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Home > Publications > Quill > Online Harassment Is An Ethics Issue For Journalists



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Tuesday, February 21, 2017
Online Harassment Is An Ethics Issue For Journalists

Ethics Toolbox

By Andrew M. Seaman

The internet inarguably shook up the profession of journalism more than any other technology throughout its history. People spend a lot of time discussing the internet’s impact on storytelling and the business of journalism, but they typically ignore the harassment it unleashed on journalists.

The issue snuck into the daily lives of journalists as the community known as Gamergate grew into an army of anonymous internet users willing to attack any person or reporter who got in their way. People also saw the in-person and online harassment journalists endured during the 2016 election.

Twitter more recently banned Martin Shkreli, a former pharmaceutical executive, from its platforms after repeatedly targeting an editor at Teen Vogue.

Professional journalism organizations like SPJ and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press are incredibly good at responding to the legal and ethical challenges faced by journalists. No organization – as far as I know – is currently addressing the issue of harassment.

Harassment is an ethical issue, however. Harassment should be seen as an attack on a free press and a call to action for other journalists. Journalists have a duty to watch each other’s backs in the field and in the newsroom.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) took a step toward addressing the problem last year by publishing a report on the latest research on online harassment of female journalists and possible solutions.

The report calls on member states of the OSCE to acknowledge the issue, but it also calls on media organizations and social media platforms to find ways to address harassment against female journalists.

Among the report’s recommendations is a call for all journalists at media organizations to “have access to a comprehensive system of support including psychosocial and legal assistance.” Additionally, the report says those companies should create a culture of gender equality and non-tolerance of any harassment. They should also work with other organizations “to create support systems … for female journalists and media actors,” the report continues.

The OSCE report should be required reading for all newsroom leaders as they balance the need to connect online with their readers, viewers and listeners while also protecting their journalists.

The OSCE also suggests that the journalism industry create “industry wide guidelines on identifying and monitoring online abuse.”

Creating industry wide guidelines and inter-organization support systems take time, but there are steps that can be taken in the meantime.

•Journalists who see their colleagues and peers being harassed online should reach out to the affected person to offer support.

•News organizations should develop protocols and resources to support journalists experiencing online harassment. If news organizations don’t have protocols in place, journalists should take up the tasks of identifying resources and creating support groups for their affected colleagues.

•Journalists and news organizations should identify point people within social media companies trained to deal with online harassment.

•Journalists and news organizations should immediately contact law enforcement about any credible threats to the health and safety of journalists.

•News organizations should also offer legal assistance to address harassment.

Some organizations and people within the journalism community are taking initial steps to combat online harassment. The organization known as TrollBusters is currently in beta mode, but works to send positive messages and images to people affected by online harassment in an attempt to dilute the negative experience.

SPJ and other journalism organizations should also contribute to efforts to offer support and assistance to all harassed journalists through toolkits and newsroom workshops. In the meantime, simple steps and supportive colleagues can fill the gap.

Andrew Seaman is chair of the SPJ Ethics Committee and a reporter for Reuters covering health and medical issues. On Twitter: @andrewmseaman

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