The number and degree of bitterness of social media’s vitriolic threats against journalists have increased tremendously in the past few years. “Most of the violence committed against journalists are not against the Washington press corps, they are against journalists working in the local communities,” notes Joel Simon, the executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists. “If someone has a beef with you, and you’re a local reporter, it can get ugly in a hurry, because you’re accessible.” The June 2018 attack at the offices of the Capital Gazette, which left five people dead, is just one example of this escalating crisis.
What Is Journalism?
Temple University professor Barbie Zelizer wrote a pivotal 2009 article in which she positions journalists as “members of an interpretive community … united by its shared discourse and collective interpretations of key public events.”
Conservative journalist Howard Husock, writing about the closing of The Village Voice, reflects on the “advocacy journalism” it inspired. He says such journalism is characterized by “good guys versus bad guys, crusades to be mounted, victims to be celebrated—and complexities to be overlooked.”
Nicole J. Maurantonio writes in the Encyclopedia of Journalism, “While some studies have shown that coverage of civil unrest has revealed a degree of journalistic routinization, the unpredictable and sometimes extraordinary nature of civil unrest continues to challenge conceptions of how journalists cover and describe events and consequently what effects these stories have upon audiences and journalists themselves.”
Counting the Violence
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reports on 23 countries, including Russia, Ukraine, Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. Funded by Congress through the U.S. Agency for Global Media, it has a website that covers the attacks on and deaths of its staffers as well as other journalists.
The Committee to Protect Journalists, “an independent, nonprofit organization that promotes press freedom worldwide [and defends] the right of journalists to report the news without fear of reprisal,” also keeps track of any violence toward journalists across the globe, noting 1,321 deaths as of September 2018.
The Rappler news network, based in the Philippines, provides a timeline of its country’s official governmental attacks on journalists as well as a site that compiles articles about worldwide threats to journalists.
In December 2017, Statistica provided a detailed infographic on locations—Syria was at the top—where journalists had been killed.
Wikipedia keeps an ongoing total of journalists killed while working in the U.S.
The 2015 murders of 12 staffers for the French publication Charlie Hebdo was a wake-up call to journalists around the world. This and other attacks weren’t random—they represent a very different perception of the role, value, and status of journalism in our society. Journalism classes now cover reporter safety as much as traditional aspects of the profession.
News in Our Time
Today, we have not only the fourth estate (traditional media), but also a growing fifth estate composed of viewpoints presented by bloggers, independent journalists publishing in non-mainstream media outlets, and social media. People are able to get their “news” from a broad variety of sources—some factual, some humorous, and some tragically twisted. We also have a president who has condemned news he doesn’t like as fake and who has made antagonistic remarks about the press a staple of his public speeches and tweets.
More than that is the president’s lack of leadership in supporting the very concept of the press as a vital component of a democracy that holds the government accountable to the people. In May 2017, a Guardian reporter was body-slammed by a Montana congressional candidate, to which the president said that the aggressor had “fought—in more ways than one—for your state. … He is a fighter and a winner.”
On Twitter, the president comments on how a “large percentage” of the media is the “enemy of the people.” He calls journalists “unpatriotic” and “driven insane by their Trump Derangement Syndrome.” He refers to the press as “dangerous and sick” and says it “can also cause [w]ar.”
Surrounded by Trauma
In a chapter of Digital Transformation in Journalism and News Media, medical doctor Paul Beighley looks at the effects of traumatizing events: “Journalists report on events involving human suffering and are not immune from being psychologically affected by what they have witnessed. There is ample evidence based both on anecdotal accounts as well as objective research showing journalists frequently experience both short and long term psychological effects from vicariously experienced psychological trauma.”
An article in Journalism by six female researchers shares their study of 75 female journalists, finding “that they face rampant online gendered harassment that influences how they do their jobs.” The results focus on the impact of online trolls and the need to “change the culture that allows this abuse to continue.”
A report in Journalism Studies, titled “Expanding Influences Research to Insecure Democracies,” analyzes journalist surveys from 62 countries: “We find democracies with uneven democratic performance tend to have more journalist assassinations, which is the most extreme form of influence on work, and that levels of democratic performance, violence, public insecurity and economic inequality significantly shape how journalists perceive various influences in their work environment.” It also finds that “anti-press violence is higher when sub-national state actors intensify criminal violence and when insecurity is geographically and topically proximate to journalists.”
An article in the Journal of Peace Research notes that the killing of journalists is “a sign of deteriorating respect for human rights. … [I]t reflects insecurity, which can lead to a backlash by the government, again triggering state-sponsored repression.” The article says, “Killing members of the media is in and of itself an egregious crime that demonstrates an utter failure to respect the importance of an independent and free press. Every mistreatment of journalists is a serious violation of the basic right to freedom of speech.”
The Press Presses On
Kent State University journalism professor Gretchen Dworznik is giving her students a new piece of advice these days: “[A]t this point, journalists need to work in pairs when entering into an area where they know the anti-press sentiment will be high. Anyone who has ever covered a tragedy of some sort has felt the stares and endured the vulture taunts from people who don’t think the press should be there, but it usually ends there. I think in the political arena, it’s different now. I can’t say for sure that it would end with just stares and taunts.”
UNESCO is working to promote both the safety and impunity of journalists across the world.
Reporters Without Borders’ report, “Online Harassment of Journalists: Attack of the Trolls,” highlights “the latest danger for journalists—threats and insults on social networks that are designed to intimidate them into silence. The sources of these threats and insults may be ordinary ‘trolls’ (individuals or communities of individuals hiding behind their screens) or armies of online mercenaries. Harassing journalists has never been as easy as it is now.” The report presents cases from across the globe that lead Reporters Without Borders to believe that “[f]reedom of expression and bots are being used to curtail the freedom to inform.”
The report provides specific strategies for journalists on dealing with troll armies and improving their personal security. It also includes 25 specific recommendations for global governments, international organizations, online platforms, media organizations, and advertisers.
TrollBusters provides what it calls “pest control for journalists”: “When you spot online violence, online abuse or other troll behavior, send an S.O.S. and we will be your first responders online, supporting you. …” The company posts news and advice and encourages the submission of information on attacks as they occur. As the About page boldly states, “We have your back.” For many journalists, that is exactly what they need.
The Best of Times, the Worst of Times
Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism director Rasmus Kleis Nielsen notes that despite the challenges and threats, “there are some parts of journalism that truly are timeless. The missions and principles are enduring. The aspiration to find truth and report it. The first commitment of journalism is to the best obtainable version of the truth. I think that’s a timeless commitment.”
Esteemed journalist and Arizona State University professor Dan Gillmor writes on Medium, “When the most powerful person in the world declares war on journalism, you can respond in one of two ways. The first adds up to surrender. I’m sorry to say that some of you appear to have done so, by normalizing what is grossly abnormal and letting your enemies take advantage of the craft of journalism’s inherent weaknesses.
“The other is to find allies, inside and outside the business, and go on the offensive—together.”
Gillmor writes in another Medium article, “Politicians have always told some lies. This is different. The people running our government, and their key supporters, have launched a war on honest journalism, on facts, and on freedom of expression in general. They are using misinformation as strategy. They want the public to become so confused by what is true and what is false that people will give up even on the idea that journalism can help sort things out. This is not business as usual. You may wish otherwise—and the relentless normalizing journalists still do of this abnormal crew shows how much you wish otherwise—but at some point you have to recognize reality and react to it.”