Journalists face death threats, harassment, slurs as online abuse mounts

A collection of screenshots of online harassment against journalists.

The online vitriol leveled against a Latina reporter in California got so bad early last year that her newsroom decided to put up a security camera outside her home in case she was followed or attacked.

A reporter in Florida received gender-based violence and anti-Semitic hate after she stepped in to defend an intern from an online mob.

In Philadelphia, a Latina columnist lived in fear for weeks when her home address was made public in the comments section of a piece she wrote calling out racist remarks made by former President Trump.

For many journalists, the threats and abuse they receive on- and offline has reached a level so intolerable they have begun to take drastic steps to shield themselves from harassment. It’s part of a larger trend, experts said. Online attacks against journalists have been increasing in intensity and frequency in recent years, with women, journalists of color and LGBTQ+ reporters receiving the worst of the abuse.

Some blame a national erosion of trust in the media, spurred by continuous attacks on press credibility from elected officials and other powerful figures. During the four years of former President Donald Trump ‘s term, he published 2,521 negative tweets about the press, according to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker.

As the threats have increased, so, too, have conversations in U.S. newsrooms about how to keep journalists safe.

On the first day of the NAHJ 2021 conference, the organization hosted a session to help journalists prevent the worst-case scenarios in online harassment. Journalists gathered virtually to hear how they could best protect personal information from would-be attackers. 

“I want people to not get a sense of fear in terms of what we’re talking about today, but a peace of mind,” said David Huerta, a digital security trainer at the Freedom of the Press Foundation. “I want every journalist to have that peace of mind because journalists already get plenty of anxiety from work and deadlines, and they don’t need more anxiety.”

Yolanda Martinez, a newsroom developer at the San Francisco Chronicle and this year’s NAHJ Conference chair, said that by offering security training at the NAHJ conference this week, she hoped it would reach some of the journalists who are at the greatest risk while trying to do their jobs.

“The best way to do that is to have a plan in place,” Martinez said. “It would be ideal if newsrooms helped create these plans and did most of the legwork, but some members don’t work for newsrooms who have the resources or are freelancers who do not have an institution that can step in to help.”

About 85% of female and gender-nonconforming journalists in the United States report that members of the press have become less safe over the past five years, according to a 2019 safety survey by the Committee to Protect Journalists.

The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, which documents and reports on individual incidents across the country that range from physical attacks to racist and hate-filled messages, has logged more than 150 cases mid-way through the year.

Martinez said at the Chronicle, a new Twitter policy was recently put in place to head off targeted harassment. Michael Bolden, the director of culture and operations at the Chronicle, explained the policy is in place to evade “unnecessary turmoil” as a result of tagging journalists that could then notify trolls and bad actors.

But for some journalists, engaging with internet trolls can be difficult to avoid.

Alex Iniguez, a senior editor at The Athletic, said he worries about the mental wellbeing of some of his staffers on the social media team, who have to wade through comments and vitriolic posts as part of their everyday job. Iniguez said it should be incumbent on news organizations to also safeguard staff that may be considered more behind-the-scene journalists.

The Athletic and other news organizations have enrolled their reporters in services like DeleteMe, which removes personal information on data broker websites.

“I’m grateful for a service like that to do the dirty work for me,” said Iniguez. “I feel safer online knowing my personal information is being zapped across the internet.” 

Dagmar Thiel has dedicated her life to researching online harassment against journalists. In 2018, she decided to zero in on Latinos who face this discrimination by founding Fundamedios, an organization committed to promoting freedom of expression and monitoring aggressions and risks faced by journalists in the U.S. and Latin America.

Thiel stressed how certain intersecting identities — race, ethnicity, class, sexual orientation, gender — can make online harassment even more brutal.

Helen Ubiñas, a metro columnist at the Philadelphia Inquirer, has had the comments turned off by her newsroom when responses to her columns get out of control.

“I am the Inquirer’s only Latina columnist, one of too few Latina columnists in the country, and for many trolls, that is enough to anger them because they don’t think I am supposed to have this position,” Ubiñas said. “It’s a way of saying, ‘You are not entitled to have an opinion, you are not entitled to talk, you do not belong.'”

Romina Ruiz-Goiriena, a national housing and social services reporter with USA Today, came to an intern’s defense on Twitter earlier this year after she wrote an accountability piece on extremist groups.

“Then, they came after me,” she said.

Once, Ruiz-Goiriena said, she was called an “ugly b—-” and screenshots of her Twitter bio were tweeted alongside anti-Semitic remarks.

Natalie Hanson, a former reporter at Chico Enterprise-Record, was reporting on homelessness and poverty last year, when she began to receive violent threats from community activists.

She grew so paranoid that someone might, at any moment, try to hurt her, she said, that she formed a habit of looking over her shoulder to ensure that she wasn’t being followed. Sometimes, she would run through scenarios in her head and think of ways to defend herself. Soon, overwhelmed by anxiety and fear, Hanson began to limit her time out in public.

She even questioned whether reporting was something that she could continue doing. 

“It made me question if I am going to be safe as a woman journalist and as a woman journalist of color,” said Hanson, who is Latina. “We’ve all been under so much stress, specifically in the last year in two years. And so understanding that you are under so much stress, you’re not capable of really knowing how to respond to constant bullying, and that’s important to realize.”

She didn’t give up, though. Now a reporter with the Marin Independent Journal, she has returned to covering the same issue she was targeted for.

Maya Brown is a senior at Stony Brook University, where she studies journalism and political science. She is an intern on the social team at NBC Universal and has previously worked for CNN, WSHU Public Radio and the Long Island Herald. She hopes to pursue a career in political reporting. Reach her at mayaabrown10 [at] aol [dot] com and on Twitter @mayaabrown10.

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