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

Pro and anti Brexit protesters demonstrate on opposite sides of the road outside the Houses of Parliament in London, Britain, September 5, 2018. REUTERS/Hannah McKay


In September 2018, the International Press Institute (IPI), a global network of editors, media executives and leading journalists for press freedom, visited London, UK, as 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 five days, the IPI delegation met with managing editors; online and social media editors; and heads of audience engagement and communities at a variety of media outlets, as well as with freelance journalists, to better online harassment and how it is dealt with in the UK. IPI visited the newsrooms of the British public broadcaster BBC, the news agency Reuters, national newspapers the Guardian, the Telegraph, the Times and the Daily Mirror, as well as Reach PLC, the publisher of numerous regional newspapers. In addition, IPI organized a focus group for freelance journalists and met with the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) and Becky Gardiner, a senior lecturer at Goldsmiths.

Meetings concentrated on diverse types of mechanisms for dealing with online harassment, including proactive and reactive measures taken by the newsrooms, community and social media management, and psychosocial and peer support.

This report offers an overall summary of IPI’s conversations with the interlocutors above, with a view toward providing a picture of the nature of online harassment in the UK and the media industry’s reaction toward it. It focuses on the practices adopted by newsrooms to prevent online harassment of journalists and to protect journalists from it impacts.

Report by Sanna Pekkonen, Helsingin Sanomat Foundation Journalism Fellow at IPI

Online Harassment in the UK

The majority of the newsrooms that IPI visited in London had first-hand experience of online harassment against their journalists. The amount of online vitriol that UK journalists encounter on a regular basis has led many media organizations to draft recommendations and step-by-step guidelines for journalists and their managers. These guidelines aim at preventing online harassment and helping the journalists recover from it. They also advise on when to escalate potential threats to the safety of journalists to the point of involving top management and/or law enforcement.

In general, online harassment campaigns against journalists in the UK are triggered by topics that have proven flammable across Europe, including immigration and right-wing political groups and actors. One particular topic that has prompted harassment of journalists is anything related to Brexit, the withdrawal of the UK from the European Union, which has divided the nation.

UK newsrooms say that journalists who make regular on-air appearances on television or radio as hosts or commentators as the most likely to receive harassment. Women journalists are particularly at risk, as are journalists belonging to minority groups. In most cases, abuse against journalists takes place through emails, phone calls or posts on social media or the comment sections on news websites.

Many of the newsrooms with which IPI spoke reported having had at least one situation that required involvement of law enforcement to ensure a journalist’s physical safety. Editors said they felt the police still needed for resources for and knowledge of online harassment to be better able to assess threats reported by journalists.

Online harassment is seen as having an impact on journalists’ psychological well-being and ability to work. “Often it becomes almost impossible for the journalists to do their stories because the noise of the abuse drowns out the opportunity to reach and engage a wider audience with their journalism”, one social media editor said.

Editors said some journalists leave social media at least temporarily because of online harassment, sometimes on the suggestion of their managers. Online harassment is also said to make it harder to get journalist to engage in conversations with the audience on social media.

To a certain degree, online harassment also affects which stories journalists cover. Targeted journalists may be taken off a specific beat that has triggered harassment. Some editors said they debated whether it was better to share the burden of the effects of covering certain topics among several journalists or whether this practice served to increase the number of journalists affected by online harassment. However, none of the managers or journalists with whom IPI spoke said that online harassment caused a significant amount of self-censorship.

Online Harassment Of Female Journalists

One of the most notorious harassment cases in the UK involved the BBC’s first female political editor, Laura Kuenssberg. Kuenssberg was targeted with abusive messages online to the extent that the BBC employed a bodyguard for her during the UK’s 2017 general election campaign. The general perception in the UK is that female journalists are subject to more online harassment than their male colleagues. Female journalists who make regular appearances as hosts or commentators in news or current affairs programmes on TV are at particular risk for harassment. Another group seen as facing online abuse is younger female journalists reporting and writing opinion pieces on issues related to gender and feminism.

This perception was backed by recent research conducted by Becky Gardiner, a senior lecturer at Goldsmiths, University of London, and a former comment editor at the Guardian. Gardiner analysed comments that moderators had blocked from the comment section of the Guardian’s online version. These comments were often abusive or dismissive. The study found that articles written by women attracted more blocked comments than those written by men.

This effect was seen regardless of the subject of the article, but the effect was heightened if the articles ran in sections of the site that tended to attract more male readers. Female journalists that IPI interviewed in the UK confirmed that they were more likely to receive dismissive or abusive comments if they wrote about subjects perceived by society to be more male-oriented, such as technology.

Online harassment can have an effect on which stories female journalists choose to cover. Some female journalists told IPI they had chosen not to report on certain topics, like the harassment of women, or had forwarded those stories to their male colleagues to avoid being harassed themselves.

“It ultimately puts me out of pocket because no one will know that it was me who gave him the story”, one female journalist said. “But it is not worth the hassle to go on with the story.”

Women journalists’ networks are seen as important in coping with online harassment. At the time of IPI’s visit, these networks were generally comprised of informal, closed groups on social media, for example. However, the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) noted that it was looking into establishing an official women journalists’ network in the UK.

Freelance Journalists

IPI conducted a focus group meeting with freelance journalists on its visit to London in September 2018. The freelancers participating in the focus group included one male and several female journalists who collaborated with a variety of media organizations from leading newspapers to niche magazines.

During the focus group, freelancers highlighted the lack of a formal support network or formal guidelines for responding to online harassment as a major hurdle.

“I feel so much more vulnerable than a staff writer, even though I don’t write about certain hot topics”, one freelancer said.

The freelancers said they often encounter online harassment on social media when sourcing stories or asking for interviews. One freelancer noted that if she were a staff member, she would be able to go the newsroom team and talk about such incidents. As a freelancer, she is left alone with these experiences, which she felt could increase the impact of harassment.

The UK newsrooms that IPI visited largely expressed a commitment to providing support to freelancers, with many stating that they did so already. The freelancers in the focus group, however, said they were largely unaware of such support. Most of them said they had not received advice on how to prevent or report online harassment. One interviewee proposed that media organizations send their guidelines regarding online harassment along other documents whenever they collaborate with a new freelancer.

The freelancers also told IPI that they generally resort to peer support to protect themselves from online harassment. This support includes sharing knowledge of digital safety measures with one another, such as tips for protecting their email and social media accounts from hackers, and muting abusive users. To make this information easier to access, some freelancers suggested creating a consortium that would provide freelancer journalists and other journalists with a set of guidelines.


Step-by-step guidelines

Several UK newsrooms that IPI visited in London had introduced or were in the process of adopting recommendations for journalists and managers to follow when online harassment occurs. Most of these recommendations include both preventive and reactive measures. The guidelines, which were shared with IPI, aim to give newsrooms clear steps to follow as well as a clear chain of command when dealing with incidences of harassment.

The guidelines often start by identifying the diverse forms of threats and harassment and then provide recommendations for journalists and managers on when and how to escalate them. If a journalist receives an insulting message on social media, for example, he or she is advised to screenshot it, report it to the newsroom and to the social media platform, and mute or block the user. If the harassment involves severe safety threats, such as death threats, journalists are encouraged to report it immediately and together with their line manager contact office security and/or the police.

Most guidelines put an emphasis on reporting harassment to a colleague or manager within the news organization. Doing so not only is seen to help journalists share the burden, but it also allows newsrooms to document harassment. Journalists are usually encouraged to contact their line managers or social media leads within the newsroom. Some newsrooms have also put in place reporting tools, such as a special email address to report online harassment, through which help is available around the clock. Journalists are generally advised to save the abusive messages they may receive for reporting and possible evidentiary purposes.

One newsroom said it planned to adopt a database into which all harassment cases could be logged in detail. This newsroom saw such detailed and systematized reporting as a tool to keep track of cases, follow up on them with journalists and better understanding harassment patterns.

Frequently, these recommendations advise journalists that certain types of online attacks, such as doxing, can be better avoided if journalists take preventive measures, which include securing social media and email accounts and updating privacy settings. Journalists are also advised to ensure that their home address or telephone number is not available anywhere they don’t want it to be.

One preventive measure is simply having the guidelines ready so that the whole newsroom knows how to respond to online harassment and help colleagues who experience it. The guidelines are generally included in training for managers and new employees, but they are also found in a prominent place in the company’s intranet, serving as a reminder for journalists that help is available.

Overall, UK newsrooms try to offer multiple channels to report harassment to ease discomfort around do so. Editors said that journalists in a competitive working environment may feel uncomfortable telling managers or colleagues about harassment and that in such situations more indirect or discreet reporting channels can be effective. Nevertheless, the editors with whom IPI spoke emphasized their commitment to improving newsroom culture so that journalists feel comfortable coming forward with their experience of harassment.

Formal and informal peer support

While several UK newsrooms have put in place formal training systems to offer peer support, journalists themselves have also come up with informal ways to share the burden of online attacks. All in all, the aim of peer support mechanisms is to make sure that no one is left to suffer online harassment in silence and that there are diverse points of access to help.

Some UK newsrooms that IPI visited have put in place voluntary trauma risk and mental health trainings for newsroom staff to better recognize and manage possible mental health problems. These peer support systems are based on the trauma risk management (TRIM) method originating from the UK military and on the Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) programme. TRIM aims to prevent post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), whereas MHFA is more focused on mental health problems in general. Both models train non-healthcare staff to monitor and offer initial help for a person who has experienced a traumatic incident, such as online harassment.

TRIM is based on structured conversations where TRIM-trained newsroom staff members seek to assess whether the targeted journalist shows symptoms of PTSD. The assessment is done by asking journalists questions about changes in their eating, sleeping or alcohol consumption habits. The targeted journalists are then walked through ways to come to terms with the trauma and directed to health care if needed. TRIM consists of two discussion sessions: The first one should take place within 48 hours after the person experiences or reports the traumatic incident, with a follow-up one month later. If these discussions point to the development of PTSD symptoms, the person is encouraged and assisted to seek a professional assessment in order to access any specific treatment he or she requires.

The MHFA training provides newsroom staff members with the knowledge to recognize warning signs of mental health problems and with the skills to offer initial support to their colleagues affected by online abuse and threats until the person can be directed to appropriate professional help or until the crisis resolves.

These peer support systems normally allow affected journalists to contact any staff member they wish if they do not feel comfortable talking about certain issues with their line manager, for example. This measure has been taken to make it easier for journalists to seek support even if the abuse they experienced involves sensitivities.

In some newsrooms, digital and social media editors regularly meet with different news teams to have a “health check” on their work related to social media. These checks every two to three months give the teams a possibility to bring up issues that they face in their everyday work and are a way of communicating that there are support mechanisms in place whenever needed.

In terms of collegial support, the guidelines advise the managers to offer a targeted journalist the possibility to let one of his or her newsroom colleagues read the abusive messages and to monitor his or her email and social media accounts. This way, exposure to the attack can be minimized but someone can still alert the journalist in case of a serious threat to his or her safety.

Journalists have also found informal ways to support their colleagues affected by online harassment. Editors whom IPI interviewed said that many journalists spontaneously discuss online abuse with their colleagues who experienced it previously. These experts-by-experience can also be invited to talk about the issue with new employees or share their stories on the company’s intranet.

Peer support and other support channels may be harder to access for journalists working remotely or for teams working in different locations. One way to tackle this issue is informal messaging groups in which journalists can talk about things they encounter in their everyday work and to share this burden in a humorous way. However, journalists said it was important to be able to mute these conversations on their free time.

Social media

Several newsrooms that IPI visited in the UK have issued social media guidelines that include recommended safety measures to prevent online harassment and blunt its impact.

These guidelines start with basic preventive measures when using these platforms. Journalists are advised to check their privacy settings, use two-factor authentication to avoid hacking and set their profile to private mode if needed.

Journalists who receive abusive messages or threats are told to screenshot them, report them to social media platforms and mute or block the user. Some newsrooms have also organized trainings on these measures. If journalists receive outright threats on social media, they are urged to report them to the news organization so that their managers can escalate the threats if needed. As a last resort, journalists may be suggested to come off social media, at least for a period of time, to allow the situation to cool off.

Often, guidelines also include tips for engaging with the audience on social media. Some journalists have tried to tackle online harassment by sharing abusive comments or engaging with the abusers, but most newsrooms advise journalists to avoid these measures for fear of attracting further harassment.

Some media organizations have explicitly advised their managers that audience engagement or social media activity should not be an obligation for journalists. Some newsrooms said they had advised managers to consult journalists before linking their social media accounts to a story. The perception is that online harassment may increase if the author’s social media account is only a click away.

Most of the newsrooms IPI visited expressed an urgent need for more cooperation with social media platforms to better tackle harassment. Editors said they felt left alone in the face of online attacks. They expressed a desire for social media platforms to provide more direct assistance to newsrooms, such as an emergency hotline to contact, more help to monitor and shut down harassment campaigns, more possibilities to track their reports of abusive messages and the ability to turn off commenting on Facebook posts about inflammatory subjects. Some newsrooms have put in place social media teams who contact the social media platform in the case of severe online harassment campaigns.

Comment sections

The comment sections of online news sites are one of the arenas where journalists may become targets of abuse and vitriol. Though not all comment threads include outright insults or threats, comments undermining a journalist’s professionalism are seen as equally disturbing in the long term. To tackle this issue, media organizations in the UK have adopted various measures to better manage and moderate the comments on their websites.

Most media organizations that IPI visited in the UK operate their comment sections on a post-moderation basis. The decision to post-moderate is partly informed by the legal situation in the UK and the liability of publishers for what is posted. Moderation is based on the media organization’s community standards.

Post moderation relies largely on commentators’ vigilance. Some newsrooms also use artificial intelligence to block comments containing abusive language. Journalists and newsroom staff can also flag comments breaching community standards, such as comments threatening or insulting the writer of the story.

Stricter moderation measures, such as pre-moderation or closing the comment section for certain stories, is occasionally put in place if the writer of the article previously faced online harassment or if the subject of the story is identified as particularly incendiary (e.g., Brexit, terrorism, mental health). Commenting is usually completely turned off only in stories detailing ongoing court cases. Some newsrooms have, however, started to pick more carefully which stories are open for comments. The objective of this measure is to enhance meaningful conversations.

Moderation teams try to keep an eye on patterns so as to detect organized attacks on journalists. Messages threatening the safety of journalists are escalated within the media organization, but such outright threats are seldom issued in the comment sections.

Media organizations are able to ban commentators who severely violate their community standards, but this measure is taken only occasionally. Bans are issued only for a brief period of time, ranging from one to three months in most cases. Permanent bans are issued only in extreme cases. Newsrooms are also looking into measures with which they could prevent the same users from creating several accounts, e.g., by blocking their IP address. On some sites, users with a dubious comment history can be flagged so that their messages always pass through pre-moderation.

Some of the media organizations IPI interviewed have outsourced moderation, but others stressed the importance of having moderators and editorial staff work in the same location. Moderation teams often have plenty of silent knowledge that can be shared with journalists when planning which stories to open for commenting and how journalists can take part in the conversation.

In some cases, newsrooms actively work to improve the quality of the conversations on their site. Some media organizations encourage their journalists to engage in conversations with their readers in the comment section and have provided journalists guidelines for doing so. A journalist’s presence below the line is perceived as a factor that improves the quality of the conversations and helps to take heat off the debate, though some journalists are reluctant to partake in this exercise.


Online Attacks on Journalists: Finland

Online Attacks on Journalists: Spain

Online Attacks on Journalists: Poland

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