Stand Together to Get the Hateful Trolls Out of Journalism

By Stuart Laidlaw

There was a time when harassing journalists took effort. Putting pen to paper, or paper in the typewriter, finding an envelope, addressing it, and putting on a stamp before a trip to the mailbox all required determination and resolve. Even emails were time-consuming.

No longer. Today, journalism around the world faces something instant, new and disturbing, as a result of the irresistible power of social media.

Twitter especially has become a forum for online abusers to attack and threaten journalists with just a few keystrokes. No effort needed, no chance of sober second thought. It’s just too easy, too fast, and journalists - especially women and women of colour - find themselves increasingly under attack.

In Canada, 50.8 per cent of journalists surveyed by Unifor, a union representing media workers, reported experiencing online harassment - almost half of them daily and another 40 per cent at least weekly. In the Netherlands, 82 per cent of female journalists reported experiencing aggression, intimidation and threats on the job. Of that, almost half said it affected their behaviour, 40 per cent said it affects their job satisfaction and 27 per cent said it affected their mental health.

A study by the International Federation of Journalists found that half of journalists facing harassment reported it to newsroom management, their union or police - and that nothing was done in two-thirds of those cases.

“It is high time for media organizations to adopt concrete policies to counter this phenomenon and stand by their female staff,” IFJ Gender Council Chair Maria Angeles Samperio said. “This is not a situation any woman should be facing on her own. Online abuse is not part of the job.”

With online harassment, right-wing trolls have taken up the fight against journalism waged by the state in places such as Afghanistan and Turkey. And with the same goals. To intimidate. To silence. To limit the debate on issues in their country and push their repressive agendas.

All the elements of repression are there. Threats of rape and death. Dehumanizing comments. Threatening friends and family, including children. The threats are laced with racism, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia, transphobia and other forms of oppression. It is targeted and personal and often coordinated.

In the Philippines, Nobel Peace Prize laureate and journalist Maria Ressa faced 90 hate messages an hour after reporting that women are attacked in the Philippines 10 times more often than men.

In a video for Canadian Journalists for Free Expression as it honoured three female journalists, Saba Eitizaz, Erica Ifill and Rachel Gilmore, who are standing up to their attackers, Ressa said a study by the International Center for Journalists and UNESCO found that 60 per cent of such attacks were meant to undermine her credibility and that of her news organization, Rappler. “And the other 40 per cent, well that’s meant to tear down my spirit.”

Harassment doesn’t happen in isolation. It happens amid a culture of structural racism and misogyny that only seems to be getting worse. Where fragile white men are triggered at seemingly any form of progress.

Not all men are fragile, and those who aren’t need to lend their voice, and use their privilege to amplify the voices of the women who are standing up - women who were the first to raise this issue and do something, and without whose efforts nothing would be happening today.

Men dominate workplace management and union leadership. For them, lending their voice means using their positions to make the changes needed and to prioritize fighting harassment.

A study of UK newsrooms by the Ethical Journalism Network found newsrooms resistant to change when black journalists reported persistent systemic racism. This is not unique to the UK, of course, and we cannot hope to fight harassment if we are not confronting the structural inequity, racism and sexism in our own newsrooms. Stopping harassment begins with creating a safe culture within news organization.

Unions, too, need to do more, starting with giving full support to journalists facing harassment and pushing employers, government, police and social media companies to join the fight against online harassment, and holding them - and themselves - to account for their failings.

The ICFJ and UNESCO report, The Chilling: A Global Study of Online Violence Against Women Journalists, presents 35 key findings and 107 recommendations for actions on the issue and involving intergovernmental organizations, industry, tech companies, the judiciary and civil society - work that has begun in a few jurisdictions.

In Britain, for instance, the National Union of Journalists is part of the National Committee for the Safety of Journalists along with government, policing, prosecution services and civil society, working to ensure journalists there can work free from threats and violence. Similar efforts are in the works elsewhere, including Canada.

Time was, journalists were expected to just take harassment in stride. To push back was biased. Such old school notions no longer fly. Journalists cannot watch as their reputations are dragged through the mud, threats made to them and their families and disgusting comments made about them.

The journalists leading the pushback are among the best in the field and doing the work our democracies desperately need - holding politicians to account and exposing the threats of right-wing extremism. For this they come under attack, often multiple times a day.

When they stand up for themselves, they stand up for all of us. And for that, we owe them our support.

Stuart Laidlaw is a leading Canadian journalist and a member of the Fetisov Journalism Award Expert Council.