Harassment and smear campaigns online increasingly affect journalists around the world, seriously impacting journalists’ ability to carry out reporting on contested topics of public interest, in part due to the corrosive effect these campaigns can have on journalists’ mental health, which can include depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

For journalists targeted with online abuse, colleagues who have endured similar experiences or are trained to identify their impact, can be an important source of support amid the trauma that can accompany this abuse. To this end, some media outlets have supported the creation of peer-support networks to serve as a first base of support.

Though it’s important to note that there is no research yet that talks about the efficacy of these mechanisms in journalism – therefore cannot be considered best practice just yet -, literature around the concept of social support has shown how the contact with family members and colleagues have proven to be a very effective measure to prevent further emotional impact.

“It is important for newsrooms to implement a peer-support network programme because research shows that the majority of journalists do not access professional counseling”, Dr. Cait McMahon, managing director of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma Asia Pacific, said in an interview. And, in many cases, they may not need such professional assistance.  “Often what most people want is just to talk to someone who understands what journalists do”, McMahon explained.

But the peer-support conversations are not simply pep talks or friendly chats. To be effective, journalists who join peer support programmes should undergo thorough training designed to enhance their listening skills, equip them with the knowledge to have a structured conversation and sustained monitoring of a colleague to identify potential trauma impact and direct them to professional counseling in case their support is not enough.

However, McMahon stressed the importance of having a peer support programme as part of larger trauma awareness effort in the news organization including “policy and structural changes”. Otherwise, she noted, “peer support sits out in a vacuum”.

McMahon speaks from experience. Starting in 2004, she led the design of a trauma awareness programme at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC).

“It was a comprehensive programme that gave trauma awareness, namely both duty-of-care training to managers and self-care training to staff”, McMahon said. The training included case study analysis and made participants aware of community resources for referral to legal or more specific psychological counseling, e.g., an expert in gambling addiction. Trauma, McMahon noted, can trigger different reactions in people, including re-triggering underlying addiction issues.

The training was part of a structural change and educated journalists and managers alike about the toll trauma can take on anyone, as well as the how and why to use a peer support system as part of a broader effort. The Dart Center worked alongside the ABC throughout the whole programme, “but ultimately it was their programme, meaning that it was driven, overseen and run by the News Division”, McMahon said.

The experience of ABC, as well as that of BBC and Reuters, shows the key role management plays in implementing a successful trauma awareness system, which includes creating the space to develop a peer-support network that should be strictly led by the peers. “Having it part of an overall programme creates a cultural change (within the newsroom), too”, McMahon concluded. The facts are on her side since ABC’s peer-support programme is still up and running fifteen years later.

Since 2014, the International Press Institute (IPI) has been systematically researching online harassment as a new form of silencing critical, independent media. Our work has unveiled patterns of online attacks, analysed the emotional and professional impact on journalists, and collected best practices for newsrooms to address the phenomenon.

Explore IPI’s work on online harassment