Journalist’s dismissal sparks debate over social media policies, harassment of journalists


The recent firing of a young journalist by The Associated Press for what she said on Twitter has drawn the attention of business and industry somewhat unexpectedly to the flip side of engagement on social media – the online abuse that many journalists face on a regular basis.

In internal meetings following the sacking of Arizona-based reporter Emily Wilder, several reporters expressed concern over whether the PA would have the backs of employees being attacked from outside.

“Emily Wilder’s situation triggered this for a lot of people on the staff,” said Jenna Fryer, an AP sports reporter who spoke at one of the meetings, in a later interview.

Wilder was fired last month because of what the company said were tweets about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that violated AP’s social media policy prohibiting giving opinions on contentious issues. Before her dismissal, a conservative group had started an online campaign against her because of her pro-Palestinian views, and although the PA said it was not responding to pressure, her dismissal sparked debate on the issue. whether the news agency acted too recklessly.

Journalists are often subjected to racist or sexist slurs, vile slurs and threats of rape, dismemberment or other violence from online readers.

Online harassment is not unique to journalists. But journalists’ visibility makes them particularly vulnerable to attack, said Viktorya Vilk, program director for digital security and freedom of expression at the literary and human rights organization PEN America.

Fryer, who covers auto racing, said she “was in tears every day” over online abuse she received for covering a noose found last year in a garage in Alabama used by NASCAR’s only full-time black driver. She said the only time she had heard of harassment from the company was when a manager pointed out that Fryer had suffered greatly.

“Sometimes you feel like you’re on a total island,” she said.

Order study

The news agency claims to have collaborated with law enforcement in numerous cases when its journalists have been attacked online. However, following the meetings, the PA commissioned a study on the possibility of doing more.

“I can say from personal experience that we have not ignored this,” said Julie Pace, PA bureau chief in Washington. “What we need to do is put this on a par with the way we deal with what we have traditionally viewed as threats to the safety of our journalists – if you are going to Syria, or if you are covering. protests that could potentially turn chaotic. “

News organizations have often been quick over the past decade to pressure their reporters to create social media profiles, acknowledging this was important to their brands, but slow to see its dangers, said Vilk, who has worked with over a dozen media outlets on this issue. .

Women and minorities generally have it worse. Vilk believes the preponderance of white males in management has contributed to the industry’s delay in responding.

Some members of the AP’s race and ethnicity reporting team approached their editor, Andale Gross, after Wilder was fired, wondering if the company would back them if their stories or tweets went wrong. were controversial, he said. Racist slurs and threats frequently come to the journalists he supervises, who include blacks, Latinos and Asian Americans, and PA security has responded to a number of them, a- he declared.

The team’s story two weeks ago about racism in the military prompted numerous hate messages from people who said they were in the military – essentially proving the point of the article , did he declare.

“I don’t want people to think this should be accepted or tolerated,” Gross said. “But it comes with the territory of the things we write about. We know that with every story we produce, we can face an attack of racism. “

The National Association of Black Journalists has offered help to its members on the issue through in-person briefings and webinars, said Dorothy Tucker, president of the NABJ.

Almost three-quarters of the 714 female journalists interviewed said they had suffered attacks online, according to a study released in April by UNESCO and the International Center of Journalists. Twelve percent requested medical or psychological help. The survey indicated that 4% left their jobs and 2% left their business completely.

Washington Post columnist Margaret Sullivan wrote in March that she had received “viciously misogynistic name-calling and sexualized fantasies about dismembering me.”

“Unless you’ve been there, it’s hard to understand how unsettling it is, how it can make you think twice about your next story, or even if being a journalist is worth it. hardly, ”she wrote.

Taylor Lorenz, a reporter for the New York Times, wrote on Twitter this spring about the “unimaginable” attacks she had received online. “It is no exaggeration to say that the campaign of harassment and defamation that I have had to endure over the past year has destroyed my life,” she wrote. “No one should have to go through this. “

Journalist Glenn Greenwald and Fox News Channel host Tucker Carlson played down his concerns.

“Destroy his life? Really? “Carlson said on air.” By most people’s standards, Taylor Lorenz seems to be having a pretty good life, one of the best lives in the country, actually.

A “suck it up” attitude or the feeling that nothing really can be done about online harassment leads many journalists to remain silent. Anne M. Peterson, a seasoned AP sports reporter, said she received lewd photos online and a threat from someone who creepily attached a Google image of her house. She never reported any incidents to management.

The AP’s Pace, who also writes stories and appears on television, said she had been the target of abuse and had to deal with it for the employees she leads.

“There were times when I kind of said to myself, ‘Yeah, that’s part of the job,” she said in an interview. “I know I’m in a high level position. .… Then there are times when they really cross a line, or if it affects your personal safety or that of your family, where you think, “No, that’s not something I should have to put up with. It is unacceptable and frightening.

“So we don’t want to normalize it,” she said. “We don’t want people to feel like they have to sit down and take it.”

Online attacks in general have worsened. The Pew Research Center said in January that 41% of American adults report being harassed online, up from 35% in 2014. The percentages of people who say they have been threatened or sexually harassed online have doubled since 2014, Pew said.

There are signs the issue is being taken more seriously in newsrooms.

One indication is a greater willingness to publicly support the journalists under attack. It happened last winter, when Washington Post reporter Seung Min Kim was criticized for asking Senator Lisa Murkowski for her reaction to something that President Joe Biden’s failed candidate for director of the budget, Neera Tanden, had tweeted about Murkowski.

Kim’s boss, National Post editor Steven Ginsberg, said the attacks were “extremely misguided and a bad faith intimidation effort. What she did was basic journalism.

Vilk advises news agencies to conduct an anonymous internal investigation to determine the extent of their problems and to review social media policies. Most policies focus on what journalists should and shouldn’t do, as opposed to what happens when the public goes on the attack, she said.

Organizations should provide cybersecurity training and support, legal and mental health advice, and access to services that can erase an employee’s personal information on the web, she said. Businesses also need to be aware that harassment is often more organized than it looks and be prepared to investigate the source of the campaigns, she said.

The AP has set a deadline of September 1 for a committee of staff to come up with ideas to improve the way harassment is handled.

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