Supporting journalists to engage safely online
Using social media services as a platform allows media organisations to engage their audiences, but it exposes their journalists to some serious safety risks.
Sharing breaking news, explorations of topical issues, general information, and entertainment online is a great way to extend reach. So over recent years journalists have increasingly been encouraged – and expected – to engage audiences through social media to boost market share in a very competitive environment. However, online abuse of journalists has increased as their online profiles have grown, and it has worsened since the pandemic.
The risk is not equally distributed, with journalists who are female or from diverse racial or social backgrounds more likely to experience online abuse. A US study by the Committee to Protect Journalists found 90% of female journalists view online abuse as their biggest threat. But a UNESCO study into the online abuse of female journalists found only 25% report online abuse to their newsrooms.
Online abuse can have devastating professional and personal impacts. It can lead to the silencing of journalists, with some self-censoring, retreating from covering certain topics or leaving the industry. This is a threat to the balanced reporting of news and issues.
On this page:
eSafety has collaborated with the Social Media Wellbeing Advisor from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), to develop best practice tips for both media organisations and journalists to manage and mitigate the risk of social media abuse.
The ABC has developed guidelines for all of their staff to address the online abuse of journalists. These guidelines have been informed by best practice advice from international organisations including PEN America, The Coalition Against Online Violence and The International Press Institute.
These resources include some of the practical steps the ABC is taking to prepare for and respond to social media abuse as an example of strategies, policies and processes all journalists and media organisations can put in place to address online safety in their workplaces.
Why journalists are targeted
Online publishing and social media engagement has made journalists more accessible than ever to audiences, and more exposed to abuse.
Research, anecdotal evidence and public cases often highlight the online safety issues faced specifically by journalists, and generally by people who have a high profile online. In a deeper dive, eSafety research – Women in the spotlight: How online abuse impacts women in their working lives – found that 56% of women with a media presence experience online abuse, compared with 47% of those with only an online presence. This drops to 25% of women without a current media or online presence. Around 78% of respondents said they believed people think it’s OK to harass and abuse anyone who has a public profile or is active online.
Some of the key threats journalists face on social media include:
- violent and sexual threats
- exposure to discrimination and abusive language
- repeated contact from people who are fixated on them
- people being encouraged by others to pile abuse on them
- hacking of their online accounts
- intentional exposure of their personal contact details online (known as ‘doxing’)
- disinformation campaigns about the stories journalists are working on.
The risk factors for online abuse are higher for journalists who are:
- Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander
- from a culturally or linguistically diverse background
- living with disability.
This risk is compounded by intersectionality – when the journalist has more than one factor at play, the impact of abuse can be magnified.
Female journalists report they are more likely to experience abuse that includes sexual threats, misogynistic language and references to their appearance, rather than solely attacking them based on their work.
Journalists from culturally or linguistically diverse backgrounds are more likely to experience abuse related to their identity, such as discriminatory language and being told they are there to fill a diversity quota not because of their ability.
Journalists covering controversial topics or events are also more at risk than others, and female journalists are most likely to experience abuse when covering:
- feminism and women’s rights
- traditionally ‘male-dominated’ topics such as sports
- politics and human rights
- sensitive and divisive content such as refugee and migration policies, race issues, and reporting about right wing groups and activities
- content that includes external contributors or interviewees who are at heightened risk of online abuse.
The impacts of online abuse
Serious or repeated online abuse can have significant professional and personal impacts for journalists. These impacts can be short-term, long-term or even permanent.
- Psychological impacts: These include stress, anxiety, fear, self-doubt, depression and ongoing trauma.
- Silencing: These include self-censorship, avoidance of particular topics or assignments, avoiding social media engagement, deactivating social media accounts, leaving the industry.
- Distraction from the role: This can be due to spending time dealing with the abuse (such as seeking help, explaining it to a manager or support person, collecting evidence, reporting it for investigation), taking time off to recover, or finding it difficult to focus on other assignments.
- Professional disadvantage: In a competitive working environment, delivering content that rank well on social media is often rewarded professionally. Being reluctant to engage with the audience can lead to having stories run without the kudos of a byline, being assigned to only ‘safe’ stories that are likely to get less interest, being at a disadvantage when performance is measured against colleagues, and missing out on opportunities and promotion.
There are also costs for the media organisation. These include:
- lost working hours
- increased staff use of personal leave
- poor morale
- reduced engagement with audiences affecting market share
- underrepresentation of diverse and balanced perspectives in the work environment and in public content and conversations
- difficulty in recruiting and retaining journalists.
Journalists, managers and media organisations need to know how to minimise exposure to online safety risks, deal with incidents of abuse and bolster staff resilience.
You can find practical advice in these pages.