Journalists ask their companies to defend them from cyberbullying

The recent firing of a young reporter by The Associated Press because of what she posted on Twitter has unexpectedly forced the news agency and other journalistic companies in general to pay attention to the other side of social media use: the harassment that many journalists suffer regularly.

In internal meetings following the firing of reporter Emily Wilder in Arizona, several AP reporters raised concerns about whether the agency would defend its employees from outside attacks.

“The Emily Wilder case set this off for a lot of staff people,” sportswriter Jenna Fryer, speaking at the meeting, said in an interview.

Wilder was fired last month because the company said her tweets about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict violated AP’s rules, which prohibit expressing opinions on social media about controversial topics. Before her dismissal, a conservative group had launched an online campaign against her because of her pro-Palestinian positions. Although the AP said it was not giving in to pressure, the firing sparked a debate over whether the news agency had not acted hastily.

Journalists often receive vile racist or sexist insults, as well as threats of rape, mutilation or other violence from other online users.

This type of harassment is by no means a problem unique to journalists, but their visibility makes them particularly vulnerable to attack, said Viktorya Vilk, director of digital security and freedom of expression programs at PEN America, a literary and literary organization. defense of human rights.

Fryer, who covers motorsports, said he “cried daily” due to attacks he received online for reporting a noose noose found last year in the Alabama garage used by the only black NASCAR driver. He said the only time anyone at the company raised the issue was when an editor claimed that Fryer was subjected to a lot of harassment.

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“Sometimes you feel totally isolated,” he said.

The news agency said it has turned to the police in many cases of online attacks on its journalists. However, after several virtual meetings, the AP commissioned a study on whether it could do more.

“I can say from personal experience that we have not turned our backs on him,” said AP Washington bureau chief Julie Pace. “What we must do is give the same importance to the way we handle what we traditionally consider threats to the safety of our journalists: as if you go to Syria or if you cover potentially chaotic protests.”

For the past decade, news companies have insisted that their journalists create online profiles, considering it important to promote themselves, but they were slow to understand the dangers, said Vilk, who has worked with more than a dozen companies on this issue.

The situation is worse in the case of women and minorities. Vilk believes that the preponderance of white men in positions of authority is one of the factors that explains the slowness of the reaction of managers to the problem.

Following Wilder’s firing, members of the team of reporters on issues of race and ethnicity approached their supervisor, Andale Gross, to express concern about whether the company would support them if their stories or tweets were controversial. Gross said journalists under his supervision – including blacks, Latinos and Asian Americans – suffer frequent racist insults and threats and that the AP security group has responded to several.

The story of two weeks ago about racism in the military generated many hateful messages from people who claimed to be in the military, which in essence shows that the article was right.

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“I don’t want people to think that it should be accepted or tolerated,” Gross said. “But it has to do with the topics we write about. We know that every story we produce can provoke a racist offensive. “

Online attacks have generally worsened. The Pew Research Center published in January that 41% of American adults say they have been bullied online, compared to 35% in 2017. The percentages of people who say they have been threatened or sexually harassed have more than doubled since 2014 , according to the pollster.

Vilk advises newspaper companies to conduct anonymous internal surveys to determine the magnitude of the problem and assess their standards regarding social media. In general, those rules refer to what journalists should or should not do, but not what happens when attacks occur, he added.

Companies should provide cybersecurity training and support, mental health and legal advice, as well as access to services that can remove an employee’s personal information from the network. They must also be aware that harassment can be more organized than it appears and be willing to investigate the origin of the campaigns, he added.

The AP has created a staff committee to come up with ideas on how to improve the response to bullying, due Sept. 1.

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