Raising Awareness of Online Violence in Newsrooms: A Q&A with Radio Free Europe’s Patrick Boehler
The first of many actions a newspaper should take to counter online abuse is ideally raising awareness. Online attacks often go unreported, with victims left feeling unable to share their experiences because they fear abuse from the powerful people that harass them. Increasing awareness of what abuse looks like and how it impacts individuals will help victims see their harassment as something serious rather than a “troll attack,” which trivializes the harm it causes.
Patrick Boehler, leader of the digital strategy at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, shared with the IWMF insights on facilitating a round-table discussion with management as a way to raise awareness about the seriousness of online abuse.
“Online violence leads to real-life harm. It has a crippling effect on mental health: it impacts one’s ability to report, discuss findings with the public, or gather feedback. That’s why RFE/RL is taking steps to reduce exposure to online violence and provide support to mitigate the impact.”
-Patrick Boehler, Digital Strategy Lead, RFE/RL
IWMF: What are the most difficult obstacles your newsroom encounters when dealing with Online violence?
Boehler: Reporters often put their heart and soul into their reporting, doing their best to get the story right, but often find themselves inundated with vitriolic comments on social media. Individual journalists and news organizations receive limited support on individual cases from social media and messaging platforms. I wish platforms created greater structural incentives for responsible reporting and constructive debate.
Why is it important for newsrooms to have guidelines to deal with online violence?
Boehler: Guidelines normalize the conversation about online violence and communicate to the journalists that management cares about their safety and well-being. Clear guidelines also articulate what support can be provided.
Unfortunately, there are situations in which neither the newsroom nor the platforms can help. Newsroom guidelines provide clarity in these instances for all involved, particularly instances that may require a change of behavior by the journalist.
“Push back on online violence by changing workflows.”
What are the biggest lessons your newsroom learned by facilitating a discussion to raise awareness of online abuse?
Boehler: Listen, always. Online violence is very painful and very personal.
Platforms’ reporting systems are complex, and the criteria for action is not universally understood.
It may take time to determine what truly has occurred: Is it a case of targeted harassment; is it a case of impersonation; or, is it coordinated trolling? That in turn makes it hard to decide on the right course of action.
Push back on online violence by changing workflows. There are often alternative ways to communicate with audiences that don’t expose individuals to online abuse. Newsrooms can structure conversations with the public differently to make them more constructive.
Why should newsrooms collaborate with IWMF and take advantage of the services that it offers?
Boehler: RFE/RL saw three benefits from collaborating with IWMF:
- Experience: The IWMF team brought a wealth of knowledge and experience from their previous work with newsrooms experiencing online abuse. They were able to explain to us at RFE/RL how similar cases were addressed.
- Templates: The IWMF team has created great policy templates that are ready to be put to use so newsrooms don’t have to reinvent the wheel. RFE/RL adapted these templates to enact processes that are predictable and manageable for everyone.
- Advice: It’s always great to have someone to turn to for advice about how to handle prickly situations. The IWMF team has also been generous in facilitating introductions with likeminded news organizations facing similar challenges.
*The IWMF is dedicated to promoting a culture of change in newsrooms when it comes to tackling online violence. The use of the IWMF’s Guide to Protecting Newsrooms and Journalists Against Online Violence in conjunction with ‘A Mental Health Guide for Journalists Facing Online Violence’ contributes to the increasingly important conversation around online violence and its impact on journalists.
For more information visit www.iwmf.org/programs/online-harassment