Online Attacks on Journalists in Germany IPI's OnTheLine Project # Overview and Best Newsroom Practices

Filip Singer/EPA-EFE


In the fall of 2018, the International Press Institute (IPI), a global network of editors, media executives and leading journalists for press freedom, visited Germanyas part of IPI’s Ontheline project, which aims to identify best newsroom practices for preventing and better responding to online harassment of journalists.

Over the course of three days, as well as in follow-up phone calls, IPI conducted interviews with news editors, social media editors and/or heads of audience at the German public broadcasters ARD and ZDF; Deutsche Welle; the German news agency DPA and Spiegel Online. Interviews were also held with the German Press Council (Presserat) and the freelance network Hostwriter.

Meetings concentrated on different types of mechanisms for dealing with online harassment, including prevention, community management, social media management, psychosocial support and legal measures. However, the discussions also offered an opportunity to learn more about the general phenomenon of online harassment and its manifestation in the German media landscape.

Analysis of the Context

The issue of online attacks against journalists in Germany revolves around two different yet connected aspects: on one hand, individual journalists occasionally become direct targets of online attacks, insults and even threats against them and their families (i.e., online attacks on journalists in the strict sense); on the other hand, as user conversations on news media websites and social media platforms in reaction to news coverage become an increasingly important aspect of journalism itself, the ability of news organizations to offer a space for a constructive exchange of ideas is challenged by the widespread presence of insult, aggressive messages and hateful speech.

While the dissemination of hateful messages online and online attacks against journalists represent two separate phenomena and may need different remedies, numerous points of contact can be identified. Indeed, researchers increasingly see online hate speech, attacks against journalists and disinformation as different elements of the same effort, which aims at disrupting the free marketplace of ideas that is the foundation of democracy, while creating social division and polarization. Numerous commonalities can be identified between the two, underscoring their common origin:

– News organizations and journalists who spoke to IPI agreed that both attacks on journalists and hateful messages that more generally aim at creating divisions and disruption online conversations are mostly in reaction to coverage of certain specific topics. These topics include refugees and migrants, far-right political movements, Ukraine, Israel, and, occasionally, sporting events.

– Typically, journalists who are singled out and targeted in direct, personal attacks – or even threats – are either women or those perceived on the basis of their names or physical appearance as having a migrant background or as belonging to a minority group. Consequently, journalists who operate in front of a camera and are therefore more easily identifiable on the basis of gender or ethnicity are more common targets of individualized attacks, insults and threats. In the case of women, such attacks will often use a sexualized language.

– Analyses of waves of aggressive posts in reaction to the publication of news on certain topics show that some posts are generated and disseminated by individuals while others are generated by automated bots.

– The users or accounts disseminating hateful and/or racist speech that creates division and disrupts online conversations are frequently the same that directly attack journalists either on the basis of their coverage or their personal identity.

– Attacks are disseminated both in the online discussion forums of news organizations as well as on social media platforms. In Germany, the most common platform for such attacks is Facebook, followed by Twitter and YouTube.

– As a large majority of the hateful speech online in Germany is addressed toward socially disadvantaged groups or individuals, journalists who cover issues related to those groups or individuals in either a positive or neutral tone become themselves targets of concentrated waves of online vitriol.

Analysis of the Problem

Although German news organizations take online threats against their journalists seriously and take steps to address physical safety in extreme cases, there is a perception that Germany-based online attacks will not lead to violent physical attacks. (In some cases, German news organizations that also deploy journalists to dangerous locations abroad have employed different protocols to address online threats, taking into consideration the increased likelihood that online attacks turn into physical ones.) This is particularly concerning for female journalists operating in from of the camera, whose faces are more easily recognizable to their audiences.

Still, even in contexts where journalists have no major reason to fear for their physical safety, being targeted by huge and recurring waves of online harassment can have other consequences: On one hand, the harassment creates intense psychological pressure on the targeted journalists; on the other, harassment in the form of public smear campaigns greatly challenges the credibility of journalists in front of their audiences, compromising their professional position.

The coverage of the recent influx of migrants and refugees into Germany, in particular as part of the political debate related to the so-called “refugee crisis”, has attracted the largest part of online vitriol in the country. The German news agency DPA, for example, described to IPI a “shitstorm” targeting its news editor, Froben Homburger, following his statement against the use of the terms “asylum critic” and “asylum opponent” to define “those who participate in protests and attacks against refugees”. Homburger said that the terms trivialized certain actions and called for news coverage to better define “the motives and attitudes” of those who oppose refugees.

The wave of hate that followed included both general attacks on DPA and personal, targeted criticism of Homburger. However, the aggressive campaign was clearly directed at the content of DPA’s and Homburger’s statements. This, together with his deep journalistic experience, made it easier for Homburger to actively engage in the debate on social media around this topic and personally respond to the attacks.

Doing so is not always easy for journalists, however, in particular when online attacks and “shitstorms” not only target journalistic content, but also the journalists themselves. This is often the case for women and journalists with a migrant background or who are members of a minority group. The journalist network Neue Deutsche Medienmacher (roughly: “New German Media Creators”), a group of journalists and media experts with different cultural and linguistic backgrounds, has analysed how online attacks against journalists turn into hate speech. According to the group, “Particularly affected are journalists with a migration background. In their cases, online hatred focuses less on the content of their work than on their origin or skin colour.”

These forms of attacks are very difficult to counter as rational arguments against racist and discriminatory statements are not effective and efforts to create a constructive conversation in response to these attacks tend to be counterproductive. At the same time, these types of attacks tend to affect journalists much more deeply and have serious consequences on their ability to continue covering certain topics.

In the words of Dunja Hayali, an award-winning journalist with Germany’s ZDF public broadcaster who became a primary target of online vitriol following her coverage of the refugee crisis and far-right political movements:

“I always look for the dialogue, I am interested in different opinions, different arguments, also as a form of personal reflection. But what is happening now is even hard to describe: threats, insults, offences, rape threats. Nobody is listening to anybody else, words get twisted, taken out of context. And if one’s opinion isn’t validated by the other, then you are an idiot, a bitch, a liar or under the thumb of someone else… And the problem is that this hate now is spilling onto the streets: Journalists are being attacked: Recently, somebody approached me as I was shopping and shouted in my face “Du Lügenpresse, du Lügenfresse” (“You lying journalist, you lying mouth”). This is not fun!

She added: “When looking for solutions, addressing compromises, in the type of coverage we give to refugees, please do argue with us, discuss with us, point to our mistakes. We are journalists not superior beings. We do make mistakes, but this does not mean that we are liars.”

Analysis of the Consequences

Consequences on Female Journalists

Interviewees say it is clear that female journalists receive proportionally more attacks than their male colleagues in Germany, in line with the global trend in this area.

As in other countries studied by IPI, sexist, even misogynist attacks against female journalists in Germany are not only aimed at silencing journalists and challenging their credibility among their audiences, but also at creating division and conflict in society and polarising audiences, which ultimately have a highly disrupting effect on the peaceful exchange of ideas and opinions, which lies at the basis of any democratic system. Taking advantage of a certain level of latent sexism existing in society, messages of hate against female journalists, which often include sexual references, tend to spread more widely then other types of content on social media.

The frequent and serious attacks targeting Dunja Hayali are well known within the journalistic community in Germany, and many admire her ability to stand up to her aggressors. However, she has often admitted to being fearful. In at least two cases, however, German courts have found individuals guilty of disseminating attacks against Hayali online to pay fines .

Community managers in Germany told IPI that they are aware that women are particularly subject to online attacks, especially so when they operate in front of a camera. After Deutsche Welle began a programme of disseminating short videos on social media, the female journalists on camera became targets of severe attacks, both those based in Germany and, to a greater extent, those reporting from abroad.

When asked about remedies to address abusive messages against women journalists specifically, managers and journalists in Germany agree that generating awareness about this phenomenon within the newsroom is the most important factor. Community and social media managers say that, as is the case for stories on sensitive topics, there is a need to monitor comments more closely when the journalist covering a particular story is a woman.

Our research found that women who work for larger news organizations, where structures to address online vitriol are in place, will be given the choice to address potential attacks against them directly or leave that to a colleague or a community manager.

However, many female journalists do not operate within structured systems. Freelancers or those who work in small newsrooms are left alone to deal with the hate and abuse. In these cases, journalists say, networks of support, including colleagues and friends, have proven vital. The network Neue Deutsch Medienmacher, whose members are particularly prone to attacks and often operate as freelancers, has created a helpdesk to advise journalists on preventive and protective measures.

Analysis of Practices Adopted by Newsrooms and Journalists

Legal remedies

Media managers in Germany have stressed the importance of differentiating clearly between attacks that require a legal intervention and those for which legal remedies do not exist or would not be effective. In general, there seems to be consensus about the fact that existing legal remedies provided under German law are sufficient to address threats and the most serious attacks targeting journalists, and legal teams working with large news media also regularly file such cases with the judicial authorities.

Rulings by courts in Germany against perpetrators of online attacks and insults against journalist Dunja Hayali are often brought as example of successful judicial prosecution despite concerns about the application of criminal sanctions in defamation cases. While the prosecutions of Hayali’s aggressors have received a lot of media attention, many other cases exist in which German courts were able to identify and prosecute the perpetrators of online attacks against journalists.

German news organizations said it was important to report serious threats to the police. They indicated that, in many cases, starting a lawsuit against an online aggressor, or even just threatening to sue, served as a strong deterrent for further attacks.

“Whenever we can, we will definitely bring the perpetrators of attacks to court”, a ZDF representative told IPI. “Threatening to sue is also useful in preventing attacks.”

Still, the financial burden of navigating the justice system means that doing so is mostly confined to large news organizations that have access to legal course.

In order to further strengthen judicial remedies in this area and the expertise of prosecutors and judges, in February 2018 the Landesmedienanstalt Nordrhein-Westfalen (the regional media regulatory authority of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia) launched an initiative aimed at offering legal support to news organizations and journalists in bringing cases of online aggression to court . Under the slogan “Prosecute instead of delete”, the initiative seeks to promote prosecution of online hate postings with the goal of pre-empting further similar cases.

However, only a very small percentage of the attacks targeting journalists every day can be prosecuted under German law. In many cases, the language used is aggressive, insulting, offensive and/or discriminatory but does not amount to a criminal act and legal remedies are not available. In such cases, seeking redress through a civil court may be a more effective strategy.

For this reason, newsrooms, news managers and journalists across Germany have developed alternative strategies to address this hatred, shield journalists from it and its effects, and, ideally, ensure that users’ conversations taking place on web and social media platforms are relevant, constructive and interesting, therefore contributing to journalistic processes.

Removal of posts, blocking users

Whether on the news platforms themselves or on social media, the general approach by newsrooms in Germany is to remove only those posts that are unequivocally harmful and that do not contribute to an exchange of ideas. The same is true when it comes to blocking users, which is done only in very extreme cases, e.g., in the case of a direct threat. This approach is based, on one hand, on German newsrooms’ need and desire to respect the free expression of ideas as a general principle for which they stand; and, on the other, on the desire expressed by online editors and community managers in Germany that conversations taking place on their platforms reflect, to the extent possible, the world outside and the broad variety of opinions held by users. Newsrooms feel that it is vital for users to feel that their ideas are reflected in these conversations and that the discussions that ensue are in many cases the best tool to prevent attacks from escalating. Many community managers in Germany told IPI that a constant dialogue and confrontation with users, even those who use aggressive language, is important in the long term to create a constructive exchange of ideas. Similarly, many said that blocking users is generally not useful as many accounts disseminating aggressive content are either bots or operate by a person who manages a large number of accounts. When one account is blocked, the next will be created.

At the same time, comments by the community of online users represent an important soundboard for journalists and news organizations. Opinions emerging from online discussions, even if shocking and disturbing, need to be taken into consideration. There are nevertheless limits to what can be said, provided in most cases by internal guidelines set by the news organization, which are often also available to users and which take into consideration both the relevant laws and ethical standards.
These guidelines frequently foresee that posts attacking journalists are only removed – in the case of social media platforms, to the extent this is technically possible – in extreme cases, i.e., when the posts amount to threats, doxing, the dissemination of private information or illegal hate speech or when the level or intensity of the attack is judged to cause harm to the journalist. While any action is generally discussed with the journalist(s) affected by the attack, the general approach of German newsrooms remains that of giving space to both criticism of news coverage and of the news organization and its journalists, even if such criticism is expressed in non-constructive and even disturbing ways.

At the same time, news organizations operating online will do everything possible, on one hand, to prevent attacks against journalists or ensure they do not take the form of vicious personal attacks; on the other hand, to provide legal, psychological and other forms of support to their journalists and so limit the negative consequences of such aggression on the individuals.

The ability of news organizations to address these issues timely and effectively depends mostly on the resources that they can and are willing to dedicate to the moderation of online discussions. News organizations tend to agree that, in addition to a speedy removal of posts that are in breach of community guidelines, active participation in the conversations by journalists and other moderators is vital to prevent and counter violent attacks against journalists from being published and to encourage constructive criticism instead.

Software vs. human intervention

Community editorial guidelines – which in some cases take the form of a set of written guidelines circulated in the newsroom and made available to users, in other cases as a set of principles regularly discussed and re-assessed among members of the newsroom – serve as a starting point in determining which posts need to be removed or made less visible, to the extent possible, and which ones require a different type of intervention.

Depending on a newsroom’s size, the number of posts it receives on its various platforms, and the availability of resources, managers adopt different tools to ensure that posts breaching community guidelines are removed as fast as possible. The use of software, including artificial intelligence-based programmes, to block or highlight problematic posts is still very limited in Germany, even as many community managers believe that any future solution will have to be based on the use of software rather than being left exclusively to human resources. One of the largest German online news media outlets, Spiegel Online, has noted very positive results through the implementation of software and AI programmes, although it acknowledges that they are still at an early age and more needs to be done to develop effective software in this area. Spiegel Online uses software to highlight potentially problematic posts, which are later analysed by experts to assess whether they breach community guidelines and to recommend the steps to be taken.

Whether or not software is used in any part of the process of highlighting and removing problematic posts, community and newsroom managers in Germany tend to agree that existing software programmes are not sufficient to address the problem entirely and that human intervention for now remains indispensable. Looking ahead, as the number of user posts keeps increasing, community managers tend to agree that AI programmes able to learn and identify ever more precisely problematic posts on the basis of a number of elements, including language analyses and user behaviour, will be the solution to limiting the dissemination of problematic posts, including in particular those directly attacking journalists.

Relationship with social media platforms

While removing posts from a news organization’s own platforms (web-based fora or social-media pages they can directly edit) is easy, removing posts from platforms that news organizations do not control directly, such as Twitter or Facebook, is more complex, as it requires the intervention of third parties that own such accounts or platforms. Here, news organizations depend on social media company’s willingness to remove problematic comments and their timeliness in doing so.

The experience of German news organizations and journalists in requesting social media platforms to remove content differs. The majority of editors and managers interviewed by IPI said that the channels provided by social media platforms to request removal only very seldomly reached the desired results. In most cases, content is either removed with great delay or not at all. Journalists and newsroom managers are often left with the impression that social media platforms do not consider their requests and that the latter are processed by computer systems that send back automated messages. A Twitter spokesperson told IPI that such messages may appear automated because they are written in a standardized language but are in fact being managed by experts who follow a certain procedure to assess the request.

Some journalists and managers at large digital newsrooms in Germany told IPI that their requests for removal of problematic content are taken into consideration only thanks to the personal relationships they have been able to develop with representatives of social media platforms, wo in some cases are not even based in Germany.

IPI raised these concerns directly with Twitter in December 2018. The platform agreed that the situation described was not fully satisfactory and said it was working to improve its ability to meet the needs of journalists and news organizations and looks forward to working with the news community toward that goal.

News managers and journalists appreciate the fact that monitoring and assessing the large numbers of posts that appear on social media platforms is complex and resource intensive for all parties involved, particularly in light of the need to ensure such platforms remain available for a free exchange of ideas and opinions. Nevertheless, the general feeling in German newsrooms is that the current system is not working. There is a concrete fear that the abuse of both social media and news organization’s own platforms to disseminate hateful messages against journalists and others may soon overshadow the benefit offered by the availability of spaces where opinions can be freely exchanged.

Today in Germany, in a context where journalists feel they can operate safely and free of repercussions, developing a strong community of users who can actively contribute to journalistic processes by serving as a soundboard is considered a vital goal for most online newsrooms, in spite of the associated problems. News organizations believe that investing resources required to shield journalists from attacks, while still leaving space for criticism of their work, and to develop healthy conversation with the community of users, is not only necessary but also worth the investment.

Moderation and participation in online discussions

“We want to invest in dialogue”, Spiegel Online, Germany’s second-largest online news organization, which receives an average of over 100,000 comments on Facebook every week, told IPI. As with many other German online media, Spiegel Online has dedicated a growing amount of time and resources to creating a constructive dialogue with its community of users.

Comment moderation, whether on news organizations’ websites or on social media, is perceived as the core element in limiting abusive comments. Most newsroom managers who spoke with IPI agreed that this task cannot be effectively outsourced. Online newsrooms report positive results following the direct participation in and moderation of online forums by journalists and community managers. The visible participation of newsroom representatives serves as a deterrent to those who intend to post abusive messages. At the same time, community managers and moderators can encourage the community of users to jointly react to those who do post aggressive comments against journalists, eventually limiting the effects of aggressive posts by generating overwhelming support for the journalists by the community.

While resources do not allow for a constant presence and moderation of all ongoing discussions, some newsrooms have adopted the policy of asking their journalists and moderators to be present and engage in the discussion for at least a period of time after an article’s publication. This policy is seen as particularly important for articles related to topics that are known for generating waves of online vitriol.

Deutsche Welle told IPI that its German-language service has one community manager exclusively dedicated to moderating each platform on which DW is present and that its English-language service even has community managers active around the clock.

Representatives of DPA told IPI that the news agency engages in discussions with users whenever:
• The posts received include concrete questions related to the organization’s work;
• The posts received include requests for correction, or otherwise claim that the information disseminated was incorrect; or
• The posts include legitimate criticism of the news coverage.

Specific software and tools offered by social media platforms, for example in the case of Facebook, are also useful in bringing to the attention of editors and managers discussions in which users are particularly active and may require closer monitoring and potentially intervention. While most discussions tend to take place around recently posted content posted, sometimes discussions on old content are restarted. Software and tools are particularly useful in bringing these phenomena, which are more difficult to anticipate, to the attention of managers.

Software is also used to temporarily block discussions about particularly sensitive topics at times when monitoring is not feasible, for example during the night.

Support for journalists

Regardless of whether or not they have developed a written set of community guidelines, German news organizations agree on the importance of regularly discussing the issue of online harassment within the newsroom and reassessing internal policies related to online attacks. This internal exchange of ideas and information takes three forms:

• Regular workshops (quarterly or semi-annual) with experts with the purpose of ensuring that all members of the newsroom are aware of and familiar with cybersecurity tools necessary for protecting their devices, identities and information. These workshops also represent an opportunity to re-assess existing policies and guidelines, share information about new topics attracting online attacks and determine the need for further expertise.
• More frequent newsroom meetings (weekly or monthly) to discuss emerging problems, specific attacks affecting members of the newsroom, the editorial approach toward the coverage of certain issues that attract online attacks, and emerging trends from the user community.
• Emergency meetings in situations of crisis to define remedies to a wave of attacks against a journalist.
News organizations with a strong online presence also invest in preventive measures, with a focus on workshops teaching journalists not only how to protect their devices (cybersecurity) but also how to deal with disturbing content reaching them through digital means.

Legal and psychological support is available to journalists experiencing trauma, including in relation to online harassment. Large news organizations tend to be able to offer much more resources in this area. Journalists, moderators and community managers are made aware that users’ posts may contain disturbing content that can affect their psychological well-being. They are encouraged to take regular breaks, in particular whenever confronted with shocking and disturbing content.

“Sometimes, even just going out for a walk, or having a coffee with a colleague can be very helpful, and journalists and moderators are encouraged to remain aware of this”, a ZDF representative told IPI.

In only a few cases have journalists been encouraged to take an extended period of leave as a consequence of online attacks. In the majority of cases, German journalists feel that such attacks are disturbing and have the potential to induce self-censorship, but that thanks to the newsroom structures they are a part of in some cases to the positive input they receive from users, they have the strength to cope with them.


Online Harassment of Journalists: Finland

Online Harassment of Journalists: Spain

The production of this report was made possible with the financial support of: