A Twitter tightrope without a net: Journalists’ reactions to newsroom social media policies

Responses to this report written by journalists and media scholars. Each focusing on a specific issue raised,  including legal considerations (Victoria Baranetsky), online harassment (Michelle Ferrier), representation (Leonor Ayala Polley), audience trust (Benjamin Toff), and objectivity (Laura Wagner), can be read here.

Executive Summary

Journalists increasingly rely on social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter to pursue audience engagement, which many believe necessary for improving journalism’s popularity and credibility among the public. However, journalists have learned that engaging with their audiences via social media platforms carries personal and professional risks—namely accusations of political bias that can lead to termination from their jobs, as well as trolling, doxing, and threats of physical violence. This is especially true for women journalists and journalists of color. Journalists consequently find themselves walking a “Twitter tightrope,” where they feel compelled to use social media platforms to build awareness for and trust in their work, yet simultaneously apprehensive about the professional pitfalls and “dark participation” they encounter while doing so. 

This report examines the extent to which newsroom managers help—or hinder—their journalists when it comes to navigating the risks and challenges of audience engagement via social media platforms. It draws on interviews with 37 reporters, editors, publishers, freelancers, and social media/audience engagement managers from throughout the U.S. about their experiences with and thoughts about their newsrooms’ social media policies. The dataset comprises current and former employees of local, national, for-profit, nonprofit, print, digital, and broadcast outlets. It also comprises mostly female journalists and journalists of color, who are more likely to encounter abuse and harassment on social media.

Findings reveal:

  • Journalists see online abuse as the cost of practicing audience engagement via social media, but feel that newsroom social media policies reflect their managers’ focus on the public’s perception of their organizations rather than on the public’s harassment of their journalists. 
  • Journalists are encouraged to be “active” and “authentic” social media users, yet many of their newsroom social media policies offer little guidance or support for when journalists subsequently face personal, aggressive attacks. 
  • Journalists believe their newsroom social media policies to be primarily focused on maintaining organizational credibility, specifically by discouraging journalists from sharing anything on social media that could compromise the perceived objectivity of the outlet as a whole.
  • Journalists feel their newsroom’s social media guidance is unhelpfully ambiguous and unequally enforced.
  • Women journalists and journalists of color see newsroom social media policies as negatively affecting them in two ways: They feel insufficiently protected from the abuse they were more likely to receive, and unfairly singled out for using social media in ways their managers claim undercuts their organization’s professed neutrality.

The journalists interviewed also made recommendations for how newsroom social media policies could be improved. They suggested, for example, that newsrooms take a proactive (rather than reactive) approach to online harassment and that newsroom managers consider privileging transparency over objectivity when it comes to social media use. Most importantly, they recommended that newsrooms hire more women journalists and journalists of color, and give those journalists the agency with which to not only shape the social media policies of their organizations, but to contribute to larger discussions surrounding the values of those organizations as well. The report concludes by suggesting that the tension between journalists and their managers when it comes to newsroom social media policies mirrors larger discussions unfolding throughout the profession surrounding representation within newsrooms and the value and limits of objectivity.

 

Introduction

When Alex Harris began working at the Miami Herald in 2015, she approached Twitter the way many journalists do. She treated it as a professional tool, using it to find sources for her reporting and to promote her work and the work of her colleagues. And, like many others, she treated it as a means by which she could present herself as more than just her job, occasionally tweeting photos of her family and her cat.

“I think the authenticity of human beings interacting on social media makes you feel more willing and more vulnerable to talk about stuff,” she said.

Then, one afternoon in February of 2018, Harris’ editor asked her to use Twitter for something different. There was an active shooter alert at a high school in Parkland, Florida. Her job was to reach out to students to learn more.

“I was finding posts from teenagers tweeting that they were hiding under desks, and it was horrible,” Harris said. “I was like, ‘Hi. I’m so sorry. I hope you’re safe. Can I talk to you? Can you DM me if you’re in a good position?’ blanketing everyone.”

Some of those tweets took off. People—including other journalists—circulated them to argue that journalists are evil and predatory. Someone doctored Harris’ tweets to make them seem as though she had asked the nationality of the shooter, as well as for videos of bodies. These fake tweets were soon posted to white nationalist web pages and forums. In addition to sending overwhelming outrage her way, people uncovered and began circulating Harris’ Facebook profile, information about her family, and her address. Rape and death threats followed.

“I had to stop working for a day or two,” Harris said. “It got really bad.”

After Harris realized this social media assault was not going away on its own, she went to her editors for help. It was then that she learned what many journalists who face online harassment have come to understand: Her newsroom did not have a plan in place for responding to abuse of its employees via social media. There was no protocol. There was just Harris and her editors, placing calls to Twitter and Facebook, asking the platforms to intervene.

“We were unprepared,” Harris said. “We didn’t know what to do.”

 

Walking a Twitter tightrope

For years, social media has been a widely used mechanism by which journalists interact with their peers and their audiences. And for nearly as long, the news industry has known about the harassment journalists face when they use social media, especially women journalists and journalists of color. This harassment has only grown more intense—and more common—as social media platforms have become more ubiquitous, and journalists have become more despised.

So how focused are newsroom managers on protecting their journalists from this type of abuse? And if they’re not focused on that sort of protection, what are they focused on instead, when it comes to the use of social media by their staff?

This report explores these questions, by examining the extent to which newsroom managers help—or hinder—their journalists when it comes to navigating the risks and challenges of audience engagement via social media platforms. It draws on interviews with 37 people working in journalism about their experiences with social media and newsroom social media policies. I spoke with reporters, editors, publishers, freelancers, and social media/audience engagement managers from throughout the U.S. (as well as one person based in the U.K. and another in Canada), who are current and former employees of local, national, for-profit, nonprofit, print, digital, and broadcast outlets. My sample primarily comprised women journalists and journalists of color, who are more likely to encounter abuse and harassment on social media.

The answers I heard were consistent: Newsroom social media policies do not aspire to protect reporters from virtual threats on their lives so much as they seek to protect news organizations from perceived threats to their credibility. They are not intended to prevent harassment, but to maintain traditional notions of “objectivity,” a journalistic value many I spoke with believe should be revised or replaced. Journalists consequently find themselves walking a “Twitter tightrope,” where they feel compelled to use social media platforms to build awareness for and trust in themselves and their work, yet simultaneously feel apprehensive about the professional pitfalls and “dark participation” they encounter while doing so.

“It’s a double-edged sword, because you want a solid following, you want to be interacting with people, you want that two-way street,” said Maria Polletta, an investigative reporter for the Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting and a former state government and politics reporter with The Arizona Republic. “But then you also have to filter through all this vitriol, and that can be really exhausting.”

Compounding journalists’ frustration with these policies is the fact that they tend to be vaguely described and haphazardly enforced, in ways that many I spoke with believe come at the expense of women journalists and journalists of color.

“White male reporters are given the benefit of the doubt more often,” Polletta said. “If you’re a person of color, a woman, a member of any kind of minority group, there’s automatically judgments made based on how objective or fair you can be.”

The inconsistent enforcement of these policies leaves women journalists and journalists of color feeling doubly disadvantaged: They are insufficiently protected from the abuse they are more likely to receive, and unfairly singled out for using social media in ways their managers claim undercuts their organization’s professed neutrality.

“One of the mistakes that we often make is we, as an industry, police marginalized identities because we make it their problem that they are more prone to harassment,” said Stacy-Marie Ishmael, the founder of Galavant Media, former editorial director of the Texas Tribune, and current managing editor for cryptocurrencies at Bloomberg News. “The people with 600,000 followers who get something wrong and then don’t correct it, I see white male reporters do that way more than I think is acceptable, but they don’t have the consequences of a Black or brown reporter with 15,000 followers who get something wrong in the same way.”

The risks and unpredictability of social media, combined with the sense of unequal treatment by both their managers and their audiences, leaves women journalists and journalists of color feeling uncertain about how best to engage online.

“You feel like you’re stumbling around in the dark until you step on a bear trap,” said Karen Ho, a senior reporter with Business Insider. “That is not helpful. It causes unnecessary stress and antagonism on top of what is already a really stressful job.”

In light of these circumstances, many journalists I spoke with expressed deep ambivalence about using social media for their work. Although they feel compelled to share more of themselves online, they are also wary that what they share will eventually be used against them. While some have decided to endure the vitriol, others have retreated instead.

“I backed away from personal stuff in a professional Twitter capacity,” Harris said. “I have colleagues who are super open on the internet. It hasn’t bitten them in the butt yet, but it tenses me up. They’re younger than me, and I’m like, ‘Okay, I hope that works for you. I hope no one ever comes for you for anything you write, because there’s so much of you online.’”

This report explores the underlying causes of this ambivalence by examining how journalists feel about the use of social media in their work, and the social media policies within their newsrooms. In doing so, it both corroborates and builds off of prior work that has similarly explored the “unprecedented levels of challenges for this group of journalists.” It begins by describing why journalists feel compelled to spend so much time with social media in the first place. It then shifts to the harassment, abuse, and bad faith attacks that journalists experience in the course of using social media for their work. The third section describes journalists’ sense that they are on their own in the face of these challenges due to the absence of structures, support, or guidance from newsroom social media policies, which they describe as offering little to help prevent the online abuse they experience or protect them from that abuse once it arrives.

The fourth section explores what these policies focus on instead—discouraging journalists from sharing anything on social media that might undercut the credibility of their news organization—and the unfairness with which these policies are enforced. Journalists’ frustration with this focus stems not only from their lack of protection from abuse, but also reflects the growing division throughout the profession surrounding the role of “objectivity” in contemporary journalism. The report concludes by offering recommendations for how the news industry might change its approach to and discussion of social media within newsrooms so that these platforms serve as a tool of empowerment for journalists—especially women journalists and journalists of color—rather than as a vehicle for further marginalization.

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The value of social media within journalism

Nearly all of the journalists I interviewed emphatically argued that journalists need to participate in the world of social media to do their jobs well. “If you’re a journalist nowadays, you have to use social media,” said Danielle Sanders, the interim managing director of the Chicago Defender. “There’s no getting around that.”

These journalists described relying on social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter to aid in nearly every facet of their jobs. “Social media is invaluable,” Harris said. “I think journalists who don’t use it are crippling themselves.”

These platforms were often cited as improvements to journalists’ reporting, whether by easing the burden of reaching out to difficult sources or cultivating less obvious ones. Luige del Puerto, the former publisher and editor of The Arizona Capitol Times, argued that Twitter offers an alternative source of gathering news, making it a useful complement to (but not a substitute for) more traditional forms of reporting.

“Interviewing somebody is crucial to journalism stories. What I’ve seen is Twitter, in a way, kind of substituting for that,” said del Puerto. “You see a politician maybe breaks something on Twitter or puts out a statement on Twitter. It becomes Twitter reporting.”

A news manager of a television news channel in a top 40 market, who chose to remain anonymous, agreed: “It’s a tremendous news-gathering tool.”

To be sure, journalists I spoke with did not advocate for using Twitter as a substitute for more traditional forms of reporting, but instead as an alternative source of gathering news.

“It’s always been a really important platform for me in just communicating with sources and finding people to interview,” said Adriana Lacy, who worked as a senior associate for audience and growth at Axios, an audience engagement editor at the Los Angeles Times, and a senior news assistant at the New York Times before beginning her current role as digital and audience engagement editor at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard.

Lily Altavena, the Detroit Free Press education equity reporter, agreed: “I find a lot of sources on Facebook, and on Twitter.”

In addition to finding sources, social media platforms help journalists more or less keep tabs on what’s going on, especially when it comes to specific beats or topics, such as politics or sports. By following specific politicians and athletes, as well as more “behind-the-scenes” actors in these spaces, journalists feel like they can cultivate a space where they learn about stories as they develop.

“You find something out via Twitter or social media, whether it’s kind of looking at a player’s Instagram story or someone DMs you a tip,” said Zach Buchanan, a staff writer who covers the Arizona Diamondbacks for The Athletic. “You pick up on something that you wouldn’t have noticed before.”

Buchanan’s observation gets at the final way in which Twitter and Facebook help journalists throughout the reporting process: the platforms create an open channel for the public to send story ideas and suggestions directly to journalists.

“I keep my DMs open, which can be a risk but has been helpful in terms of feeling like they can reach out and say, ‘Hey, I saw your story on X, Y, and Z. Did you know that this person involved was also involved in this other shady thing?’ Or ‘Here’s this other case that you should be checking out,’” Polletta said. “I think that’s helpful.”

Building audiences

In addition to helping journalists produce the news, nearly every journalist I spoke with described Twitter and Facebook as tools for audience building for both their own work and the work of their organization. As people increasingly turn to social media for their own news consumption, journalists turn to these platforms to raise awareness for themselves and their work. At the very least, they do so by sharing their reporting with their followers, and potentially with the millions of people on either of these platforms.

“It’s a really easy way to connect with your readers and your audience, and also build a new audience,” said Nikki Naik, who currently works as the southeast audience engagement editor for The State Newspaper in Columbia, South Carolina, and will soon begin a new job as the audience development editor for The Charlotte Observer.

Indeed, there was a clear sense among the journalists I spoke with that social media platforms, specifically Twitter and Facebook, offer an invaluable means by which they can extend the reach of their work.

“A lot of people see my work because of Twitter,” said Kelcie Moseley-Morris, the fiscal policy reporter for the Idaho Capital Sun. “It reaches a lot further than I would’ve ever expected because of that.”

Sewell Chan, the former editorial page editor of the Los Angeles Times and current editor in chief of the Texas Tribune, stressed the audience-building aspect of social media as perhaps the most important reason for journalists to be on these platforms. At a moment when news organizations face dire economic circumstances, Chan described social media as a necessary avenue to finding audiences and, hopefully, revenue.

“When I’ve talked to journalists about reasons to be on social media, I have emphasized that, at the very, very least, you need to recognize at the point your content is published, that’s actually the beginning of a process, not the end of a process,” he said. “We are in the fight for our lives, for the lives of our institutions, and we need to find readers wherever they are.”

Cal Lundmark, who worked as the southeast editor of audience growth and retention for McClatchy until October 2021, when she became the digital editor at The Seattle Times, said something similar: “At the most superficial top-of-the-line level, it’s driving traffic. It’s driving readership,” she said. “Those social media platforms have created an infrastructure … where we can try to take that conversation and meet our readers there.”

Some I spoke with worked for organizations that had only recently started, and they attributed their organization’s success in no small part to social media’s help in finding an audience. Buchanan, for example, described using Twitter to build an audience for The Athletic from its very start: “Early on in our company, we used Twitter a lot to try and get people to subscribe,” he said. “That’s where we found our audience.”

Journalists observed that the audience-building utility of social media platforms like Twitter was especially useful for niche publications seeking targeted readerships. For example, Gabe Schneider described Twitter as being an invaluable part of the process by which he and his colleagues found readers for The Objective, a media criticism outlet that aspires to “challenge systems of oppression in newsrooms for the sake of both journalists and the communities we cover.”

“Our audience typically consists of younger journalists of color as well as LGBTQ-identifying folks,” Schneider said, “and I think Twitter has been a huge catalyst for us being able to reach those folks and then getting them onto our email lists and then having constant conversations.”

Engaging audiences

Many journalists I spoke with also said that they use social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook to pursue a more “engaged” relationship with the public, something they believe is necessary for improving journalism’s popularity and credibility. Journalists described this engagement as taking the form of back-and-forth interactions between themselves and their readers. Instead of just being a byline that disappears once their story’s browser tab has been closed, they become a person capable of interacting with their audiences.

“It gives us an opportunity for people to easily reach out to me and say what they think of my story or leave a suggestion or a criticism to my story or something I hadn’t thought about,” said Renata Cló, a reporter with The Arizona Republic.

It also gives journalists a chance to respond to those suggestions or criticisms, thus making news production a more transparent and collaborative process, one in which the public is invited to participate in the process by which reporting unfolds.

“You’re able to engage with the reader in a different way, almost immediately, via a retweet or a comment on a Facebook or Instagram post,” said Sanders. “You’re able to respond to them and have more of a personal interaction with them. And that does promote trust.”

This form of engagement via social media also allows journalists to implicitly remind the public that there are, in fact, human beings behind the stories that they are reading and critiquing. The words “genuine” and “authentic” came up often during my interviews as the ways in which journalists attempt to present themselves to the public. As many within the news industry wonder what journalists should be doing to push back against falling levels of trust among the public, there is a growing consensus that more engagement with the public is at least part of the answer. From their perspective, there’s a lot to be gained from readers understanding that the news gets generated by real people, each with their own interests, hobbies, and preferences.

“When people call me or send me an email about any story, they are usually very mad, and they are very disrespectful,” Cló said. “[When I respond to them,] it’s just a matter of me trying to tell people, ‘Hey, I’m not a robot.’”

Journalists described embracing this approach to social media by using these platforms to share details about their lives, make irreverent comments, and to generally just be themselves.

“For so long there’s always been this belief where it’s like, reporters are a part of this elite class and they’re not really relatable to the rest of the public,” Lacy said. “I think being able to not only break the story but also tweet about the brunch place that you went to in town is a really great way to get your readers to really support you and really build that trust.”

Finding work

The desire to improve journalists’ relationships with the public was not the only reason given for why journalists feel compelled to share so much of themselves on social media. Many I spoke with described another, more immediate incentive to be “personable” and “engaging” on these platforms: professional opportunities. Journalists I spoke with discussed the value of social media platforms like Twitter for not only building audiences for their work, but for cultivating professional identities for themselves. They saw this as a useful way to make themselves known to potential sources as well as potential employers as someone who has expertise within a specific subject, thus giving them a leg up when it comes to finding work in a resource-depleted, and therefore highly competitive, news media environment.

“I think I probably got my first job in journalism as a result of my use of social media,” said Ben Whitelaw, the former head of audience development at The Times and the Sunday Times. “I traded off of the fact that I knew how to use social media and other digital tools in a way that other journalists, at that point, couldn’t.”

Many of the journalists interviewed felt that their appeal to prospective employers derived not just from how well they use social media, but also how big a following they have. Although few of the journalists I spoke with said they had ever been explicitly asked during their job interviews about their social media reach, many suspected that news organizations were more excited to hire someone with a large following as a means of adding that person’s audience to their own.

“A lot of us were hired because we had a [Twitter] following early on,” Buchanan said. “We’re expected to maintain that following, and be the people that our readers interact with or are used to interacting with.”

Because the news industry is in such a tenuous position, journalists I spoke with often described feeling compelled to maintain a strong presence on social media to help them find future jobs in the event that their current ones disappeared.

“I understand how important it is for my career,” Ho said about her large social media following (she has about 50,000 followers on Twitter). “I was joking at my last position that I had more Twitter followers than I think everybody else in the company. In some places, it’s been more than everybody else in the startup combined. That is really important.”

For some, social media platforms like Twitter offer opportunities to network with news industry stakeholders they might never meet otherwise. Lacy, for example, was offered her first writing job by an editor she knew solely through Twitter. And since she began freelancing earlier this year, all of her freelance gigs have come from Twitter as well.

“I think it’s a way to really take down that journalism wall of excluding people,” she said. “It’s, in a way, made journalism more inclusive because I am seeing people who may not have a journalism degree getting writing opportunities and getting freelance opportunities. I think in a lot of ways it’s been really great for that.”

Others took issue with what they considered a more self-promotional approach to social media. “The number one value [of social media] is for promoting your work,” said Jim Rutenberg, a writer at large for the New York Times. “I think some journalists might say it’s for promoting themselves. That is how a lot of people use it.”

In general, however, there was widespread agreement among the people I spoke with that social media is useful as a democratizing force within journalism in that it allows people from under-represented groups to attract attention, develop connections, and ultimately get themselves into newsrooms. Going hand-in-hand with the appeal of social media as a means for professional opportunities was its appeal as a means for wider industry changes, especially when it comes to advocating on behalf of unions within journalism, as well as making newsrooms more diverse, inclusive, and representative of the communities they seek to cover.

“I see social media as giving us—giving me—an option to break away from that stranglehold that white supremacy has on the dissemination of information and on the role of media as gatekeepers,” said Shree Paradkar, the race and gender columnist for the Toronto Star, and the newspaper’s first internal ombud, a position created to cultivate a safe space for BIPOC journalists. “Here’s this ultimate platform where people are willing to make the noise. They are willing to take the risk, put their names on there, and speak up for what has only been whispered and dismissed.”

In short, social media platforms have become the means by which journalists establish their professional identities, promote their work, improve their relationship with the public, find job opportunities, and advocate for changes to industry norms and labor practices. With that long list in mind, it is unsurprising that journalists consider social media such an important component of their daily work. Perhaps that explains why every journalist I interviewed used social media.

“Is it worth being on social media?” asked del Puerto during our conversation. “Absolutely.”

 

The risks of social media within journalism

As social media platforms have become more indispensable for journalists, they have also become more dangerous. Journalists have learned that engaging with each other and with their audiences via social media platforms carries personal and professional risks—namely trolling, doxing, and threats of physical violence. There was an understanding throughout the interviews I conducted that as public disdain for journalists has grown, so too has the amount of online abuse that journalists face.

“Safety is a massive issue and increasingly so,” Whitelaw said. “I think journalists, generally, are becoming targeted often by virtue of the audiences that they’ve built up. It’s obviously worse on Twitter, where journalists have acquired lots of followers and large audiences.”

Whitelaw’s observation gets at an important point, which is that the more successful journalists are when it comes to using social media—a venue where “success” means more followers, more “likes,” and more retweets—the more harassment they inevitably face. Chan, who has 40,000 followers on Twitter, learned this for himself in November 2020, when he posted a link to the Los Angeles Times editorial section on the day that the section exclusively printed letters from supporters of President Trump. People on Twitter were not thrilled. Chan spent a lot of time and energy attempting to engage with those who felt that the Times had made a mistake. But he also spent a lot of time feeling flooded by raw anger.

“It was my first time being in the midst of a Twitter storm, and the irrationality, to be honest, is really scary,” Chan said. “I had never before had someone with a million followers be like, ‘This is the problem,’ and then quote my tweet. You just sent a lot of hate my way … it was pretty miserable.”

It’s worse for women and journalists of color

The harassment journalists face within social media is especially vicious for women journalists and journalists of color, who get abused online more frequently and more aggressively than their white, male counterparts. This distinction has been borne out in research, and it came up time and time again during my conversations. 

         For example, Paradkar described her experience using Facebook to engage with audiences about her race and gender column to be “instantly poisonous.” She said that rather than receive good-faith efforts to engage with her writing, she mostly got ignorant comments and death threats. Her name began circulating among white supremacist groups. “People who monitor those groups alerted me, so I had to change everything,” she said. “I had to clean up my social media, make sure that I don’t mention my children anywhere.”

The women and journalists of color not only consistently discussed being on the receiving end of aggressive abuse, but also described that abuse as misogynistic, racist, and, above all, threatening.

“The threats that I’ve gotten, they kind of will just pop up for a little bit because somebody’s mad about something that I wrote,” said Cari Wade Gervin, who previously worked as a staff writer at Knoxville’s Metro Pulse and then as a political reporter at the Nashville Scene. “Breitbart picked up a story of mine, and that was the most horrible week because it was just nonstop rape threats, and like, ‘Oh, but she’s too ugly to rape,’ and just all the super gross stuff.” Some of the journalists of color I spoke with who held management positions reconfigured their organization’s approach to social media so that it more explicitly considered the targeted harassment that women journalists and journalists of color are more likely to receive. Ishmael, for example, described rewriting the Texas Tribune’s social media policy to reflect the uneven distribution of harassment on social media.

“One of the things that we specifically put in the policy was a white reporter saying ‘Black Lives Matter’ on Twitter is not going to be a story in Breitbart in the way that a Black Lives Matter post from a Black reporter will be,” said Ishmael. “We have to understand that somebody, just by dint of their last name, the profile photo that they have, is going to get very different kinds of harassment and abuse, even if they never say anything at all that is either distinct from their colleagues, or even if they have one of those, they only tweet links to their stories.”

Some of the women journalists I spoke with discussed, with some level of exasperation, their realizations that their male colleagues’ experiences on social media were much less fraught and exhausting. As Garvin mentioned in our conversation, white male reporters “don’t get the vitriol. They get, ‘You’re writing a stupid story. You’re so stupid. You suck,’ but they don’t get the really violent kind of threats.” And a broadcast journalist, who is also a woman of color, described seeing firsthand what a difference gender makes. She said that she has been on the receiving end of “a lot of the trolling and abuse that exists online,” but her husband, who is also a broadcast journalist, has not. 

“Online harassment, trolling, abuse, in some cases threats … everybody experiences them, but they tend to be worse if you’re a woman, if you’re a journalist of color,” said Polletta. 

To be sure, the white, male reporters I spoke with consistently made it a point to acknowledge that they understand that the online harassment they face does not compare with what their female and non-white colleagues experience. “Our Yankees’ reporter, by dint of covering the Yankees and by being a woman, catches a lot more shit than I do as a white man covering the Diamondbacks,” Buchanan said. And Josh Sternberg, the executive editor of the Morning Brew, said something similar: “A person of color or a woman, LGBTQ person, the shit that they get on a daily basis is harrowing.”

Derek Willis, who has worked for the Washington Post, the New York Times, and ProPublica, and currently works as a lecturer at the University of Maryland, recalled a conversation with a female journalist that made explicit just how wide a gap there was between their experiences interacting with the public via social media.

“I remember I was talking to a reporter … hearing her describe the comments and abuse she gets. Then she turned to me, and I was like, ‘I don’t get any of that,” said Willis. “I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve gotten really personally abused. It just doesn’t happen.”

Withdrawing from social media to escape the abuse

Some journalists I spoke with—especially women journalists and journalists of color— expressed frustration at the sense that there is nothing they can do to avoid harassment. Barbara VanDenburgh, the books editor for USA Today, for example, described how, over the course of her career in arts writing, she has begun to notice that she faces more intense online harassment when she writes something critical of a male figure with a devoted fanbase, like Woody Allen or DC superheroes.

“It is scary, like even when it’s something stupid like Aquaman, for people to be calling you a bitch or a whore, and to come after you on Twitter in a really personal way over something that seems inherently inconsequential,” Van Denburgh said. “You try so hard to avoid exactly that outcome, and it doesn’t matter. You come to have a sense and a feeling for the pieces that you’re going to get attacked for, even when you try to put your best foot forward.”

Other journalists described feeling deeply conflicted about social media because of what Polletta referred to as its “double-edged sword” nature. My interviews revealed that, on the one hand, the more journalists use social media to share details about themselves that go beyond their work, the more personal a connection they appear to form with a larger audience, which many journalists seemed to agree is a positive step forward for their individual careers and for journalism’s credibility as a whole.

“By and large, I noticed at the very beginning of when I was starting my Facebook page, if I posted a story, I got very little interaction. I mean, maybe a couple of likes, rarely any comments,” one journalist explained about her approach to social media. “If I posted a photo of my kid, it just went bonkers.”

However, journalists have realized that the larger their following, the more vitriol they receive, and the likelier it is that the details they share will be used against them in the form of frighteningly personal attacks. One journalist I interviewed, for example, shared on Facebook that she was pregnant. At first, she was thrilled by the reception. The post garnered thousands of likes and comments. But some of her followers realized that she wasn’t married. People attacked her for being a “bad role model” in disturbingly vicious ways.

“They wished death upon my child because I wasn’t married,” she said. “They were so absolutely horrendous and really emotionally took a toll on me.”

Unsurprisingly, considering these circumstances, a number of women I spoke with who had faced intense online harassment mentioned taking periodic breaks from social media as a result, or reported changing their approach to social media altogether so that they share much less in general, including fewer personal details. The journalist who announced her pregnancy on Facebook, for example, said the experience caused her to become “hyperaware” of how people might react to things she posted to social media. “As I moved forward, I was so much more cautious about what I posted,” she said.

Harris said something similar about how she reacted after the Parkland-related Twitter storm she endured. “Ever since then, I’ve been a lot more careful about how I am on social media, because it almost got to a dangerous point.” She added that “the sheer volume [of abuse] that particularly women and particularly women of color get makes it impossible to be on the internet sometimes.”

“When I was covering politics, most of the time, I would be like, ‘Yeah, well, that’s not very nice, but par for the course. Delete,’” said Polletta about her time as a state government and politics reporter for the Arizona Republic. “Then other days it would just be so much that was like, ‘I don’t know if I can do this. This is really wearing me down.’ It’s a hard enough job without all the personal attacks on top of it.”

To be sure, some journalists I spoke with insisted that they would stick with social media regardless of the abuse they receive, implicitly perceiving that abuse as the price of admission for social media’s benefits. One journalist I spoke with said she has dealt with “mega harassment” on social media, which she described as stressful, exhausting, and overwhelming. Yet she was quick to point out that, despite these experiences, “I’m completely addicted now, so I’m not one of those people who is like, ‘I’m going to quit Twitter.’”

However, even the female journalists I spoke with who did not describe taking breaks from social media due to the abuse they were receiving still tended to describe devoting a great deal of scrutiny to what they post, thinking in particular about how it might be perceived and what kind of harassment it might invite.

“The worst part is participating means putting yourself at risk of being vulnerable,” said Ho. “I hate that I have to be nervous about things like metadata, photographs, and cyber security. I try not to give my exact location away, stuff like that. There is too much mental energy that I have to spend.”

This was especially true for journalists I interviewed who have children.

 “When it comes to the personal things that I share on Twitter, I do think about people who are willing to come after you and willing to dox your family,” said Moseley-Morris. “I’m like, ‘Should I post this picture of my baby and let people know that I have a baby?’ I don’t know. It’s a cute picture, but how much do I want to reveal about the street that I live on? That bothers me more than anything.”

 

The lack of support within newsroom social media policies

After journalists described feeling fearful of the prospect of online harassment or defeated by the perpetual abuse they receive, I would inevitably follow up those statements with the same question: What did their newsrooms do to help? What structures were in place to offer support?

The answers were consistent, and can be summed up by Gervin’s response.

“Nothing. Nothing. Nothing.”

The purpose—and blind spots—in today’s social media policies

To be sure, the news industry is not a monolith, and news organizations vary in their approaches to social media. Not all news organizations even have social media policies. Some organizations make their policies publicly available, while others keep them internal. Some of these policies are assembled primarily by lawyers, while others include input from senior newsroom managers. Some are long and detailed, seemingly aspiring to consider every “what if,” while others are shorter, focusing more on offering guidance rather than hard and fast rules. Some are edited and updated often, while others rarely change.

What most of these policies have in common, at least according to the journalists interviewed for this report, is that they tend to focus on instructing journalists about how they should—and should not—behave on social media. They are intended as guidance for journalists when it comes to what to share on social media channels, how to engage with readers, and, in some cases, even who to follow. What they do not tend to focus on: How journalists should grapple with the risks and challenges that social media presents, and what resources (if any) newsrooms make available to help them.

“These social media policies need to build in protections for journalists,” said Polletta. “There seems to be all this emphasis on what you put out, and really no infrastructure for what you’re maybe going to be experiencing and getting back, whether it’s harassment, whether it’s threats, whether it’s a concerted smear campaign.”

Jessie Shi, who was the social media editor for the San Antonio Express-News when interviewed, and is now working as a social media editor for MarketWatch, put this point more succinctly: “Reporters are usually on their own when it comes to trolls.”

This framing of policies as privileging the institution over the individual was consistent throughout my interviews. This distinction appeared especially obvious to those I spoke with who had faced online harassment and felt like they were left on their own to get through the worst of it. Those journalists described the lack of attention within these social media policies devoted to protecting newsroom staff from online harassment and abuse as symptomatic of a more general lack of structures and support in place within newsrooms for dealing with what many journalists believe to be an inevitable part of their jobs.

“You need to use social media in order to represent the outlet and the brand,” said Schneider. “At the same time, I don’t think many of these outlets that are sort of requiring you to do that have adequate infrastructure to deal with harassment if a journalist was harassed.”

What did journalists wish they had more of in terms of infrastructure? In many cases, journalists wished more than anything else that their newsroom managers would have their backs by stepping in when harassment escalates, allowing the journalists to take time off work, or at least time off social media, and perhaps even responding to or reporting bad actors.

Heidi Stevens, for example, described wondering when—or even if—her editors would intervene after months of threatening and offensive emails she received in response to something she’d written while working as a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.

“At what point do they hear back from somebody who’s not me?” she asked. “If I walked into a restaurant and the hostess was like, ‘Oh, it’s going to be an hour,’ and I start calling the hostess the C-word, I’m getting kicked out of that restaurant. We kind of look like rookies that we’re not willing to stand up for our people and say, ‘This is who’s allowed in our establishment, and this is who’s not.’”

Even journalists who didn’t advocate for specific resources and structures expressed a desire for a sense of protection with their newsrooms that many feel currently does not exist when it comes to online abuse. In instances when journalists find themselves in the incredibly stressful position of watching vitriol roll into their Twitter notifications and wondering when it would end and what they should do, those journalists want to at least feel as though their managers have their backs.

“It would be nice if you’re experiencing something scary or ugly or questionable on social media to feel like there was a person that you could go to and say, ‘Hey, am I okay here?’” said VanDenburgh.

Putting the burden back on the journalist

When asked why these structures did not exist within their newsrooms, journalists I spoke with suggested their newsroom managers simply did not understand how bad online harassment could be. They pointed to the fact that their newsroom managers tended to skew older, and to comprise more white men who may not necessarily spend much time on social media, and who are also unlikely to receive the aggressive, racist, and misogynist abuse that female journalists and journalists of color experience.

“I don’t think managers are trying to be malicious, but the vast majority of them are white and come from a place of privilege,” said Cló.

Willis said something similar when discussing how white men experience social media compared to women and people of color: “We have a lot of newsroom leaders who are white guys. For them, [social media] is a place where you can banter with your friends about golf or whatever. It seems okay for the most part.”

Perhaps that explains why the journalists I spoke with described their news managers as not only not providing structures to help them deal with online harassment, but as being dismissive of that harassment even when journalists sought them out for help.

“I had a coworker that was consistently getting harassed online and in-person when she was covering certain meetings,” said Polletta. “Our newsroom (The Arizona Republic) had very much been saying, ‘Please come to us if stuff is veering into where you’re feeling unsafe or it’s really taking a toll on you.’ She did that and was told, ‘Well, I guess you’ve got to get a thicker skin.’ Well, if you feel that way then don’t offer yourself up as a resource. They do that initial step but then there’s not actually any support.”

Lacy observed something similar play out when she was on the receiving end of online harassment during one of her previous full-time jobs in journalism.

“My manager said, ‘I saw the tweet. That was really rude. Let me know if anything happened.’ That’s it,” she said. She added that she had pushed her previous employers to address this issue, with little success. “I remember when I was working at the Los Angeles Times, I was on the social media committee that was a joint committee between the Guild and management. That was something I brought up. I was like, ‘We have no policy around harassment,’ and they were like, ‘Oh. That’s interesting. Maybe we should do that.’ I haven’t heard anything back from it, and I don’t think they’ve even gotten there yet.”

This lack of interest in addressing the threats, harassment, and abuse journalists face—particularly women journalists and journalists of color—left some of the journalists I spoke with feeling as though their editors were implicitly suggesting that online abuse was just an inevitable part of doing contemporary journalism. Rather than something to be combated using precious newsroom resources, online abuse is instead conveyed almost as a rite of passage.

“The response to online harassment can genuinely be worse than the harassment itself,” said Jamie Landers, a former health disparity reporter with Arizona PBS, and a former breaking-news reporter with the Arizona Republic. “I cannot tell you how many times I’ve been told something along the lines of ‘Welcome to the big leagues!’ or ‘This is how you know you’ve made it’ when I either confront it online or bring it up in person.”

“You’re constantly told to tough it out, which is possibly the most immature piece of advice I’ve heard in my life,” said Paradkar, “because not only does it mean that you are not allowed to acknowledge the fear and pain, possibly trauma, depending on the level of abuse, but it also puts in place the ability for someone to do it again to somebody else.”

Paradkar pointed to this culture of acceptance when it comes to online abuse as not only the explanation for why there is not more in the way of support and resources to protect them from abuse, but also as an impediment to them confronting their managers about the abuse in the first place.

“The first thing that journalists fear when [online abuse] happens is that they’re not going to be taken seriously,” said Paradkar. “There’s a part of them that’s saying, ‘It’s actually not a big deal. It’s just on social media, so don’t make an issue out of this because you’re going to be seen as a troublemaker.’”

In short, newsrooms’ lack of reaction or regard for the online abuse that their journalists suffer appears to stem from a lack of understanding surrounding how intense this abuse can be, as well as a lack of focus on individual employees within the newsroom more generally. The result of these circumstances is a situation in which journalists feel left to their own devices when it comes to the abuse they face on social media.

“When your newsroom doesn’t back you up in some capacity,” Landers said, “you end up being the only person punished for what’s taking place.”

 

Upholding traditional notions of ‘objectivity’

Instead of focusing on the protection of journalists, newsroom social media policies focus primarily on maintaining organizational credibility, specifically by discouraging journalists from sharing anything on social media that could compromise the perceived objectivity of the outlet as a whole.

“They’re all about controlling journalists’ behavior,” Polletta said about newsroom social media policies. Journalists I spoke with took issue with this focus for a number of reasons: They’re vague, punitive, haphazardly enforced, and steeped in traditional notions of objectivity that are increasingly contested.

“If you subscribe to the idea that journalists should be objective, and neutral, and present both sides, whatever that means nowadays, then you’re going to be caught up by what you put out in social media in some form,” said Whitelaw about newsroom social media policies.

Others I spoke with were quick to critique the premise of objectivity that these policies stem from—mainly that they presume that it is possible for any one person to ever be truly objective about anything.

“We subscribe to this notion that reporters are unbiased, objective entities that roam the planet,” said Sternberg. “That is the farthest thing from the truth, but that is the truth that we preach. The social media policies are predicated on that fictionalized version of the reporter. When you have a news organization that puts their social policies together, again, in my mind, they are coming at it from a fundamentally flawed perception. Journalists are people. People have opinions.”

This sentiment was shared by many others I spoke with, including Schneider, who said that “pretending like we can be objective as reporters or as newsrooms is silly. … I don’t think our audiences believe that we’re objective and don’t come with human biases. I don’t think it’s possible to say, ‘Everyone can be fully distanced and come from this view from nowhere’ … it’s silly, yet that’s how many of these policies are put in place when it comes to covering a Black reporter covering race or Black Lives Matter. It’s an upsetting conversation.”

“I think that everything should and does have a point of view,” said Melody Joy Kramer, a former digital strategist and editor at NPR who single-handedly built up Fresh Air’s online audience when she worked as the show’s sole web producer. “The point of view for many, many years has been this omniscient white male power structure. … To see these power structures start to shift because of this bottom going up as opposed to top going down has also been really neat.”

To be sure, others I spoke with disagreed with Schneider, and felt that audiences indeed want their news to be delivered by journalists who do not broadcast their political views, especially if those views run counter to their own. Lundmark, for example, described how she had started using phrases like “gun rights” instead of “gun control,” and “abortion legislation” instead of “reproductive rights” when she began doing audience growth and retention work for McClatchy’s southeast newspapers.

“It’s the same story. It’s the same reporting, but it’s going to be framed in a way that makes that news accessible to our readers,” she said. “Everyone in our community doesn’t necessarily agree with us, and we have to serve those people too. That’s when a really good audience team will come into play.”

As Lundmark’s examples make clear, these policies—and their underlying notions of objectivity—stem not just from norms and values within journalism, but also from assumptions among journalists about what the public wants from news. And social media policies, by and large, tend to imply that audiences will abandon news sources if the journalists working at those sources reveal that they have perspectives or opinions that run counter to prevailing notions of objectivity.

“We have readers who have been with us forever, and this is their paper,” said Naik about the State newspaper in South Carolina. “This is their home paper, and I think they have developed this sense of trust. We get comments from our readers saying, ‘What agenda are you trying to push here?’ But that doesn’t mean we should feed into it, right? Just because they think that doesn’t mean we should just say, ‘Yeah. You’re right. Let’s just keep going with it.’ No. We’re going to give you both sides. That’s our job at the end of the day.”

According to S. Mitra Kalita, who worked as an executive editor at Quartz, managing editor at the Los Angeles Times, and a senior vice president at CNN before co-founding URL Media in January 2021, the frustration that journalists feel about their news organizations’ social media policies is symptomatic of a larger debate unfolding within the news industry surrounding what journalism should look like and what values should guide its production.

“The tension in some ways is the fundamental tension, not just of social media policies, but of, ‘What is journalism in the 21st century?’” she said.

Uneven enforcement

Another issue journalists have with these policies and their focus on traditional notions of objectivity is that they are not focused on the actual things that journalists might share on social media so much as they are on the ways in which those things might be perceived by the public. Journalists I spoke with described deep frustration with the notion that the extent to which they fail or succeed to follow their newsroom social media policies lies not on something tangible, but on something as fluctuating as public perception. Because the language of these policies tends to be vague and open to interpretation, and because the actual determination of whether these policies have been violated tends to begin with public reaction more than anything else, journalists described these policies as being difficult to follow and unfairly enforced. 

“That’s what’s really frustrating,” said Lacy. “I have seen a lot of younger, more diverse people getting the really ‘high-level punishment’ for the things that they post. I’ve seen people who have higher positions, who are often white, tweeting the exact same thing and not getting in trouble at all.”

Lacy was far from the only one to suggest that the unfair enforcement of social media policies tended to fall along racial and gender lines. Journalists consistently described these policies as more often being used to punish women journalists and journalists of color than their male, white counterparts. This observation came up again and again throughout my conversations.

“I think a lot of journalists feel like they’re out there on their own, and they are. They get hung out to dry. But then which journalists get hung out to dry? Some get hung out to dry more than others. Women, right? Black women. Black men,” said Carla Murphy, an editor for the podcast The View from Somewhere, and a board member of the Journalism & Women Symposium (JAWS). “Some people get second and third chances. The penalties aren’t applied equally.”

Some of the journalists I spoke with suggested that this unequal treatment of women journalists and journalists of color was the result of an unfortunate combination: the fact that their tweets were more likely to elicit aggressive responses from the public than their white counterparts, and the fact that they tended to start from less powerful, established positions than their white counterparts.

“It comes down to power. They have less power. They’re also read to have less power. Perception really matters,” said Murphy. “You’re not going to have as much blowback if you punish the person who doesn’t have that much power. … People know who they can penalize, and they know who they can’t.”

The relationship between race, gender, journalists’ social media statements, and the public reactions to them has become a larger point of contention this past year, which has seen a number of instances where journalists (especially journalists of color) have bristled at the restraints of their social media policies, and have either been punished as a result or, alternatively, seen those policies change. For example, it was not too long ago that journalists faced consequences for showing support for the Black Lives Matter movement. That didn’t stop a number of Black journalists from tweeting their support regardless. Some faced professional penalties, but their efforts appear to have spurred the industry to reevaluate the notion of objectivity, at least as it relates to this specific case. Now the industry seems to have grown more accepting that Black Lives Matter is a human rights issue—one that, like climate change, the 2020 election outcome, and the coronavirus vaccine—has become politicized. 

“I do not believe that asserting that Black Lives Matter is a sign of bias,” said Chan. “It might be controversial to some, but that’s just not acceptable.”

Again, while Chan’s sentiment is increasingly accepted within the news industry, that is a fairly recent change. As recently as last summer, it was reported that journalists feared that their jobs might be jeopardized if they tweeted their support for the Black Lives Matter movement. Indeed, a number of journalists I spoke with described pushing their newsroom managers to change that policy so that they would be allowed to tweet “Black Lives Matter” and show their support for the protests that followed the murder of George Floyd. And these efforts appear to have been successful, at least within certain settings.

The threat of bad faith attacks

Compounding the unequal and haphazard enforcement of social media policies is the fact that, as the Emily Wilder incident revealed, certain groups on Twitter will react disingenuously to tweets from certain journalists or types of journalists in deliberate efforts to cultivate outrage at a news outlet and ruin a person’s professional life. Wilder’s firing from the Associated Press unsurprisingly loomed large in my conversations. After working for just two weeks as a news associate, she was fired when conservatives resurfaced old, pro-Palestine social media posts and used them to argue she could not report objectively. Her experience was often used as an illustration of news organizations failing their journalists when it comes to social media policies.

“Emily Wilder was a particularly striking case of a coordinated, partisan attack on a journalist to get her in trouble, and it worked,” said VanDenburgh. “It’s alarming, because you would hope that your newsroom would understand the dynamics of those bad-faith partisan attacks and support their employees.”

To be sure, these issues do not exist everywhere in journalism. Some of the journalists I spoke with acknowledged that these problems are ongoing throughout the industry, but not within their own newsroom. It seems smaller news organizations with specific focuses and niche audiences tend to have a less rigid approach to objectivity and, consequently, a less punitive approach to social media policies. Sanders, for example, described how the Chicago Defender’s focus on the city’s African American community meant that Defender journalists could be more open on social media than they might be able to get away with at organizations with larger audiences.

“The Defender has always been known to have a very strong and opinionated voice when it comes to issues affecting people of color,” Sanders said. “So, there are a lot of things that we will say, even in how we title some of our work, that would be deemed controversial or unacceptable by a larger news organization.”

Be personal—just not too personal

One final reason that social media policies seemed to rub so many journalists the wrong way is that they appeared to run counter to the way in which the news industry has encouraged journalists to take advantage of social media platforms in the first place. The main appeal of social media is for journalists to “be themselves” in an effort to build trust with the public and audiences for their work. Yet these policies in their current form function as a reminder to journalists not to take their efforts at authenticity too far. The result leaves some journalists feeling caught between two contradictory directions, which makes journalists’ use of social media even more of a challenge than it already is.

“It’s like, ‘Oh, so you want us to be people but not that personable,’” said Keith Reed, a former podcast fellow with the Arizona Republic. “You know, some of us are messes, so how would you like me to move forward if you want me to be a person, but as a person, I’m also a mess? … You want me to be professional, and you want to post on my own thing, and you want me to be personable, but some people don’t have it together. I can’t pretend. I’ve done too much of that in my life.”

Journalists and editors by and large appear to see the value in sharing personal details on social media, so the push and pull between wanting to be personal and needing to abide by these policies can leave journalists feeling constrained and uncertain when it comes to how they present themselves via social media.

“On social media, we are told to have your own voice because [the news organization] recognizes that, if you’re on social media, then your authenticity is really important if you want to have more followers. More followers for that individual would mean more followers for the brand,” Paradkar said. “Have your own voice, but not so much that it makes us uncomfortable. Have your own voice, but don’t criticize us. Right? Have your own voice, but don’t use certain language, certain words. Have your own words, but only some of you cannot say certain words, but others can. All right? There’s a lot of policing of language. How can you have your own voice when you have all these restrictions?”

 

Recommendations

The answer, at least based on my interviews: It’s not easy. Journalists use social media to make their work more impactful, improve their professional prospects, advocate for changes within and outside of the industry, and cultivate more meaningful relationships between themselves, their peers, and their readers. To do so, they try to be themselves by sharing details about their lives and how they do their work in ways that they would never be able to do without these platforms. Along the way, they face two intimidating obstacles, both of which unfairly target women and journalists of color: online harassment from their audiences, and social media policies (or the lack thereof) from their superiors.

As this report has shown, many journalists see online abuse as the cost of practicing audience engagement via social media, a cost they feel compelled to bear because of internal and external pressure to do so, as well as the promise of real benefits in the form of more exposure to their work, more professional opportunities, and better relationships with the public. While the journalists I spoke with widely agreed on the benefits of social media platforms, they also agreed that newsroom social media policies do little to protect them from its risks. Instead, these policies reflect their managers’ focus on the public’s perception of their organizations rather than on the public’s harassment of their journalists. They are also a symptom of a larger disagreement unfolding throughout the news industry surrounding power, representation, and objectivity.

It doesn’t have to be this way. At the end of each of my interviews, I asked the people I spoke with for suggestions they had about how newsrooms—and the news industry as a whole— should change its approach to social media use by journalists and social media policies within news organizations to improve these circumstances. What follows is a list of recommendations that draws from the responses I received. Some of these recommendations are admittedly contradictory, which speaks to people’s different perspectives on the challenges and opportunities that social media presents to journalists, as well as disagreements surrounding what the public wants and expects from journalism, alongside what journalists want and expect from themselves.

Newsrooms should take a more proactive approach to online harassment. They should anticipate who will attract such harassment and prepare accordingly. That way, women journalists and journalists of color will not feel like they are alone or unsafe if harassment occurs. Instead, they will feel supported by their managers from the beginning. “If you have a woman writing about sexual violence or if you have somebody with a last name somebody’s going to be like, ‘Oh, they’re not really American, whatever,’ and they are working on big, high-profile stories that are going to get a lot of attention and that are particularly going to get attention that could expose them to risk, you prepare for that in advance,” said Stacy-Marie Ishmael. “You are prepared at the level of, ‘Is this a situation where we do or do not tag the reporter on social by their individual byline? Is this a situation where we institutionally are prepared if they start getting death threats? What do we do? Do we have monitoring of their mentions to see if they are facing a higher than usual volume of stuff that is mostly vitriol? Do we have a good mechanism for email if they start getting emails sent to them? What do we do if they get doxed? What do we do if somebody puts their phone number out there? What is your actual playbook in advance for when the bad thing is going to happen?”

“Oftentimes, [newsroom responses to abuse] is after the fact, when people are getting doxed,” said Melody Joy Kramer, a former digital strategist and editor for NPR. “If we’re encouraging people to use these platforms and we’re encouraging them to put their work out there, and we’re encouraging them to be front-facing and with their audience and do these things and kind of what we were doing in 2012, then you really have to also teach people what the downsides of that can be and what the parameters of that should be and just how to protect yourself.”

A proactive approach should privilege the mental health of journalists facing abuse. Newsroom social media policies should include language that assures journalists that they have the support of their managers and that there are standard operating procedures for dealing with abuse. Many of the journalists I spoke with said that when they experienced harassment, one of their biggest concerns was that their bosses would think they had done something wrong. They also felt like it was on them to seek out additional help or support within the newsroom, and doing so made them worry that they would become burdens on their bosses. “I would like to see a policy that acknowledges that harassment can take a really big toll on your mental health, and that you need care and attention when that happens to you,” said Lily Altavena.

Some editors I spoke with described taking steps to protect journalists from abuse that could be standardized across newsrooms. Cal Lundmark, for example, mentioned using her organization’s brand account on Twitter to respond to trolls on behalf of journalists undergoing online abuse. “I think there’ve been a few times that reporters have been attacked that I’ll come in with a brand account and respond back because I do think it is my team’s job to help shield reporters, at times, from that brunt,” she said. “Giving whatever help I can to the people who are exposed to that all the time and to lessen that emotional labor, I think it’s a privilege.”

Newsroom managers should undergo training so they know how to deal with online harassment from the moment it begins. Many journalists I spoke with felt their managers were unprepared to help guide them through a flood of social media trolls, threats, or worse. “There should be training for managers,” said Maria Polletta, “because right now it’s happening really piecemeal in terms of editors responding to things, and I think that contributes to the lack of equity in how that enforcement happens a lot of times.” 

To their credit, some editors I spoke with have already taken it upon themselves to pursue these kinds of trainings, and described them as being helpful in shaping their approaches to helping colleagues dealing with online harassment. Nikki Naik, for example, completed the “Women in Hostile Environments” training, a six-week course offered by the International Women’s Media Foundation (IWMF). “It’s a really, really awesome training,” she said. IWMF offers a number of trainings that might help newsrooms standardize reactions to online harassment, including one focused on digital security. “I think that’s really valuable,” Naik said.

Newsrooms should have a clear-cut, standard operating procedure in place when it comes to social media usage and online harassment, so journalists know exactly how to conduct themselves online  and who to contact if harassment begins. Social media policies that explicitly state who wrote them, who employees can turn to with questions, how employees should handle harassment and seek out support, what the disciplinary process would be should an employee stray from the guidelines, what is considered appropriate posting in the context of expressing personal opinions online, and an explanation contextualizing why these policies are vital to the ethical functioning of the newsroom is a straightforward way to ensure staff are all on the same page and feel protected. 

“I think, with younger journalists, letting them know, number one, what’s coming and, number two, the immediate steps that they can take,” said Polletta. “I also think having a process for how to report when something’s rising to a level that’s making you feel unsafe or just totally overwhelmed who you should go to and, then, really the process for how they should respond.” 

Razzan Nakhlawi, a researcher at the Washington Post and the Washington Post Guild communications chair, similarly said, “I think a lot of the concern and maybe the trauma that some journalists experience could be alleviated by just having a support network and having an institution that is like, ‘Okay. We are here to protect you if anything does escalate. Let’s figure out how our community of newsmakers can support you.’”

Implementing social media policies that include explicit “do’s” and “don’ts,” as is the case in policies such as the BBC’s and Hearst’s, or pointed suggestions as seen in policies at the Roanoke Times and The New York Times, is one way newsrooms can better distill the ethical standards specific to social media. While these newsrooms’ policies focus more on the appropriate content for staff to post on social media, this same framework could be applied when outlining how to deal with online harassment. An explicit process with specific and detailed steps would not only clear up confusion for journalists uncertain about whether what they’re experiencing qualifies as harassment, and what to do next, but it would also alleviate some of the anxiety that journalists face stemming from the uncertainty surrounding the potential for professional consequences should they report abuse. 

In short, many interviewees said they didn’t want to feel like a burden. “It would be nice if you’re experiencing something scary or ugly or questionable on social media to feel like there was a person that you could go to and say, ‘Hey, am I okay here?’” said Barbara VanDenburgh. “Even if you could just bounce an idea off of somebody and say, ‘Hey, did I say the wrong thing here? Should I delete this? Is this okay?’ or ‘These people are coming after me. Is there anybody I should tell?’ without it feeling like you’re putting a target on your back, which would be my concern with our social media policy as it’s currently written, which is nebulous and nonspecific.”

A number of journalists I spoke with mentioned that this sort of reassurance from managers would be invaluable. “I’ve had friends who’ve been doxed or harassed online. I think a big fear of that for them was just getting fired,” said Nakhlawi. “For a lot of people, the harassment would be more—I mean, it’s never really bearable—it would be a little better if they knew that the institution or higher-level management would be behind them the whole way as long as they’re not saying anything that’s racist or whatever.” 

Some journalists I spoke with said this reassurance would be especially helpful in instances when the online harassment includes people tweeting at journalists’ newsroom managers to advocate for their firing. “I’ve tweeted things, and people are adding all the managing editors and the owner of the L.A. Times. They’re like, ‘This is your employee? I can’t believe it,’” said Adriana Lacy. “I think a lot of times when you get that sort of hatred, you’re like, ‘Oh, man. Is my job in jeopardy?’ I think just having that assurance is really important.”

Newsrooms should consider embracing transparency over objectivity when it comes to social media policies, as well as when it comes to their efforts to earn audience trust more generally. Many of the journalists I spoke with suggested that, rather than worrying about maintaining abstract notions of objectivity, newsrooms might better succeed at building trust in their work if they instead were more open with the public about how they do their work, and why they do it. “I remember writing once about our ethics policy. I don’t remember what the topic was, but I asked our standards editor, ‘Can I get a link to where that is online so I can include it in my column for people to read it?’” said Heidi Stevens. ‘She’s like, ‘Well, that’s not for people to read.’ I’m like, ‘Fucking why?’ … The fact that there’s still people who don’t believe Biden’s elected—the fairly elected president, the fact that people are not getting this vaccine— newsrooms have to take some responsibility for not doing a better job of making people media literate.” 

Others I spoke with commented that this more transparent approach should go for journalists’ opinions as well. Instead of journalists shielding the public from their views to convince the public they don’t have any, journalists might consider opening up about those views, and then describing why their work is still trustworthy regardless. “There are people who hold these opinions, and they’re still reporting these stories. They’re just not doing it publicly,” said Lacy. “I’d rather see those biases upfront and out there instead of them being hidden in plain sight.”

That transparency should extend to the enforcement of social media policies. There should be a paper trail for managers’ complaints about their reporters’ social media use. Alex Harris described advocating for a social media policy that would include language that requires managers to email journalists if they ask them to remove a tweet. They would also be required to CC another manager, as well as human resources. This might help make the enforcement of these policies feel less haphazard or unfair. “There has to be a record for why the tweet is wrong,” Harris said. “That’s going to slow down a response for an outrageous tweet but at least will create a track record where we can hold people accountable for unequal distribution of punishment.”

With that in mind, newsrooms might consider distinguishing between their journalists’ views and their organization’s view. They can make an argument to their readers that, yes, their journalists hold certain views but that their organization’s approach to news production ensures that those views do not color their reporting. “If readers actually want objectivity and listeners actually want objectivity, then I don’t see a reason we can’t distinguish between objectivity of self and objectivity of practice, where we’re talking about—and objectivity of practice is more like we’re going to report fairly,” said Gabe Schneider (paraphrasing Wesley Lowery). In other words, newsrooms should pin their credibility on the process of the journalism itself rather than on the type of person who is doing the journalism work. Or, as Danielle Sanders put it, “How you talk about it in a tweet is different from how you actually write it for the article. It’s a balance.”

Newsrooms should have larger conversations about the guiding values that inform their approaches to everything else, including social media policies. These conversations should include everyone and shouldn’t take objectivity’s privileged role as a given. “I think the solution is actually having editors that have thought through what the values of the outlet are and actually are thoughtful as to why they are making certain decisions,” said Schneider. There should be a mechanism in place for all newsroom employees to share their ideas for what the newsroom’s values should be. Should they include antiracism, democracy, human rights, or something else? As Schneider said, “It’s a big conversation.”

Social media platforms themselves should be more responsive, and perhaps news organizations should mobilize to put pressure on them. Many journalists I spoke with who had faced online harassment tended to assume that the platforms would be next to useless when it came to helping overcome the abuse. “I wish Twitter had actually listened to the reports earlier,” said Harris about her brush with Twitter mobs during her Parkland shooting coverage. “The answer is increased and more aggressive moderation of hate speech.” Considering that Jack Dorsey seems aware that journalists are a big reason Twitter has been successful, it doesn’t seem like too much to ask his platform to invest more resources into protecting them. “I think media organizations should create coalitions to put pressure on social media companies to specifically protect journalists,” said Shree Paradkar. Getting these platforms to take action (especially action journalists actually approve of) will likely require news organizations to mobilize and first agree on what those changes should entail. 

The news industry as a whole should consider normalizing not using Twitter. Many journalists feel like they must be on social media, particularly on Twitter, despite the fact that the platform is actually not all that popular. “Most of the people that are reading stories are not reading stories from Twitter,” said Lacy. “Twitter’s always one of the lowest referral sources.” Sure, Twitter is valuable for journalists to talk to each other and their sources, but it’s less so when it comes to communicating with the public, because there’s only so much of the public actually there. At the very least, newsrooms could encourage journalists to use more as a reporting tool, and less for everything else. “I find a lot of really interesting things on Facebook, sources on Facebook, sources on Twitter,” said Altavena. “That doesn’t necessarily mean you have to be the most active human being on Facebook or Twitter to get that. You don’t even have to be active at all.

Mitra Kalita took this a step further, pointing out that the industry’s focus on policies and best practices for social media risks further separating journalists from the communities they cover. “We’re spending way too much time obsessing over social media standards, knowing that many of the communities we are trying to reach are not even on social media,” she said. “My concern with these debates is that they’re almost two layers removed from the audience.”

Alternatively, if newsroom managers are going to push their reporters to be on social media, they should be on it, too, setting an example and getting their backs. Many journalists I spoke with felt that their editors didn’t understand what it was like to be on social media because they themselves were not active users of the platforms they were encouraging their employees to spend more time on. “If you’re going to tell people to be themselves online, you have to be willing to defend them when people come for them,” said Harris. “Those go hand in hand. You either want us to be robots and retweet about work, and then not care about us if we get attacked, or you care and let us be humans. You can’t just pick one.”

Kalita echoed this suggestion, describing its value from a newsroom manager’s perspective. “So much of my role at a large institution like CNN was actually walking the talk, as opposed to, ‘Well, it’s okay for you to say that, but I’m going to be here and be really comfortable and make sure I’m employable next year,’” she said. “I had a pretty large team, and I think operating from a place of engaging on social platforms if you’re setting digital strategy and rules is actually really important. And I do not think that, like, my counterparts around the country do that at all.”

Newsrooms need to become more diverse, and that includes newsroom management. Women journalists and journalists of color described feeling as though their managers, who were often white men, did not understand how vicious and traumatic online harassment could be. Ensuring that newsroom managers include those who know firsthand what navigating online harassment is like as a woman or person of color would go a long way to establishing social media policies and procedures that more proactively and thoughtfully protect the newsroom. “I think hiring diverse staff—it starts there,” said Nikki Naik. “Let’s make sure that we have full representation there.” Even some of the newsroom managers I spoke with conceded that these changes needed to be made to improve. “We as leaders have to be, A, more diverse and inclusive; B, reflect the population that we’re trying to serve and the communities we serve and our newsrooms and America more broadly; and then C, first of all, really listen,” said Sewell Chan. “If I’m 75 years old and white, and it seems like I last logged into Twitter in 2011, I’m not going to have a lot of credibility because the journalists are going to be like, ‘Chan isn’t even paying attention, and he’s not even aware. So why should I listen to anything he has to say?’”

Newsroom managers who come from more diverse backgrounds should be given opportunities to meaningfully contribute to social media policies, along with people from different areas of the organization. This is especially true for social media policies focused primarily on maintaining notions of objectivity. “[Newsroom managers] should fundamentally look at the rule and be like, ‘Are the only people who could follow all these rules white guys, especially straight, white guys?’” said Karen Ho. 

“​​Our managers who are in charge of enforcing this policy should have a conversation with the entire newsroom, with the reporters who experience that harassment daily, with reporters who are putting their words out there every day and getting all kinds of feedback,” said Renata Cló. “I do think that managers should listen to our perspective and make a policy where—one, their organizations stand by their journalists who are being attacked right now; that, two, it is very clear on what’s biased and what’s not biased; and three, that actually takes into consideration the experiences that we have every day. Because I think we can give them—our managers, who are in charge of enforcing all of that––a lot of insight of what’s going on so they can draft a more comprehensive policy for us that will not only protect the outlet’s credibility, but also will protect their journalists.”

 

Methodology

This report draws on interviews with 37 reporters, editors, publishers, freelancers, and social media/audience engagement managers from throughout the U.S. about their experiences with and thoughts about their newsroom’s social media policies. The dataset comprises current and former employees of local, national, for-profit, nonprofit, print, digital, and broadcast outlets. It also comprises mostly female journalists and journalists of color, who are more likely to encounter abuse and harassment on social media. Interviews typically lasted an hour, and took place between July and September of 2021. These interviews were conducted via Zoom, and were recorded and subsequently transcribed. This research was exempted by Arizona State University’s Institutional Review Board.

To assemble this dataset, I used a social media-driven form of snowball sampling, “a recruitment technique in which research participants are asked to assist researchers in identifying other potential subjects.” I posted a call for interviewees on Twitter, which was shared by others working within journalism. When I made contact with potential interviewees, I shared additional information about the project and sought consent to conduct interviews and to identify the potential interviewees by name and title in the final report. Because of the sensitive nature of this research, and the risk of professional consequences for those who chose to participate, interviewees were given the option to be quoted by name, be quoted anonymously, or not quoted at all. They were also invited to review quotes chosen from their interviews that were included in the first draft of the report, and to remove quotes they felt might lead to retribution from their employers or others within the news industry.

Tow Center researcher, Sara Sheridan, contributed to this report.

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Jacob L. Nelson is an assistant professor at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University. He is also the author of Imagined Audiences: How Journalists Perceive and Pursue the Public (Oxford University Press, 2021).