• Maryn McKenna, author, professor and senior writer with WIRED 
  • Jeje Mohamed, senior manager, digital safety and free expression, PEN America 

By Tracey Drury

Journalists are increasingly exposed to online abuse, often made worse by topics they write about as well as their sexual identity, gender or inclusion in a minoritized population. 

Writers and editors attending an Association for Health Care Journalists conference learned how to prepare for and prevent abuse, how best to respond when attacks happen and how to support others.

Avoiding engagement with the online world is unavoidable, serving as the setting where journalists form relationships, do their research and publicize their work, said Maryn McKenna, a senior writer with WIRED. Still, it’s been getting increasingly risky, she said, pointing to studies as recent as 2021 by the International Center for Journalists and UNESCO that found nearly three out of four women journalists in an international survey had suffered online abuse.

As all those surveys found, that online harassment and abuse is not merely a matter of an outraged reader or viewer calling you names,” she said. “Increasingly, harassment and abuse are increasingly weaponized by political or nationalist actors and facilitated by bot deployment.”

Jeje Mohamed, senior manager for digital safety and free expression at PEN America said preparation is key to help mitigate online abuse. That starts with separating one’s personal and professional lives online with separate social media accounts and limiting public posts that share information about family members and where a journalist lives and works.

“You can practice your freedom of expression for everyone you know in a way that is safe,” she said.

When it does happen, consider if/how to respond, Mohamed said.

“Do a threat assessment on the potential for violence and if you’ll be targeted by a mob or a potential bot army. You can’t win against robots,” she said. 

  • Prevention: Identify and protect sensitive accounts with 16-digit passwords and two-factor authentication (2fa) programs; use password managers or vault apps; consider alternative non-truthful responses to security questions; delete online references.
  • Respond appropriately: Assess threat potential of abusers to determine if/when to get law enforcement involved; document abuse and create a paper trail; consider blocking, muting, restricting or reporting abuser to online platforms.
  • Support and allyship: Be there for others and establish a supportive cyber community of your own to provide rapid response and help monitor your content; leverage influence, privilege or power to denounce hate or fact-check false claims.

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