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‘Journalists have always been harassed’: How JSafe can help fight back

As journalist and educator Kat Duncan spoke with other female journalists about resources for reporting online harassment, she saw a critical need.

“I wanted to create something that could help journalists document and deal with these incidents,” she said. 

The idea led Duncan — the interim director of innovation for the Innovation & Futures Lab at the Reynolds Journalism Institute at the Missouri School of Journalism — to team up with engineering students and the Coalition for Women in Journalism and develop an app. JSafe is now available for free to help female and other marginalized journalists fight against harassment, bullying and assault.

We reached out to Duncan and Viktorya Vilk, director of digital safety and free expression programs at PEN America, to learn why this tool is so important today.

Can you briefly describe how the harassment of journalists — particularly female journalists — has changed in the past few years?

Viktorya Vilk is director of digital safety and free expression programs at PEN America

Vilk: Journalists have always been harassed and threatened by people who wish to discredit, intimidate, and censor them, but the advent of social media, with its emphasis on virality and anonymity, has amplified the problem. Women and nonbinary journalists, in particular, are disproportionately targeted by more egregious — and gendered — online abuse, which I have seen firsthand in my work with reporters and which has also been studied by press freedom organizations. CPJ’s 2019 study found that 90% of American and Canadian journalists who identify as female or nonbinary regarded online harassment as the biggest threat they face. According to the IWMF’s 2018 survey of women journalists around the world, 90% of respondents indicated that online threats increased over the past five years. PEN America’s own 2017 study of US writers and journalists facing online abuse found that 64% of respondents took a break from social media [due to online harassment], while 16% permanently deleted accounts, and 37% reported avoiding certain topics in their writing, while 14.5% stopped publishing their writing altogether. 

In other words, we know that online abuse suppresses speech and disproportionately silences the voices of those already marginalized in other ways for their gender, race, sexuality, religion, etc. In the media industry, the prevalence of online abuse seriously undermines any efforts to create more diverse, inclusive, and equitable work environments and needs to be acknowledged and addressed head on. 

What inspired you to create JSafe?

Kat Duncan is the the interim director of innovation for the Innovation & Futures Lab at the Reynolds Journalism Institute at the Missouri School of Journalism

Duncan: I came up with the idea after a conversation with a group of female journalists. We were talking about the resources available to us when harassed online. I wanted to create something that could help journalists document and deal with these incidents. I feel very lucky to work for the Reynolds Journalism Institute, we get to focus on building solutions for our industry and helping journalists. I am so glad they supported this project!

Why is a tool like JSafe so important right now?

Duncan: I feel the tool is important because it can help journalists document harassment in a secure space outside of their work email or social media accounts. It gives them a place to store information about incidents, upload photo/video documentation and ask for help if needed. I hope it will provide a lot of journalists with the ability to document the incidents they experience in an organized and safe manner, but also provide them with additional resources when needed.

Vilk: One of the most important things a journalist — or anyone — targeted by online abuse can do is to document the abuse they’re experiencing. By documentation, I mean saving emails and voicemails, taking screenshots of abusive content on social media and, ideally, capturing key metadata, including hyperlink, platform, date, time, etc. Documentation is critical not only for seeing patterns in abuse, but for facilitating conversations with managers and employers, engaging with law enforcement, and pursuing legal action.

It’s important to keep in mind that if you report online abuse that violates a platform’s terms of service and succeed in getting it taken down, you could lose valuable evidence — that’s part of why documentation is necessary. Unfortunately, none of the major social media platforms have built-in or automated documentation tools, so reporters have no choice but to document by hand. Tools like J-Safe help journalists manually document and track the abuse they’re experiencing in one place. Because documenting abuse can be exhausting and traumatizing for the target, we recommend asking a trusted friend or colleague to help monitor, report, and document abuse.

What are your top tips for journalists dealing with threats to their safety?

Vilk: If we’re talking about how to deal with online abuse in general, I recommend: identifying what kinds of tactics you’re being subjected to, documenting the abuse, reporting abuse to the platforms, deciding whether blocking or muting might help, tightening cybersecurity, enlisting allies to help, and letting at least a few people know what’s happening. Self-care is also vital as online abuse can take a serious toll on mental and physical health. We map out detailed guidance in this article for Slate and in PEN America’s Online Harassment Field Manual. If a journalist is trying to figure out if the abuse they’ve been subjected to has made them feel physically unsafe, it may help to take a look at the Online Harassment Field Manual’s threat assessment section and OnlineSoS’s threat modeling action plan. If a journalist does feel physically unsafe, it’s very important that they secure their physical safety as much as possible, inform editors and managers of the threat, and consider reporting to law enforcement. If a journalist is not comfortable engaging with law enforcement alone, they could consider bringing a trusted friend or ally or going through an employer. Creating an official record of pervasive or severe online abuse can be instrumental, later down the line, in pursuing legal protection or other forms of legal remedy.

Can you share a bit about your process for developing the app?

Duncan: First I reached out to Dr. Fang Wang, she got together a group of students to help build the app. Then I did a call out looking for partners who would be interested in managing & running the app once built. Kiran Nazish [founding director of the Coalition For Women In Journalism] saw my post and reached out saying they’d be interested! Since their Coalition already did wonderful work supporting female journalists in need, it seemed like the perfect fit.

Image courtesy of JSafe.

What happens after a journalist reports an incident of harassment?

Duncan: If they ask for a follow up, the Coalition will reach out to them to see what they need. If they do not ask for follow up, their submission will simply be stored in their profile in case they need to access that info later.

What are some other resources journalists can use when being harassed, bullied or attacked?

Vilk: In recent years, nonprofits have really ramped up their work to counter online abuse. We hope journalists will take a look at PEN America’s trainings and workshops on defending against online abuse, as well as our Online Harassment Field Manual, a comprehensive guide on how to prepare for and respond to online abuse for journalists, their allies and their employers. We’ve also written several articles that journalists and newsrooms may find helpful, on What to Do When Your Employee Is Harassed Online and Why You Should Dox Yourself. The IWMF has a great free course (available in several languages), Knowing Your Trolls, which will teach you how to recognize different types of online abusers, understand the tactics that they use, and learn strategies to mitigate abuse. OnlineSoS offers excellent action plans based on the type of harassment you’re experiencing and on what you want to protect. Hollaback! has a wonderful platform called Heartmob that introduces you to a supportive community that can have your back in the face of abuse. And Trollbusters provides coaching, courses, and all kinds of excellent resources.   

How has the response to JSafe been so far? 

Duncan: I think it has been very positive, we did a beta run with 70+ users and there was very little negative feedback. I hope it helps a lot of journalists now that it is officially out and ready to be used!

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