Journalists and Online Harassment

What is online harassment? How prevalent is it? How can journalists effectively respond?

Online harassment typically refers to any unwanted verbal or nonverbal behavior that occurs online (Al-Khateeb, Epiphaniou, Alhaboby, Barnes, & Short, 2017; Ford, 2013; Wick et al., 2017) which:

  1. Violates the dignity of a person;
  2. Creates a hostile, degrading or offensive environment.

Yet this general definition is insufficient. Experts disagree on the following criteria:

  1. If the perpetrator’s motives matter (Al-Khateeb et al., 2017; Ford, 2013);  
  2. If a single incident can be considered online harassment, or if only repeat incidents should be classified as such (Al-Khateeb et al., 2017; Khunbchandani & Price, 2015);
  3. If the event must cause the victim distress (Al-Khateeb et al., 2017; Hamby et al., 2018).

Online harassment can take many forms:

  • Impersonation: Occurs when a perpetrator impersonates someone (Beran & Li, 2008).
  • Doxing: Occurs when one’s personal information –such as an address or phone number – is posted online  (Gibb & Devereux, 2016).
  • Exclusion: Occurs when a perpetrator purposefully excludes one from an online group, like a private forum (Beran & Li, 2008).
  • Threat: Occurs when a perpetrator explicitly or implicitly threatens someone (Duggan, 2017).
  • Technical attack: Occurs when a perpetrator interrupts one’s ability to access or manage their online presence, like hacking an email account or preventing a website from being accessed (Gibb & Devereux, 2016).
  • Trolling: Occurs when a perpetrator seeks to elicit anger, annoyance or other negative emotions, often by posting inflammatory messages (Phillips, 2016).  Trolling may include but is not limited to: (Manitlla, 2015)
    • Concern trolling: Occurs when a troll pretends to share the opinions and ideas of others in order to increase conflict.
    • Flaming: Occurs when a person verbally attacks someone.
    • Raiding: Occurs when multiple perpetrators coordinate attacks on an individual.
    • In person trolling: Occurs when harassment also takes place offline, and may include calling someone’s phone or sending a SWAT team to their house.
    • Gendertrolling: Occurs when a troll intends to silence a woman or women through the use of gendered and sexualized language and threats (Mantilla, 2015).

Online Harassment of Journalists

Rates of online harassment of journalists vary considerably depending on the type of online harassment examined, the time period specified, and the sample studied (See Table 1). Many published studies on online harassment use convenience samples rather than representative samples. Convenience samples use journalist that are easy to reach rather than journalists selected to match the characteristics of the larger population or a group of journalists.


Table 1

Prevalence of Online Harassment against Journalists



Time period

Type of Online Harassment

Representative? (Y/N)

% Experienced

Löfgren Nilsson & Örnebring, (2016)

1471 Swedish journalists

12 months

Abusive comments via an article



Abusive comments via social media



Abusive comments via another online forum



Threats via comments on an article



Threats via social media



Threats via another online forum



Barton & Storm (2016)

977 women journalists


“verbal, written and/or physical intimidation (including threats)” online




Demos (2014)

Tweets to widely followed female journalists

2 weeks

Contained one or more of the words contained in Google’s search language filter*




Tweets to widely followed male journalists

2 weeks

Contained one or more of the words contained in Google’s search language filter*




North (2016)

577 Australian, women journalists

5 years

Sexual harassment from colleagues in the form of “inappropriate use of technology to transmit objectionable content”



* Google compiles a list of words considered cursing; swearing; bad, strong, or foul language for use with their search engine


Additional studies of online harassment against journalists have examined:

  • Threats: The International Press Institute ([IPI], 2017) collected 1,065 examples of online harassment perpetrated against Austrian and Turkish journalists, 17% of which included threats of violence.
  • Abusive comments: Of the 1,065 online harassment examples collected by the IPI (2017), 82% included some form of abusive behavior.
  • Technical interference:  One percent of online harassment examples collected by the IPI (2017) were forms of technical interference, including:
    • Denial of service attacks, which occur when a perpetrator seeks to make an online service unavailable by overwhelming it with internet traffic.
    • Hacking of social media accounts
  • Anti-Semitism: A study focusing on anti-semitic tweets found that 800 reporters received 19,000 such tweets between August 2015 and July 2016 (Anti-Defamation League, 2016).  
  • Online harassment against women: Women may be particularly vulnerable to online harassment. In a study of Twitter accounts, female television journalists were three times more likely to receive harassing tweets than their male counterparts (See Table 1; Demos, 2014).

Responses to Online Harassment

Online harassment by its nature is upsetting. Thus far, researchers have examined the following types of emotional and behavioral responses:

General Population Responses
  • Distress: A large study of 4,165 American internet users found that 25% of online harassment victims found the online harassment experience “extremely upsetting.”
  • Anxiety and Depression: In a study of 342 American undergraduate students due to online harassment, 34% reported feeling anxious and 37% reported feeling depressed.
Journalist Responses
  • Physical symptoms: Female journalists have reported responses to online harassment ranging from tension headaches and feeling ill, to insomnia and panic attacks (Adams, 2017; Jane, 2018; West, 2017).
  • Emotional symptoms: Female journalists have reported reactions to online harassment that include “bursting into tears” and being afraid to leave their homes (Jane, 2018).
  • Cognitive and behavioral responses, as per a study examining the online harassment of Swedish journalists (Löfgren Nilsson & Örnebring, 2016):
    • Of the 424 journalists who experienced abusive comments that were non-threatening:
      • 44% disabled or otherwise restricted comments.
      • 13% restricted their behavior on social media.
      • 6% hid or erased personal data.
    • Of the 1,030 journalists who experienced threats:
      •  38% hid or erased personal data.
      • 13% restricted behavior on social media.
      • None disabled or otherwise restricted comments.

Journalists also report coping with online harassment by:

  • Turning off Twitter notifications (Gazeta et al., 2018).
  • Deleting unread messages of known harassers (Tofalvy, 2017).
  • Disguising their identity when publishing (Adams, 2018).
  • Reducing the amount of media content they create (Ferrier, 2017).
  • Leaving journalism (Adams, 2018).

When journalists engage in behaviors that reduce audience engagement, remove content from media websites, or abandon certain lines of investigation, online harassment becomes a press freedom issue.

Effectively Responding to Online Harassment

There are no studies confirming the most effective strategies for managing online harassment, but expert advice exists. For example, Troll-Busters, an organization created for women journalists to reduce harm caused by online harassment, has created an infographic designed to help journalists make decisions on how to respond. Troll-Busters recommends journalists document all online harassment (Ferrier, 2017).

  • In cases of threats, the organization recommends documenting (Ferrier, 2017):
    • The number of threats received.
    • The details of the threats (e.g. place, time, screenshots).
    • The number of people involved.
    • If a threat is implicit or explicit.
  • In cases of implied threats, the organization recommends (Ferrier, 2017):
    • Blocking or muting the account.
    • Reporting the incident.
  • In cases of doxing, the organization recommends (Ferrier, 2017):
    • Reporting the incident to the police.
    • Discussing the online harassment with an employer.
  • In cases of insults, the organization recommends (Ferrier, 2017):
    • Ignoring the perpetrator.
    • Muting the perpetrator.
    • Blocking the perpetrator.

Journalisti Magazine, a Finnish publication, provides similar advice for journalists who are the targets of online harassment. They recommend journalists: (Vehkoo, 2019)

  • Save copies of all harassment.
  • Block anyone who sends online harassment through private messaging channels.
  • Tell their employers they are the targets of online harassment.
  • Use strong passwords and use different passwords for each online account.
  • When messages become distressing, ask a colleague to check the social media accounts and/or clean out the emails.

Ignoring Online Harassment

Ignoring online harassment may be an effective way of coping  online harassment when:

  • The online harassment includes rude critiques and remarks rather than threats (Ferrier, 2017).
  • When online harassment is perpetrated by individuals who are attempting to provoke an angry or paranoid response (Ferrier, 2017; Mantilla, 2015; Phillips, 2016).
    • In these instances, responding to the online harassment with obvious fear and distress may encourage more harassment (Phillips, 2016).

Ignoring may be ineffective when harassers are attempting to silence their victims (Mantilla, 2015).  This type of online harassment often:

  • Occurs for long periods of time, spanning months or even years.
  • Includes other types of harassment in real life.
  • Occurs often, across online platforms.
  • Involves multiple, coordinated perpetrators.

Instead of simply ignoring this, journalists may benefit by seeking general social support (Mantilla, 2015).

Providing Support

Vehkoo (2019) provides the following advice for journalists who want to support their colleagues experiencing online harassment:

  • Ask if they need help.
  • Save any potentially illegal messages and discuss whether they should be reported.
    • If your colleague decides to report the harassment, help them do so.
  • Be available to listen to your colleagues’ concerns.
  • Support your colleagues publically by writing encouraging and kind comments on their social media pages.

Legal Protection

Legal remedies are in development across the world. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) recommends that countries consider the following legal approaches to protect journalists from online harassment: (McCully, 2019)

  • Apply current harassment laws to online contexts. When possible, rewrite these laws so they:
    • Explicitly apply to online harassment.
    • Include indirect communication, such as the creation of fake social media accounts or photoshopped images of victims shared with third parties.
  • Target online harassment that is sexual and/or sexist.
  • Include language that makes harassment campaigns perpetrated by multiple individuals illegal.
  • Adopt tiered responses to punish online harassment of varying levels.

Further Directions

Online harassment is a relatively new phenomenon, and research on this topic is still emerging. Further exploration of online harassment may consider factors that predict the distress caused by online harassment.  Researchers also hope to predict when threats of violence are likely to escalate to real-world violence and to equip journalists with the tools necessary to combat this developing threat.


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Al-Khateeb, H. M., Epiphaniou, G., Alhaboby, Z. A., Barnes, J., & Short, E. (2017). Cyberstalking: Investigating formal intervention and the role of Corporate Social Responsibility. Telematics and Informatics, 34, 339–349.

Anti-Defamation League (2016). ADL task force issues report detailing widespread anti-Semitic harassment of journalists on Twitter during 2016 campaign: Some 800 reporters targeted; 1,600 accounts responsible for two-thirds of hateful tweets.

Barton, A. & Storm, H. (2016). Violence and harassment against women in the news media: A global picture, International News Safety Institute.

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Ford., D. P. (2013). Virtual harassment: media characteristics’ role in psychological health. Journal of Managerial Psychology, 28, 408-428. 

Demos. (2014). Male celebrities receive more abuse on Twitter than women.

Gibb, Z. G., & Devereux, P. G. (2016). Missing link: Exploring repetition and intentionality of distress in cyberbullying behaviors within a college population. Translational Issues in Psychological Science, 2, 313-322.

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