WASHINGTON, D.C. —Newsroom executives need to better protect journalists from online abuse and harassment if they are to retain women and people of color in media, according to a Women’s Media Center report released today.
The report, “What Online Harassment Tells Us About Our Newsrooms: From Individuals to Institutions,” looks at online harassment and systemic bias in U.S. newsrooms. The report analyzes the most recent studies and findings regarding online hostility to journalists and concludes with recommendations for newsroom leaders, including committing to understanding the relationship of inclusivity, online harassment, and free speech in their newsrooms; acknowledging bias and engineering around it; and making journalists’ safety a company-wide priority.
“Taking online harassment seriously is at the core of an inclusive newsroom and a critical step toward ensuring free speech for all,” said Julie Burton, WMC president and CEO. “News leaders and managers must be in the vanguard in combating both harassment and the internal biases that exacerbate that harassment.”
The report examines the ever-expanding digital threats to journalists and includes insights gleaned from industry research and from three news leaders whom the nonprofit organization convened for a special symposium in New Orleans in October: Nicole Carroll, editor-in-chief, USA Today; Mitra Kalita, senior vice president, news, opinion, and programming, CNN Digital; and Raju Narisetti, who has overseen news operations at The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and Gizmodo Media Group and is founder of India’s Mint newspaper.
Kalita said women are telling their stories and voicing their opinions despite the harassment they face. Opinion writers that she works with won’t be silenced. “They write again,” said Kalita, adding that it’s really important to her that women “feel that they’re supported along the way.”
Studies consistently show that for women; ethnic, religious, and sexual minorities; as well as gender-nonconforming people, online harassment is more frequent and intense and likelier to result in self-censoring, according to the report. Journalists are usually responsible, as individuals, for “staying safe” online, and a long-standing journalistic tradition urging journalists to “grow a thicker skin” frequently inhibits genuine understanding of the dynamics of abuse. The report’s authors contend that this approach creates an imbalance that results in organizations persistently ill-prepared for the virulence of online hate and harassment.
“We want newsrooms to take online harassment seriously, not as a matter of women’s personal safety, but as central to their commitment to inclusivity and journalistic ethics,” said Soraya Chemaly, an award-winning writer and media critic and the co-founder and director of WMC’s Speech Project, which raises public and media awareness of online harassment. “Understanding the dynamics of online harassment and hate gives newsrooms a genuine opportunity to commit to inclusivity, in virtually any way you look at it.”
Kalita and Carroll said that the safety and security of their journalists is a top concern at their organizations, which they said have instituted safety and security measures to protect journalists. For example, Kalita said she works closely with CNN’s security team. Carroll said Gannett, USA Today’s parent company, has an internal harassment policy with clear steps to be taken, such as documenting it with screenshots and referring it to human resources.
“Newsroom leadership must commit to providing better protection for all journalists, but especially for women; ethnic, religious, and sexual minorities; and gender-nonconforming people,” said Pat Mitchell, WMC co-chair.
According to the report, in addition to clearly influencing how journalists work, online harassment also affects organizations’ ability to recruit, retain, and reward diverse staff and cultivate inclusive media environments and leadership. In an environment that rewards visibility and audience engagement, women and minorities, who as a result of being targeted reduce their social media presence, may lower their chances of career advancement, according to the report.
“Inclusion is really not only an important moral issue, but has to be seen as a business problem, as a quality of our journalism problem, as a trust issue, as both an organizational and a legal issue,” said Narisetti.
The WMC report also includes separate interviews with Soraya Nadia McDonald, culture critic at The Undefeated; Jill Filipovic, contributing opinion writer for The New York Times and freelance writer; and Katelyn Burns, freelance writer for Rewire and Vox, who discuss their challenges in navigating an increasingly vitriolic online arena.
The Women’s Media Center, co-founded by Jane Fonda, Robin Morgan, and Gloria Steinem, is an inclusive and feminist organization that works to raise the visibility, viability, and decision-making power of women and girls in media to ensure that their stories get told and their voices are heard. We do this by researching and monitoring media; creating and modeling original online, print, and podcast content; training women and girls to be effective in media; and promoting women experts in all fields.