When news surfaced on June 28, 2018, that a gunman was firing shots inside a Maryland newspaper office, award-winning television journalist Jareen Imam did what she always does.

She sprang into action.

Imam, in her role as Director of Social Newsgathering at NBC News, quickly spotted a tweet from a Capital Gazette sports intern who shared a distressed message about an active shooter inside their newsroom. Imam reached out to the intern to make sure he was safe, then followed by asking if he was in a position to talk about the situation.

Jareen Imam

Ultimately, NBC interviewed the intern in an exclusive interview on “The Today Show” the following day. But that didn’t stop online bullies from launching an all-out harassment campaign against Imam. Trolls blasted her as a “vulture” and issued threats of violence so credible that she had to instruct family members to seek a safe space.

It’s a dangerous pattern that’s all too familiar to female journalists. Tough reporting comes at a disproportionately high price, especially for women in the industry. The most recent report published by UNESCO and the International Center for Journalists (IFCJ) stated that 73 percent of women journalists said that they had experienced online violence.

Nearly one-third of women journalists have considered leaving the profession as a result of online violence.

“The impact of online violence against women journalists is staggering,” said Elisa Lees Muñoz, the Executive Director of the International Women’s Media Foundation (IWMF). “Women journalists report that they are self-censoring because of online violence.

“Losing the voice of these journalists will not only increase gender inequity, it will limit diversity and the diversity of perspectives in the news that we consume. This will be a loss for our society. With each woman silenced. We lose a valuable voice in the news.”

Elisa Lees Muñoz

Typical online backlash against journalists includes threats of physical and sexual violence, and studies show that for women in particular, harassment often includes threats against their families and their children. Perhaps most alarming are the threats of sexual violence against their daughters.

Now, concerned allies, including the Geena Davis Institute, renowned philanthropist Craig Newmark, and a coalition of journalism activists are working together to explore how the media industry can play a transformative role in addressing these issues and also determine what actions, resources, and tools are available to help keep female journalists safe.

GDI and Craig Newmark Philanthropies combined forces to host a See Jane Virtual Salon earlier this month titled The New Frontline: The Battle Against Online Violence.

The panel convened several industry leaders, including Imam, and each guest spoke with urgency about the crisis facing women in journalism.

As Davis, the two-time Academy Award winner, said in her opening remarks: “Online violence specifically targeting women and gender-expansive journalists often silences their voices, which hurts us all. The silence is deafening.”

Newmark, the founder of craigslist, helped kick off the conversation by explaining that he enlisted in the fight against digital abuse after witnessing too much online harassment both personally and professionally. “Frankly,” he said, “it really pisses me off.”

Newmark lightened the mood by joking that he lacks the social skills to fix the problem himself. Then he paraphrased Batman. “I may not be the nerd you want,” he said, “but I’m the nerd you got. I know to turn it over to people with the skills to fight bullying and harassment.”

Craig Newmark

A Call to Action

Luckily for Newmark, some courageous women from the journalism community are clearly up for the fight.

Lees Muñoz, who has guided IWMF since 2013, propels the organization in its mission to support women and nonbinary journalists and to develop their careers by providing training, tools and assistance.

During this discussion, Lees Muñoz sounded the alarm about the rise of online harassment.

“As Geena said, the reality is that online violence silences women’s voices and is one of the most pernicious threats to press freedom that we’re seeing,” Lees Muñoz said. “Women in public spaces face online violence simply for doing their jobs. Journalists – in particular, women journalists and journalists of color – bear the brunt of online attacks because of who they are, and because of their reporting.

“For years they’ve been subjected to sexual harassment, death threats, threats of sexual violence, and attempts to undermine their reporting. But these attacks are becoming more coordinated, and journalists are frequently being targeted by well-orchestrated online campaigns.”

Lees Muñoz noted that in many cases, the intimidation methods used against women journalists are hardly random. She said that leaders in the media, as well as in government, often “use their bully pulpits as opportunities to go after women journalists, women journalists of color and other underrepresented groups.”

Lees Muñoz pointed to an incident in June when Wall Street Journal reporter Sabrina Sadiqi asked Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi a question about India’s human rights record during a White House press conference.

As a result, Sadiqi endured a sustained barrage of unrelenting online abuse. It had all the hallmarks of the prime minister tacitly signaling for followers to punish the reporter for asking the question.

“This is a tactic that we’ve seen Modi employ against numerous women journalists in India,” Lees Muñoz said. “And now he’s using the government-sanctioned online abuse machine to target journalists outside of India as well. This is truly unacceptable.”

But that’s just one tactic. Lees Muñoz later added that many countries invest thousands of dollars in state-run troll farms and hire people to single-out female journalists and anybody else who opposes their beliefs and policies.

“They’re paid to make making people’s lives miserable, but it’s more than that,” Lees Muñoz said. “When it comes to journalism, it’s seriously impacting press freedom.”

Other tactics that harassers use when attacking women journalists are doxing (publicly identifying the location of their target) and online swatting (calling armed police to their homes). Other users also dig through their target’s social media accounts for photos, resurface old social media posts or open fake accounts in their name. All of this is done with the aim of discrediting and embarrassing the reporters.

Madeline Di Nonno, the President & CEO of the Geena Davis Institute who moderated the panel, cited the IWMF statistic that beyond online violence, 20 percent of female journalists reported being attacked offline.

Di Nonno asked Imam: “Can you talk about being on the front lines? Being the journalist? What has been your experience and how have you handled it?”

This is when Imam recalled experiencing disturbingly rapid harassment that followed her bold reporting during the Capital Gazette shooting. Never mind that Imam’s blend of compassion and aggressiveness later paid off when the intern, Anthony Messenger, went on NBC and provided exclusive insight into the horrific events at the Annapolis newspaper offices that left five people dead.

The backlash toward Imam remained so hostile for so long that some of the rising young women on her reporting team took one look at the online harassment and considered a career change on the spot.

Not surprisingly, there are serious mental health implications to these onslaughts. IWMF research shows that journalists experiencing online attacks suffer similarly to those who are suffering from PTSD.

Imam now works developing content and editorial for Amazon Ads. At the time of the Capital Gazette shooting, she was leading a global team of journalists who found, verified and reported on news stories using social forensic techniques and open-source intelligence tools.

It’s an exciting career – but one that can end too quickly when harassment becomes debilitating.

“When (young journalists are) seeing that kind of messages that I was getting that was included incredibly demoralizing to them,” Imam said. “Many of them were afraid of pursuing and reporting the story.

“In fact, a lot of journalists the very next day were telling me that they weren’t quite sure they wanted to do this kind of reporting if this is the level of intensity and harassment they would face.”

How to Push Back

In an immediate response to her harrowing experience, Muñoz worked within NBC to create safety protocols to help mitigate the threats and reputational damage from online harassment.

Safety measures included a security team in place to perform a risk-assessment analysis to determine if any of the harassers had a record of violence or whether local law authorities needed to intervene. Obviously, she noted NBC is a well-resourced organization with a powerful support system. Smaller news organizations are less equipped to fight back, not to mention freelancers and stringers.

Imam’s passion for supporting journalists lead to her becoming one of the founding members of the non-profit organization Women Do News, a group whose goal is to increase the biographies of notable female journalists on Wikipedia in order to bridge the gender gap and reduce biases in the media industry.

It’s one of the expanding number of resources available across the spectrum journalism spectrum. Gone is the naive view that online attacks against female journalists were randomly generated.

“That thinking is no longer acceptable,” Lees Muñoz said.

Instead, with the support of Craig Newmark Philanthropies and other journalism advocates, 70 organizations are now part of the coalition against online violence.

“Basically, what we are saying is that this is not inevitable. It’s not the cost of doing business, it’s unacceptable,” Lees Muñoz said. “And if you are working with journalists, you have a responsibility to do something about it.”

Organizations such as Right to Be provide an invaluable resource to women under siege. Emily May, the founder of the nonprofit, has made it her mission to build, in her words, “a world that is free of harassment and filled with humanity.”

She founded her organization in 2005, when she was 24. Right to Be was originally designed to focus on the issue of street harassment and sexual harassment in public spaces. “But lo and behold,” May said, “you can’t address harassment or really make social change at all as a woman in the world without getting harassed online.”

So her team quickly transformed into experts in online harassment – in part because of their own experiences – and began exploring ways in which, as she said, “we can take care of each other when harassment happens.”

A key component of Right To Be’s defense system is the so-called “5 D’s of Bystander Intervention.” This is the short version:

  1. Distract: Create a distraction to de-escalate the situation.
  2. Delegate: Turn to others in your circle so you don’t have to go it alone.
  3. Documentation: Creating documentation of what happened, such as a screenshot of vile content before it gets deleted.
  4. Delay: Checking in with subjects of harassment to see what they might need at any given moment (such as offering to send dinner or to provide comfort in some way).
  5. Direct: Calling out the harasser or directly intervening.

May said that anyone interested in the expanded version of “The 5 Ds” can attend one of the once-a-month free training sessions thanks to support from Newmark and Pen America. There’s a training calendar available at RightToBe.org.

Of course, no defense against online harassment is foolproof and sometimes protection means pushing back on multiple fronts. More than one panelist recommended that media outlets cover the cost for employees to get a security service called “Delete Me,’’ which helps remove personal information offline.

“If You Can See It, You Can Be It”

Di Nonno, in her role as moderator, tapped into the ethos of the Geena Davis Institute. The organization’s motto is “If you can see it, you can be it.” And on that front, Di Nonno asked panelists about ways in which popular scripted content could help address the situation and reinforce how important it is to keep women’s voices as journalists.

“That is such an interesting question,” Imam said. “I know a trope that for years has bothered me is the ‘seductive journalist.’ That’s something that we’ve seen across a lot of popular movies. and it’s really misrepresentative because it sexualizes female journalists.”

Imam said, in contrast, that she loved Rachel McAdams’ role in “Spotlight” about real-life investigative journalists at the Boston Globe. She called it “a great example of showing journalists that were complex people very invested in their community and telling a story.”

Lees Muñoz added another trope she would like to see eradicated: the “adrenaline junkie” seeking out dangerous assignments for personal thrills.

“After 17 years of working in this field. I know that journalists do not do this work because they’re adrenaline junkies,” she said. “They do this work because they are incredibly committed to their communities and to justice. So there should be more stories about that commitment to justice and doing the right thing and holding people to account.”

May wound up summing up the entire mission of this panel by envisioning more content that accurately reflects the plight of female journalists facing backlash in the wake of excellent reporting. Such storylines could also show the proper way for people to take care of each other in times of crisis.

“So that’s my vote,” May said. “Get some bystander intervention content out there and let’s teach people how to do this.”

Right To Be Resources:

Photo Credit: FG Trade via Getty Images