of a guarantee that you’re going to be at least trolled and possibly more than that.
In terms of what newsrooms can do, the first thing that we would ask, if we were partnering with a newsroom — which we do to support this area — is do you have any kind of policies in place to address the digital safety and the issues of online harassment that are happening? If someone receives threats, if someone is getting trolled, do you have a process in place? Who do they report to? What is the escalation? And what is the newsroom prepared to offer that journalist? If a journalist is doxxed, is there going to be a provision for them to have a safe place to go and stay while that is addressed? Do you provide for your journalist a service like Delete Me or one of those other scrubbing services to help them to keep their private information off of the internet? There are some really basic things and unfortunately, a lot of newsrooms simply don’t have a policy to begin with because it’s something that they’re just starting to grapple with. And what we’ve seen from the experts who do the training for newsrooms, is that often when it comes to management, which tends to be still very white and very male, this is just not rising to the level of their attention. They aren’t aware that this is happening to many of their journalists, and it’s happening on a constant basis. When we meet with managers, there is often surprise or, if there’s not surprise, the other reaction is: “We want to address this, but we don’t know how to do it like that.” They just need some help getting those structures and policies in place to have a starting point to address it.
Would you say that’s the biggest reason why journalists don’t have access to the tools that you mentioned? Is it a lack of institutional support from a newsroom, or is there something else preventing them from gaining access to these services?
I think it’s a couple of things. We built, as part of the the coalition’s first initiative, this online violence response hub. The idea of that was to try to put all of the best resources and guides and advice on specific issues in one place. Say you’ve been doxxed and now you’re like, “Oh my God, someone has my address and they’re possibly going to come to my front door.” It’s not a time when you’re able to be really super rational, and then be like, “Okay, I need to clean up my online presence.” At that point, it’s a little late. You’re not preventing it, you’re just now trying to mitigate it. It’s a hugely stressful thing.
Often, what you see is that people start paying attention to their digital safety when something bad has happened. So part of it is shifting the thinking to how you can make digital hygiene and talking about online harassment part of the overall risk-planning process. Just like when you’re sending a journalist out to cover civil unrest, and you’re like, “Okay, this is the gear I need. I need to have my flak jacket, I need to have my gas mask, I need to have my exit plan from this protest. It’s working it in there and thinking about it before the story is published because that could be the point where the abuse really starts.
The other thing that we’ve really seen is that you need to have buy-in at every level in a newsroom for this to really work. It can’t just be that the journalists need to go out and get training and think about how to incorporate this into their risk planning. It has to be assigning editors to really think through the different kinds of risks that could exist both online and offline. It has to be something that every level of the news organization is on board with and is taking seriously.
How can people support these reporters who are being attacked online?
There are so many ways that all people in the news industry can be allies to people who are facing online abuse. One of the easiest ones is just to be there and to provide peer support. We think a lot about resilience and how newsrooms can build resilience because we know online violence is not going to go away. Unfortunately, it is something that journalists can expect to face, but they shouldn’t be in a position where they feel like they have to deal with it alone. Building peer-support networks in newsrooms, having a colleague who you trust who’s able to screen the messages that are coming in for you and document them, is one really simple and powerful way.
Another thing as a coalition that we often do is ask the journalist who’s being attacked, if they would like to be supported through positive messages on social media — sort of amplifying that they’re a credible journalist, and we have their back. Sometimes that can be useful and sometimes journalists would prefer not to have that support.
How can newsrooms or reporters as individuals collaborate with you and take advantage of the services that you offer?
One of the things that the IWMF does that a number of our partners in the coalition also do is work directly with newsrooms to provide free or low-cost training that can be tailored specifically to the issues that newsroom is facing. In addition, the IWMF and [Committee to Protect Journalists] both offer individual consultations, something that any journalist can take advantage of, including freelancers, if they’re facing an attack or they have specific concerns. There are also a lot of online training resources that have been developed — those live in the Hub. For instance, we’ve created courses specifically on knowing your trolls, understanding the different types of trolls and how they work, and privacy, how you can separate your private persona and your journalist persona, which is one of the things that is really important in preventing things like doxxing.
Is there anything else that I haven’t touched on that you feel like you want people to think about or to know?
I’m not speaking as someone who has experienced this directly, but through all the conversations I’ve had with journalists who have experienced online violence, it can feel just so overwhelming. What I want journalists to know is that they aren’t alone and there is so much support that exists. There are many organizations that are able to provide not just the kind of training and immediate consultation, but also psychosocial support. We do therapy grants and the reality is that that is a useful tool in terms of processing some of the stuff that the journalists are experiencing. Help is really available and we want to make sure that journalists out there are able to take advantage of it.
You can learn more about the Coalition Against Online Violence at onlineviolenceresponsehub.org.
Our stories are funded by readers like you.
The Objective is a nonprofit newsroom holding journalism accountable for past and current systemic biases in reporting and newsroom practices. We are written by and for those underrepresented in journalism.