Journalists and Online Threats
Why are most reporters left to deal with it alone?
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Ok, let’s get started now with a topic that was my main take-away from a journalism festival I went to last week-end: The online harassment of journalists.
There couldn’t have been a better way to begin my new life as a freelance journalist than going to the Perugia International Journalism Festival . This is genuinely one of the highlights of my year, and like many regulars I was heartbroken when it was cancelled for the past 2 years due to Covid.
The IJF is a gathering of hundreds of journalists from around the world in the wonderful, hilly Italian town of Perugia, effectively the world’s most picturesque conference centre.
The IJF is packed full of sessions on every aspect of journalism and media, from the difficulties of reporting from war zones, to the latest changes Artificial Intelligence is bringing to the industry, to managing your mental health in a profession that has its share of challenges on that front.
I always bump into old friends and colleagues from around the world (there’s a lot of ‘let’s catch up over coffee’), and leave having made amazing new ones. And if that wasn’t enough, Perugia is the home of Italian chocolate. Journalism and chocolate: My kind of intersection.
Beautiful though the setting is, the topics tackled are not for the faint-hearted. This isn’t an easy time for journalists. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists the number of reporters being killed or imprisoned has been rising over the past decade.
And the pressure and intimidation journalists are under is also increasing, worsened by the ubiquity of social media.
I hosted a panel on this topic which got me thinking. The panel was specifically about Brazil and President Bolsonaro's Hate Cabinet - a disinformation machine run by his sons and advisers to spread fake news and attack journalists who criticise him.
The two women on my panel had had their share of intimidation and threats.
Patrícia Campos Mello is a reporter for Folha de São Paulo newspaper. She’s covered conflicts all over the world but it was only when focusing on Brazilian politics that she ended up needing a body guard. Due to her reporting of issues surrounding President Bolsonaro, the online hounding has been relentless.
As well as the endless online insults and threats, she has also been doxxed, which means her home address was published online.
Her face was used to create fake pornography, and lies spread which claimed she offered sexual favours to get information from contacts.
Fellow panelist Daniela Pinheiro was the first woman appointed editor-in-chief of a weekly magazine in Brazil, but resigned after attacks from President Jair Bolsonaro and his family. Like Patricia, she was also targeted online.
It was Daniela who made the comment that stayed with me. Speaking about the steps she took when she realised the online harassment was getting out of hand, she said:
“When you call your company’s legal department it’s obvious that they don’t know what to do. They simply don’t have the specific training needed to deal with the issue.”
Daniela was speaking from her own experiences, but it’s something I’ve often heard echoed among my (mainly female) colleagues and friends in the media industry.
There’s a lot that can fall under the headline of ‘online harassment’. Some journalists have to live under constant police protection due to death threats from organised crime or extremist groups. Keeping them safe goes beyond the ability of the news organisations they work for.
But for most journalists, online intimidation can sometimes happen after taking an unpopular stance, or often it can simply be sparked by an ill-judged comment.
Having heard the experiences of those who have been in the middle of so-called ‘Twitter storms’ it seems that they were mainly left alone by their news organisations to deal with the issue on their own. The most common advice they seemed to get from managers was ‘just ignore it’, ‘don’t reply’ or ‘stay off twitter’.
But that’s hard to do when you know hundreds of insults and possible threats are being posted about you. If a genuine on-air mistake as been made, is ‘not replying’ always the best option? And if you do reply, who’s there to help you formulate the message’s content or the way it’s shared on the platform? Shouldn’t someone other than you (it can be very upsetting) be checking your @mentions, to see if actual death threats are being made, or details of where you live or your phone number are being published? If you’re being defamed and your professional integrity called into question, at what point should you consider suing? Who helps you? Who pays?
Women are regularly bullied more than men online, and have to face the added hurdle of sexual insults and humiliation.
I know countless female journalists who are brave and confident but who shy away from sharing their views on social media. They’ve heard too many horror stories.
And let’s not pretend that most news organisations don’t consider their journalists’ online reach as a marker of their value. Twitter may not be ‘real life’ but it does matter.
Speaking of Twitter, I wrongly assumed that it would have been the worst culprit, but Patricia pointed out that’s actually platforms like WhatsApp, where threats and fake news can go viral incredibly quickly with no outside scrutiny at all. Twitter is, at least, public, though of course that’s its double-edged sword.
All companies look at the social media profiles of their journalists and see them (rightly, I guess) as a reflection of the corporation’s own brand. It should follow from that that they also give those same journalists adequate guidance and protection when things go wrong.
Let’s end this on a sweet note….
A lot of religious holidays overlap this weekend, so if you’re celebrating, have a Happy Easter / Ramadan Mubarak / Chag Pesach Sameach.
Peace is probably the best thing to wish for right now so may you have a peaceful few days and I’ll see you here again very soon.
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