Ideas for addressing online threats and harassment of journalists

Oct 11, 2021

Ideas for addressing online threats and harassment of journalists

Photo by Christin Hume on Unsplash
This is a lightly edited version of a letter the author sent to the Canadian Association of Journalists (CAJ) following two statements on October 5th, 2021, "Canadian media stand united in support of all journalists against online hate, threats and harassment", signed by CAJ and most major media in the country, and CAJ's "An update on what we’re doing to fight harassment of Canadian journalists."
 
Given the online hate, harassment, and threats of violence that journalists have been receiving, particularly women and racialized women, I am writing to share thoughts about the situation and suggestions for ways to respond. No one should receive have to receive these sorts of hateful, violent messages in the course of doing their job, and it is vital to figure out how to ensure safety.
 
I will focus on two distinct but related priorities: supporting the journalists who are targeted, and preventing this sort of abuse in the future, which requires a discussion about the editorial side of Canadian media.
 
Supporting journalists
 
Many major media organizations who signed the statement against online hate, threats and harassment have repeatedly shown they won't protect their workers. There will need to be massive pressure put on these organizations in order for them to act. The good news, however, is it is possible. Given the extent of the pressure required, though, there is a need to simultaneously also provide support to journalists outside of these organizations.
 
Former talk radio host Supriya Dwivedi provided useful ideas and analysis on CBC Day Six and in The Toronto Star this weekend. For one, she mentioned the example of Defector Media, which employs proxies for targeted journalists, where the proxies will screen out abusive emails (and possibly texts and calls). While the abuse for many journalists is constant all year, it often has spikes, and proxies could be available during spikes, or on a more permanent basis, as required. There is also a need for paid time off and counselling for people targeted, and other mental health supports.
 
While those measures could be won during contract negotiations, those only happen every few years. But the need for these measures could be brought up immediately, through both internal and external campaigns, and employers could be pushed to grant those items outside of contract negotiations.
 
There has been some controversy among journalists about involving police. If people want to contact police so they police have a record of the violent threats and hate speech, that is of course their choice. There are few community safety mechanisms which have been developed autonomous of the police, unfortunately. Based on their historical record, however, I do not believe that the police will help, as they rarely act on these complaints, and they often make things worse. Crucially, if information regarding abuse and threats is only given to police, it then remains in police possession, which is not accessible to journalist and anti-hate communities.
 
What could be powerful is facilitating a way for journalists to share information, potentially by building databases, and to talk to each about who has been sending abusive and threatening messages. Anti-fascist organizers and researchers have used these kinds of information gathering and sharing practices for years. This can identify threats as they emerge, and track the origins of waves of attacks. Gathered information can also be used to publicly shame racists, fascists, misogynists, and others sending abusive and threatening messages to journalists. Their actions are exposed to their friends, families, and employers. And this has consequences. These sorts of tactics have had some success in slowing fascist organizing, especially online. Building that kind of database and communication network for this issue, autonomously of the police, could be very powerful. Various anti-fascist groups and researchers, like antihate.ca, may have expert insights far beyond what I can offer.
 
In addition to proxies, time off, counselling, and tracking people sending abuse and threats, there may be roles for men in media organizations to play, taking leadership from women and trans folks. One possibility would be for men on staff to take on the proxy role, or to even respond to the messages, though there are arguments to be had about the utility of engaging at all with people sending hate and threats. It could also look like men being much more vocal about this issue in public, like on social media. It is striking how many of the most prominent white men columnists in this country are almost completely silent on this issue while their colleagues suffer.
 
In terms of how to advocate for these changes and how to push management at media companies, this can happen both inside the media organizations (through unions or more autonomously), and also through external campaigns.
 
CAJ seems very well-suited for the latter, launching campaigns for better protections. CAJ also appears to be well placed to do some of the autonomous organizing of information-sharing among journalists about the hate they are facing, possibly in collaboration with other organizations.
 
Editorial
 
On the editorial side of the problem, there are two main areas I see.
 
One is to confront the hate and bigotry being expressed by the most prominent columnists and personalities at the biggest media outlets.
 
Those people generally know what they are doing, and they know they are connected to far-right circles, where people encourage one another to send hateful and threatening messages to women and racialized journalists. Still, for the CAJ as a journalists' association, it is worth first contacting these prominent media personalities to offer constructive criticism, pointing out the connection between what they are saying and what effect this has in general and specifically on their colleagues. If they are not willing to listen and change, as many have been unwilling to, journalist organizations like CAJ can become more adversarial, publicly showing how negligent these commentators are in promoting bigotry and hate and not denouncing the real-world manifestations. This will help build consciousness around who is responsible for fomenting hate and abusive behaviour.
 
There are already some organizations, like antihate.ca and PressProgress, doing the work of tracking which commentators are saying hateful things and networking with far-right figures and organizations. That investigative work should be supported, expanded, and given space on more prominent platforms.
 
There should also be pressure applied on editors to enforce some basic standards on bigoted columnists. Basic fact-checking of columns is lacking, and it appears many editors don't challenge nonsense claims columnists make. It is unconscionable how many times columnists in major papers are allowed to make claims distorting the truth, spouting outright falsehoods, or promoting bigotry. That is on the authors, and also on the editors. It is not something readers or other journalists are responsible for correcting.
 
Editors should be pressured to apply basic standards against publishing and promoting hate and bigotry. Too often, these editors remain anonymous in the background, away from criticism, but journalists and journalism organizations should call them out when they do irresponsible work. Of course, many editors are given untenable workloads by their publishers, so publishers also need to be a focus of critique. Editors and publications which continue publishing bigotry should be confronted by others, including the CAJ, and cannot be considered part of the solution.
 
A second major item on the editorial side is to demand better reporting about the far right and those who promote hate. None of the big seven media organizations in English Canada (Postmedia, Globe & Mail, Torstar, CBC, Chorus, Bell, Rogers) do this well. Too often, symptoms, like hateful incidents, are reported without looking at deeper causes and at the networks, both online and offline, pushing and promoting hate and bigotry. Far too often in the mainstream press, bigots are simply given a massive media platform in the name of balance, counter-posed with a timid centrist position.
 
It seems organizations like antihate.ca, PressProgress, VICE, and a few small, independent media are the only ones consistently covering this beat in a way that gives any significant level of context. With this reporting being so buried and out of the mainstream, various attacks look, to the public and to many journalism colleagues, like isolated incidents, not part of an ideologically and organizationally connected network.
 
We are watching the real-time rise of fascism in Canada, and in response we are getting outrageous both-sides-ism reporting and platforming of fascists.
 
Journalists and journalism organizations need to learn deeply about how this is happening, and take on campaigns to push back on this editorial orientation. It could be possible for the CAJ to take on campaigns, along with partner organizations, to push existing media organizations to prioritize this as a beat.
 
For that to really work – and I hope you don't just brush this off – it will be essential to very directly look at the (gendered) violence that is inseparable from Canadian colonialism and imperialism. Any effort to understand the abuse and threats we're seeing now without contending with those core ideas about Canada is bound to fail. The big seven media organizations in English Canada and the majors in Quebec have all been failing on this, and should be called out.
 
Making changes
 
Hopefully this has provided some ideas. It is going to take a lot of work to address this problem. Media companies, even as they promise action now, can't be relied upon to deliver. They need to be pressured from the inside and outside. And some activities may need to happen autonomously. The CAJ, other journalism organizations, and individual journalists are going to need to be loud, demanding, and creative to make changes happen that will protect journalists. The hate and threats aren't going to stop, and is necessary to build necessary safety and support systems that rely neither on management's kindness nor on the police. Thankfully, there are many colleagues and media consumers who are supportive and want to help make this happen.
 
 
David Gray-Donald is a journalist, book publicist, editor with the Media Co-op, and former publisher of Briarpatch Magazine.
 
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