Shifting the Culture: How the CAOV Took Action in 2021

By Journalist Karen Coates

Journalism needs a culture shift. Today’s everything-online-all-the-time environment of news and social media has cultivated a climate rife with harassment and vitriol, little oversight, and few rules. Reporters are prime targets for abuse—women journalists especially so. In response, organizations around the world are coordinating efforts to end digital attacks against journalists.

“Online hate campaigns are designed to make women feel alone and scare them away from doing their work,” says Elisa Lees Muñoz, executive director of the International Women’s Media Foundation. “When we join together to show trolls, governments, or media figures that these women have a legion of supporters behind them, we show that we’re watching, we care, and that women journalists’ voices will not be silenced.”

In 2020, the IWMF founded the Coalition Against Online Violence, a global consortium of 50 news outlets, women’s media associations, press freedom groups, and other rights organizations. “Providing public support for women journalists enduring online violence is one of the Coalition Against Online Violence’s top priorities,” Muñoz says.

In a 2019 survey of female and gender-nonconforming journalists, 90 percent of respondents in the US cited online violence as their biggest threat to safety. While men also face online abuse, “the sinister, gender-based threats of sexual assault and death do seem reserved for women journalists and journalists of color in particular,” says Lucy Westcott, emergencies director for the Committee to Protect Journalists (a Coalition partner), who issued the survey.

Online abuse happens everywhere. In a 2020 global survey of more than 700 women journalists across 113 countries, 73 percent said they had experienced online violence, from digital security attacks to harassing messages and threats of assault and other violence. Twenty percent said the abuse migrated offline. “That, to me, was an enormously alarming statistic,” says Viktorya Vilk, digital safety and free expression program director for PEN America, a Coalition member. As a result, many of the respondents said they self-censor. “It’s actually directly impacting their ability to make a living and to do their work,” Vilk says.

The abuse can emerge from multiple corners of society, from government authorities to social media trolls. The Coalition stands behind journalists and condemns such attacks, no matter the source. Examples include Indian journalist Rana Ayyub (who received intimidating threats in response to her coverage of farmers’ protests against the government), KPIX 5 reporter Betty Yu (whose appearance was the target of racist ridicule by conservative YouTube host Steven Crowder), and New York Times technology and internet culture reporter Taylor Lorenz (whose tweets about an online smear campaign against her elicited further venom from Fox News host Tucker Carlson and others).

The Coalition’s focal point is a resource center called the Online Violence Response Hub. “The goal is to give women journalists all the tools they need to stay safe online and, in the event of online harassment, make sure they’re in the best possible position to deal with it,” Westcott says.

In November, the Hub launched a “Know Your Rights” guide offering legal tools to help reporters and media managers respond to online attacks, some of which constitute crimes. The guide includes a handy graphic examining different types of behavior—cyberstalking, doxxing, trolling, and more—and where they fall under the law in 11 countries.

The Coalition also aims to change workplace culture. “There’s a big role to be played by employers,” Vilk says, “to make sure that people working for you are made to feel safe.” IWMF recently partnered with the Thomson Reuters Foundation and UNESCO to publish a checklist and guidelines for gender-sensitive safety policies in the newsroom.

Another aim of the Coalition is “pressuring social media platforms to spend the time and the money to prioritize online abuse,” Vilk says. That can be a daunting task, given the size and power of companies like Facebook. It’s another reason a coalition is so important, she says. “If we don’t band together, both domestically and internationally, it’s very, very difficult to make enough noise for anyone to even hear you.”