Patrolling the Trolls: How Journalists Can Cope with Harassment and Threats


Though the anonymity of the Internet makes self-expression much easier, it can also spur hateful rhetoric that is generally met with little repercussion. Many overlook the fact that journalists are often on the receiving end of online abuse. While celebrities have the privilege to use stage names in their public lives, journalists are public figures whose real identities and contact information are made available to millions of people on television and online.

At a May Meetup event hosted by the Online News Association, a panel of journalists whose daily lives are affected by online abuse brought attention to the lack of appropriate legal action being done to address the issue. They also offered tips on how other journalists can protect themselves from online harassment.

Panelists included:

Online harassment comes in varying degrees, depending on the target’s race and gender. Maxwell faced rape and death threats on social media after appearing as a guest on FOX News to speak out against the use of firearms as the answer to protecting women from sexual assault. The harassment became so severe that she was not allowed to enter her law school without the protection of security guards. Maxwell notes that she was fortunate enough to have the protection of being on-staff with an outlet that assumed responsibility for her safety, but freelancers do not have the same protection.

In extreme cases, some journalists have even become victims of “doxing,” which is when personal information such as a home address is released to the public. This puts the safety of the journalist, their families, or strangers who might be living at a wrongly listed address, in danger.

Though it would seem like staying away from social media would be a simple solution to avoid harassment, many overlook the fact that being on social media is now a vital part of a journalist’s job.

“Many journalists, myself included, have used Twitter as a strategic tool to break into the business,” says Maxwell. “It’s not that simple to just leave.”

Kessler adds that the intent of social media harassment is to humiliate the victim, so even if they did decide to leave, they could still be a target.

Smith, a former segment producer for Melissa Harris-Perry on MSNBC, refers to online harassment as “computer courage” and calls for social network companies to take more responsibility and be outspoken against the abuse that occurs on their sites.

During his time producing for Melissa Harris-Perry, Smith was responsible for scrubbing the hundreds of hateful and sexist comments from the show’s social media accounts before presenting them to the show’s host, who uses constructive criticism and positive feedback to plan future segments and stories.

For now, there are few legal protections against online harassment, but the panelists shared their top tips for journalists to fight back against online harassment:

1. Have your editor review social media comments before reading them yourself and make sure they document any abuse in case law enforcement is needed.

2. Make the repercussions for online abuse forceful. This could mean reaching out to a harasser’s place of employment should your safety be in jeopardy.

3. Have a network of industry peers you can rely on in times of crisis and be sure to publicly support one another. Private messages of support will not be as effective as speaking out against abusers.

4. Keep offenders out of sight. is a site that helps users reduce the burden of blocking when many accounts are attacking. is a support network and assistance group to keep victims of online abuse safe.

5. Don’t respond to negativity. Online trolls are purposefully trying to evoke a negative reaction, which can only exacerbate the issue.

Social media has been around for long enough where there is no longer an excuse to ignore the seriousness of online harassment. Learn more about online harassment and what you can do to help here:

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Shannon Ramlochan is an Audience Content Specialist for ProfNet, a free service for writers seeking experts for their stories. Follow her on Twitter @sramloch.

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