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Long before Elon Musk took over Twitter, the social media platform had become an integral part of journalistic work.
As Emily Bell recently pointed out, “Of all the social media platforms currently operating, Twitter is the most embedded in the field of journalism.” The platform allows journalists to pursue stronger, more intimate connections with their audiences, to cultivate their own professional identities or “brands,” and to advocate for improved working conditions within their organizations.
Yet, Twitter also created new risks and challenges for journalists, most notably in the form of online harassment. And now that Twitter belongs to a man who seems to condone (if not implicitly encourage) that harassment in the name of “free speech,” it is time for newsroom leaders to ask themselves: What should newsrooms be doing to support and protect journalists from increasingly intense online abuse?
We explored this question in a study recently published in the communication journal Social Media + Society. Using interview data collected from those who suffer most from the dark side of social media—women journalists and journalists of color—we examined the interventions they believe would help cultivate a more sustainable path forward for news producers, news audiences, and the social media platforms in which they increasingly meet. (These data were originally used for a Tow Center report on newsroom social media policies published last year.)
We found that although women and journalists of color experience the most hostility online, they also tend to be the least represented within their newsroom’s leadership. Furthermore, because those in leadership are tasked with setting newsroom social media policies, these circumstances mean that women journalists and journalists of color face the highest risks when it comes to social media while maintaining the lowest levels of control when it comes to the resources and protection their organizations make available for them.
The journalists we spoke with were consistent about what it would take to improve their circumstances: Newsroom leadership must become more diverse so that newsroom policy is assembled by a group of people that is representative of its staff—as well as the public at large.
For journalists, Twitter is a resource and a risk
Social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook—once seemingly optional tools used by some journalists and disdained by others—have become implicit (and sometimes explicit) prerequisites for journalists looking to succeed in today’s news media environment. Yet the increase in journalists’ use of social media platforms has been accompanied by the realization that these platforms can often become highly inhospitable places for journalists. Journalists routinely face online harassment via social media in the form of abusive, sexist, racist, and even threatening language. This abuse does not take the form solely as threats and insults, but more recently as bad faith efforts to get journalists fired from their jobs—efforts that many journalists find frustratingly effective. Taken together, the threats and challenges journalists face from the public combined with the sense that their own newsrooms will not protect them has left many journalists feeling as though they are walking a “Twitter tightrope” whenever they engage with people via social media.
Not all journalists walk this tightrope equally. Research has shown that women journalists’ experiences with harassment online are significantly more frequent, as are those of younger journalists. The harassing experiences women journalists have online are also more “vicious and personal” when compared with men journalists. And online harassment is especially pointed for journalists of color. In a global study looking at women journalists exclusively, scholars found that 81% of Black women journalists experienced online harassment compared with 64% of White women journalists. This kind of abuse “can lead to the silencing of diverse voices in the media.”
Unfortunately, journalists do not receive much in the way of support from newsroom management when it comes to navigating the pitfalls of social media. Studies have shown that newsroom leadership—which, within the United States, tend to comprise primarily white, male employees—do little to help protect their journalists from the harassment they face on social media. These circumstances raise an important question: What is the relationship between the composition of newsroom management, the policies they establish for their newsrooms, and the impact of those policies on the journalists they are charged with overseeing?
Newsroom social media policies just make things worse
Our study attempted to answer this question by drawing on in-depth interviews with 37 reporters, editors, publishers, freelancers, and social media/audience engagement managers who are current or former employees of local, national, for-profit, nonprofit, print, digital, and broadcast outlets throughout the United States. The data set comprises mostly women journalists (22 women and 15 men) and journalists of color (18 journalists of color), as journalists from these two groups are more likely to encounter abuse and harassment on social media.
A key theme that emerged centered on a lack of representation. In particular, the management of journalists and development of social media policies by newsroom managers who tend to be predominantly older, white men was, for many, a symbol of the disconnect between those who are active journalists on social media, and those in charge. Journalists interviewed frequently observed that a lack of diversity and representation within leadership meant that their views and experiences were not considered when it came to the creation and implementation of newsroom social media policies.
For example, many journalists interviewed noted that social media policies frequently prohibit them from posting things to social media that would give the appearance of bias. This raised questions for many journalists about the nature of objectivity and when any journalist could truly be unbiased. “I think that trying to pretend that your reporters aren’t people—and that they don’t have biases—it’s just dumb,” one respondent noted. “It’s white men that are deciding that. They can’t see their own biases because they think of themselves as neutral and objective.”
As interviewees explained, when anti-bias social media policies are defined by a group of people who come from similar backgrounds and consequently have a narrower lens through which they define objectivity (i.e., older white men), they see their positionality as neutral and the positions and experiences of some women journalists and journalists of color as inherently biased. One respondent described wanting to tweet “Black Lives Matter,” but said that some newsroom managers viewed such a statement as political and biased.
This disconnect between the backgrounds between newsroom managers and reporters extended to journalists’ perceptions of the protections they received from their organizations when it came to online abuse. As many interviewed explained, it seemed to them that because white men tend to receive far less online harassment than women and people of color, they were less concerned about online abuse when it came to newsroom social media policies or more general resources for journalists. As a result, journalists from more diverse backgrounds and experiences said that they did not feel they received the support. “In that newsroom, I was the only person of color,” one journalist said about an instance in which she was being harassed on social media. She explained,
It felt very discouraging in my first job, feeling like, “Well, I don’t know who to go to. This is really scary.” Obviously, my news director was like, “It’ll be fine if you just wait it out. It’ll be fine.” He is an old white male, who was not on social media, probably never even saw the invite about a Facebook group event, whatever it was. It’s scary. . . I think it’s really important to have diverse staff, to have other people to lean on.
The solution? Increase representation in newsroom leadership
Considering these circumstances, journalists interviewed often advocated for younger journalists from more diverse backgrounds to be promoted to leadership roles, and should also be consulted regarding newsroom social media policies. “I would first start with who’s in the room when [social media policies are] developed, which should be a much more diverse group of journalists,” said one journalist.
According to the journalists interviewed, these shifts would lead to (1) the creation of social media policies that protect both organizations and journalists, (2) the creation of policies that outline how to respond to social media harassment against their journalists, and (3) a more deliberate and equitable response plan to accusations of bias against journalists on social media.
Finally, it would lead journalists from marginalized backgrounds to feel more supported when facing online harassment, rather than further marginalized by newsroom managers who neither identify with the backgrounds of these journalists nor understand how those backgrounds could result in increased online harassment and increased singling out when it comes to newsroom social media policies that privilege traditionally white notions of “objectivity.”
This cultural shift is no small task. Journalism has consistently been behind national averages when it comes to representation of diverse voices. But interviewees were consistent in arguing that changing these circumstances was the surest path toward improving journalists’ experiences both within their newsrooms and within social media platforms.
As one journalist interviewed said, “You need to create an environment where women journalists and journalists of color are valued equally as white male journalists.”