Online safety tips for journalists
Preparing for possible online abuse is a key factor in maintaining your wellbeing and resilience if you experience an incident.
Practical steps that can make a big difference to outcomes include reviewing your social media privacy and security settings to reduce potential exposure to unwanted interactions, and assessing the likelihood of abuse before an assignment so it’s easier to depersonalise it.
These are some of the ways The Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC)* recommends journalists promote wellbeing while interacting online, that all journalists can adopt.
On this page:
Preparing for exposure to an online audience
Bolster privacy and security
All staff should be given the opportunity and training to be able to regularly assess their own privacy and security. First of all, do a search of your name, email address, phone number and residential address to see what information is publicly available. Consider whether that information and anything else in your profile or previous posts could jeopardise your comfort or safety if it was used against you.
Audience-facing staff at the ABC are encouraged to bolster their privacy and security by considering:
- What does the content you have shared reveal about you? For example, have you posted a photo in front of a ‘Sold’ sign after buying a house? Do you have photos of your children online, showing the school they attend? Consider removing them.
- Is location sharing enabled on your social media accounts and other apps? Consider turning it off.
- Are your passwords secure? Have you enabled two factor authentication? If not, take action now.
The eSafety Guide includes advice on how to update your privacy and security settings.
Proactively reduce unwanted interactions
Although it’s often a professional advantage to grow your online friends, followers and connections, consider limiting who can message you directly. You might want to mute notifications about content containing certain words or phrases (such as anything abusive, distasteful or triggering), or only receive notifications about interactions from people you follow.
Know in advance what support is available to you
During a social media attack, you may feel overwhelmed. So it’s a good idea to make note of available supports and resources in advance. This should include the number for your organisation’s contact person for incidents – it may be your line manager, a member of the editorial team, a health safety and wellbeing officer, or someone on the security team. It may also be useful for have contact details for psychological support services, links to the safety guidelines for the social media platforms you use, and links to eSafety advice about reporting serious online abuse.
Create a plan for what to do if you are targeted by online abuse
Plan what you will do if someone abuses you online, taking into account various examples with differing severity. This will allow you to feel relatively calm and in control if an incident does occur, while also helping you to keep it in perspective. How you react to one abusive comment from one person is likely to be different to the way you react if a pile on begins – this is when several users attack you, quickly escalating the incident. Check our suggestions for dealing with online abuse and its impacts – they include information about the steps to take as well as self-help tips for supporting your wellbeing. You could even write out an agreement with yourself for what you will do.
Consider potential impacts on external contributors to your content
The ABC encourages staff to inform talent of any risks before interviewing them, and sharing advice on preparing for exposure to an online audience and dealing with online abuse. As well as being a way to make sure people are available for future interviews, it may be important for your own wellbeing. Journalists can be caught up in abuse targeting the people they interview. They can also feel guilt and stress for exposing talent to that experience.
Complete online safety training
Find out what your media organisation offers, or get it to contact eSafety to book a Social Media Self-Defence training session tailored for the staff in your workplace.
Dealing with online abuse
No one should have to experience online abuse, but knowing the most effective ways to deal with it can help you manage the impact and build your resilience.
Online abuse can be overwhelming, so it’s helpful to have a plan for dealing with it in case you are impacted by an incident on social media. You can use these tips to develop that plan or refer to if you experience online abuse.
Before you do anything else
If the incident is serious, immediately get in touch with your media organisation’s contact person for incidents – it may be your line manager, a member of the editorial team, a health safety and wellbeing officer, or someone on the security team.
It’s also a good idea to speak with a colleague or friend, because telling someone else what you’re going through will allow you to feel heard and supported, easing the stress.
Then you can follow all these tips, or just the ones most relevant to your experience.
As confronting as the abuse may be, it’s important to collect evidence of it in case you need to report it to the platform, or to eSafety or the police. Follow eSafety’s advice on how to collect evidence, then put it in a file so you don’t keep seeing it. You can delete the file at any time if you decide not to report the harmful content.
Report harmful content
If the harmful content is serious enough to meet the legal definition of adult cyber abuse, and the service or platform does not help, you can report it to eSafety using our online form and we will help to have it removed.
You can also report the abuse to the police. This is very important if someone is threatening you or your family or friends. Find out more about getting police and legal help.
Prevent further contact
eSafety usually advises people not to respond to online abuse, because it can escalate the incident instead of ending it. We know it’s hard to hold back, especially if your professional reputation or personal safety is being threatened, but responding in the heat of the moment when you’re feeling hurt, angry or frightened can be a mistake.
Once you are over your initial reaction, you should assess whether it’s likely to be safe and constructive to express your viewpoint, highlight bad behaviour or seek support from others online. Some journalists have chosen to use the abuse directed at them as an example to raise awareness of the problem and encourage others to call out bad behaviour – often they post a screenshot of the abusive content with their own comment. If you do this, always remember to check that the name or handle of the person responsible has been blocked out before you post it, otherwise you may trigger a new pile on against that person.
If you do decide to respond, protect yourself from further abuse by using the conversation controls in your account to manage who can reply to your comment. You can also use the in-app functions to ignore, mute, restrict or block abusive people or accounts. (But always collect evidence first before blocking someone, so you don’t lose the proof.) You may also like to mute words or conversations contributing to the harmful discussion and reduce notifications on your social media accounts and devices until the attack is over. Find out how in eSafety’s video library or check The eSafety Guide.
It’s a good time to check your privacy settings on your social media accounts to limit who can contact you and see what you are doing or where you are going. This is particularly important if you continue to experience abuse from one particular user and that abuse is violent or sexual in nature, or if they appear to be fixated on you. The eSafety Guide includes advice on how to update your privacy settings.
Get more help
People who have experienced serious online abuse can feel a range of emotions from fear to anxiety, anger and a sense of hopelessness. The harms can be temporary, but in some cases they can have a long-lasting impact on the targeted person’s sense of safety and self-esteem, their mental wellbeing and their physical health. It can also cause ongoing depression and trauma.
The most important thing to remember is that it is not your fault – you are not alone and there is help available.
Consider the options offered by your workplace, such as inhouse or external counselling or psychological support, or check eSafety’s list to find one best suited to you.
You can also explore esafety.gov.au for further advice and resources about preventing and dealing with a range of online harms.
Contextualise your experience
Online abuse can be a symptom of a larger effort to silence particular demographics or discussions, rather than just being aimed at you. It’s important to depersonalise what you have experienced, to reduce its impact. Remember: social media isn’t reflective of all opinions.
These facts might help:
- One study found 59% of content shared on Facebook was not opened by the sharer.
- Another found 45% of accounts Tweeting about COVID were likely bots.
It might also lend some perspective to think about whether something similar has happened to one of your own colleagues. Did it impact your view of them? There are many other journalists who have experienced online abuse without lasting damage to their reputation or career.
Create a safe space offline
The ABC’s Social Media Wellbeing Advisor notes it can be easy to doomscroll during an online attack, looking at negative comments to try to assess the damage or feel in control of the situation, but one of the best tactics can be to switch off. Regain control by not engaging with the content. Silence your notifications and consider moving your social media apps off your home screen for the day.
If you are feeling overwhelmed, spend time offline with friends or loved ones so you are not dwelling on the incident. This is not about taking away agency, but about knowing your boundaries and prioritising your wellbeing. You can choose to come back online when you are feeling more resilient.
If you do step offline, it is important to set boundaries with friends, colleagues, and family. Ask them not to tell you what they see about you online, so it doesn’t infiltrate your break.
Take care of your wellbeing
Try these tips for reclaiming your mental and emotional wellbeing:
- Acknowledge your feelings – you are allowed to be upset.
- Be kind to yourself – it’s not your fault that you have been abused.
- Remember your strengths. Don’t let the opinions of others define your self-worth. Remind yourself of your best qualities and attributes.
- Regularly practise self-care by making time for leisure, exercise, good nutrition and adequate sleep.
- Try meditation or other relaxation techniques.
- Surround yourself with positive people.
- Allow yourself time to heal.
Supporting a colleague
People who experience abuse on social media often say online responses backing them after the incident make them feel emotionally supported and help with their recovery. If it’s safe to do so, be an ‘upstander’ instead of just a bystander when you see or hear about abuse.
Send a DM
Message your colleague to make sure they are OK. Even a few words can go a long way towards making them feel supported and resilient.
Report the abuse
If the harmful content is serious enough to meet the legal definition of adult cyber abuse, and the service or platform does not help, your colleague can report it to eSafety using our online form and we will help to have it removed.
Call it out
If it feels safe and right, and it's not likely to make things worse for your colleague, eSafety recommends you consider calling out the abuse through your own online engagement. It could be a comment defending your colleague or simply a 'thumbs down' emoji on the abusive comment (though be careful that this can’t be misinterpreted as agreement with the negative narrative).
You may like to have a few general comments ready to use, with links to the reporting page of the relevant social media service. For example:
- This is online abuse. Personal attacks have no place online. Report to <name of platform and link> to call out this abuse. #ReportAndSupport
- Personal attacks are not relevant to this issue. #WomenWithWITS #ReportAndSupport
- Sorry this is happening to you. Online abuse is never OK – you can report it to <name of platform and link> #WomenWithWITS #ReportAndSupport
*eSafety has collaborated with the Social Media Wellbeing Advisor from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) to develop these best practice tips for the media industry.
Last updated: 27/04/2023