Online abuse of journalists has become so routine that a study this week recommends that journalism students need training to prepare them for it.
But how do you incorporate online abuse into journalism curricula? Over the past year I’ve been trying to do just that — here are some ideas.
1. Ask about online abuse on news days
Most journalism courses already have news days, so considering online abuse in news meetings is a simple way to incorporate the topic into teaching without having to create new classes or materials.
The International Press Institute (IPI)’s Ontheline programme provides one of the most comprehensive resources to help news organisations deal with online harassment. It recommends regularly speaking about online abuse in editorial meetings.
“The objective is to normalize discussions about online harassment in the newsroom,” they say. “An important step toward a creating a culture of safety. Journalists should feel comfortable coming forward with their experiences and concerns.”
This is especially important in election weeks: the IPI suggest that discussions about online abuse should be more frequent during politically tense periods or ahead of elections.
The Dart Center provides a tip sheet for journalists and newsroom managers on dealing with online hate speech and harassment which is an excellent broader starting point. The tips for colleagues can be further fleshed out with PEN America’s Best Practices for Allies and Bystanders and the 5Ds framework for bystander intervention: Distract, Delegate, Document, Delay, and Direct.
If the outlet you use for student journalism has its own style guide or guidelines, you can also add a section about online abuse that outlines what they should do when it happens, and resources they can draw on, such as this Trollbusters infographic on actions to take regarding a range of threats, and those listed below.
2. Include online abuse in risk assessments
Journalists and journalism students are often required to complete risk assessments ahead of certain newsgathering activity, such as filming on location.
Typically these cover physical hazards — but The Committee to Protect Journalists provides a template for risk assessment (PDF) which includes sections on digital security and psychological security.
Advice on assessing risk can be found in the IPI’s online harassment project section dedicated to risk assessment in the newsroom.
Teaching on risk assessment can include these dimensions and point to those resources. It might be explained that risk factors include the nature of the story being covered: those relating to gender, ethnicity, immigration, extremism, disinformation, and other topics where there are strong feelings are likely to be higher risk than others.
This is also a good opportunity to talk about the risk factors related to the journalist’s own gender, ethnicity and sexuality, and how those aren’t limited to the online world: 73% of UNESCO research (PDF) respondents identifying as women said they had experienced online violence, and one in five said that abuse had moved offline.
3. Cover both sides of harassment in media law…
Harassment laws (or dimensions of industry codes) have become increasingly used against journalists — but journalists are also increasingly having to report harassment under the same laws. Media law classes on privacy, harassment, and malicious communications can address the law both as something to consider when reporting, and something that the reporter and their employer can draw on themselves.
The Library of Congress provides a collection of resources on Laws Protecting Journalists from Online Harassment — in 12 different countries, including England and Wales, Spain and Brazil.
PEN America has a section on legal considerations and publishes a guide to Legal Resources for Writers & Journalists in that country.
And the IPI has a series of videos on legal remedies to address online harassment.
In addition to the law, social media companies themselves are increasingly policing content, a form of regulation which both journalists and their audiences are now subject to. Understanding how that works — and how and when online abuse can be reported on different platforms — is an important new dimension to media law and regulation.
4. …and information security, too
In the media law module on my MA journalism courses I teach information security. Why? Journalists, as I concluded in research in 2015, can no longer protect sources through legal channels alone, and therefore need to understand both technological and legal defences.
This year I extended that teaching to talk about personal information security in the context of online abuse as well.
PEN America‘s Online Harassment Field Manual compiles “strategies to protect and arm yourself before you become the target of abuse, with an emphasis on tightening your cybersecurity and establishing supportive online communities who will have your back”, addressing a number of tactics used by online abusers, from doxxing and impersonation to hacking. Feminist Frequency also provides a guide to online safety.
The Data Detox Kit also outlines “steps you can take to control your digital privacy, security, and wellbeing in ways that feel right to you.”
5. Include guidelines in classes on writing for social media
Social media is the main space where online abuse takes place, so classes on writing for those platforms, and related skills such as community management (the IPI has a whole section on audience moderation), are an obvious place to address some of the techniques for dealing with online abuse.
One of those techniques, for example, is to “flood social media with positive posts about the work of colleagues to drown out any abuse they may be facing”.
It may also be that those managing social media accounts are more likely to find themselves reading abuse directed at the organisation and colleagues, and to have recourse to strategies for dealing with that (concerns are being expressed that ‘audience engagement’ roles are “setting journalists up” for abuse, for example).
Recommendations in Kean and Maclure’s study (summarised here) provide a useful framework here and are worth quoting in detail:
- “Keep work and personal social media accounts separate
- “Use strict settings to filter out trolls — block, ignore and mute personal attacks
- “Switch off outside office hours
- “If the accuracy of a story is being called into question and you choose to respond, remain factual — but don’t expect to have the last word, as you can never win a ‘Twitter spat’
- “Differentiate between attacks (personal) and criticism (on journalistic grounds)
- “Document and threats or abuse
- “Report abuse to management and use internal processes that are in place
- “Speak about it with family, friends or colleagues to “take a bit of the heat out”
- “Do things you enjoy outside work
- “Remember abuse is never about your ability
- “Take time away from social media if necessary and ask for an editor’s support to do so
- “Know it is okay to be upset and that abuse is not acceptable and should not be part of the job.”
The International Women’s Media Federation (IWMF) has a Know your trolls course which can also be incorporated into social media training.
6. Organise a screening of A Dark Place
Earlier this month I organised a screening and Q&A around the one-hour documentary A Dark Place, which highlights “the experiences of female journalists who have been targeted by online harassment”.
It’s a must-see documentary, not least in understanding the gendered dimension of online violence, as outlined in a recent UNESCO report:
“Women journalists are both the primary targets of online violence and the first responders to it.
“Misogyny is one of the key features of online violence targeting women journalists, and it has been routinised … In detail and delivery, the threats are personal [and] they are often highly sexualised.”
Contact details for screening and Q&A requests can be directed to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Representative on Freedom of the Media.
7. Ask guest speakers about how they handle online abuse
There is a good chance that a planned guest speaker will have had to deal with some form of online abuse themselves. If you feel that this might be relevant or valuable to students it may be worth asking the speaker in advance if this is the case and if they are willing to talk about that as part of the session.
Hearing respected industry figures talk about online abuse makes the topic more concrete and manageable, while helping students to put it into the context of industry practice, support systems, and ongoing developments.
8. Include online abuse as a critical issue in academic classes
Most journalism courses require students to study the critical issues surrounding the profession. Online abuse — either on its own or alongside related issues such as misinformation, privacy, social media, diversity and/or propaganda — is a strong candidate to be included as one of those. Resources you can draw on and point students to include:
- International Press Institute (IPI) (2019) Newsroom Best Practices for Addressing Online Violence against Journalists
- Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (2016) Countering Online Abuse of Female Journalists
- Reporters Without Borders (RSF) (2018) Online harassment of journalists: Attack of the trolls
- UNESCO (2021) The Chilling: Global trends in online violence against women journalists