Verbal abuse and veiled threats against journalists online have become so common that one imagines trolls are constantly lurking under a journalist’s desk, ready to pop up as soon as he or she presses “publish”.

For the last three years, IPI has examined the psychological toll that extreme cases of online hatred take on journalists, and analysed the identity and behaviour of aggressors.

In conversations with IPI, journalists targeted by online smear and intimidation campaigns have usually shared a common concern: a feeling of despair when faced with a lack of understanding from colleagues, editors and relatives after turning to them for support.

However, media outlets have increasingly stepped up and implemented measures in the newsroom to protect their journalists from online abuse. Stefan Kaltenbrunner, editor-in-chief of Kurier, a leading Austrian daily, told IPI in an interview that the paper had reported some 50 comments to the public prosecutor’s office in 2016.

However, the high volume of comments on both media forums and social media platforms has forced media outlets to continually adapt their community management schemes.

“We are thinking very hard about strategies to better deal with this”, Kaltenbrunner explained. “This is a great challenge, not only for us but also for all the other media outlets.”

Naturally, the challenge is inversely proportional to the amount of resources a media outlet possesses. Small and medium-sized media outlets cannot afford a department to exclusively manage online forums and social media pages. As a consequence, this task is often delegated to journalists themselves, who are then directly confronted with hate and vitriol against them.

The group of journalists likely most exposed to online attacks and their consequences are freelancers, many of whom refrain from reporting online threats so as to not be seen as “problematic” by their contractors and risk losing their relationships in the media industry.

Over the course of its research, IPI has identified three distinctive scenarios that determine how exposed journalists are to online abuse: Media outlets with community management, media outlets without community management, and freelancers.

At the same time, news outlets and journalists have started to address online harassment by implementing measures in the following four areas:

  1. Registration and prevention: What measures can be taken to dissuade harassers from participating in the comment forums of online media without sacrificing free expression? E.g., prior registration, “second-thought” pop-up windows reminding users of terms of use and potential legal consequences.
  2. Community management: What are the most effective strategies developed by media houses to effectively manage online comment forums? E.g., the role of filtering software, training of human moderators.
  3. Attacks on social media: A significant percentage of online harassment takes place on social media platforms over which newsrooms have no control. Here, we want to see what steps journalists can take when confronted with social media abuse and how media houses and journalists can engage with social media companies regarding measures to minimise the impact of online attacks without compromising free expression.
  4. Psychosocial support: How can news outlets best support the emotional well-being both of journalists who are the target of online harassment? What options exist for freelancers?

These scenarios and areas of work help shape an initial framework for developing solutions to the problem of online harassment against journalists:

Media with community management Media without community management Freelance journalists
Registration and prevention X X
Community management X X
Attacks on social media X X X
Psychosocial support X X X

IPI’s pioneering work on online harassment has gone a long way to identifying the problem. It’s now time to look more closely at solutions to a challenge that will not be going away anytime soon.