A resource for news innovators powered by American Press Institute
Complexity: Advanced
Article Complexity Bar Graph

Protect your staff from online abuse with a formal policy and a response plan

Here’s an idea to steal and adapt: Online abuse is one of the largest threats journalists face. For the safety and wellness of our staff at The Seattle Times, it was important to create a clear online abuse policy to report incidents and a plan to respond. We think it could help you, too.

This is a series on Better News to a) showcase innovative/experimental ideas that emerge from the Knight-Lenfest Newsroom Initiative and b) share replicable tactics that benefit the news industry as a whole. This “win” comes from Naomi Ishisaka, assistant managing editor for diversity, inclusion and staff development, and Danny Gawlowski, assistant managing editor, both at The Seattle Times, which participated in the Major Market Table Stakes program in 2017.

Question: What communities do you serve and what can you tell us about the history of your organization?

Answer: The Seattle Times is a 125-year-old independent and locally owned news media company serving the Puget Sound region. We have around 170 journalists in our newsroom. We’ve won 11 Pulitzer Prizes and a national Emmy Award. We are in our fourth and fifth generation of Blethen family stewards that own and operate our company.

Our journalists, particularly women and BIPOC journalists, are often targeted by online harassment and sometimes by more intense abuse efforts meant to intimidate and silence our reporting. According to the International Center for Journalists and UNESCO, 73% of women journalists have been targeted with online violence. A survey by a fellow for the Committee to Protect Journalists found 90% of women and gender non-conforming people said online harassment was the biggest threat they faced. 

Newsrooms need to be prepared to respond to these threats and to support journalists who are enduring ongoing harassment. 

Q: What problem were you trying to solve, and why was solving the problem strategically important for your organization?

A: After we witnessed instances of online abuse targeted at women of color on our staff and experienced a sophisticated hacking attempt on our main Slack account, we knew we needed to provide better online security training for our newsroom. 

These attacks were not terribly malicious or dangerous, but they were enough to, frankly, creep us out. We realized we needed to be better prepared before anyone on our team experienced abuse more threatening. In addition, we knew from our staff that mental health was a major concern and know that online abuse contributes to poor mental health.

Several of our staffers – Corinne Chin, Erika Schultz, Asia Fields and Paige Cornwell – had attended International Women’s Media Foundation’s sessions on Hostile Environment and First Aid Training. They helped connect us with digital security trainers Ela Stapley and Harlo Holmes.

We thought we needed something pretty straightforward from Ela and Harlo: a virtual training session for our staff. They helped us understand that we needed quite a bit more.

Before we could train our staff, the Seattle Times newsroom and HR leadership had a lot of work to do in planning how we would respond to an online threat against our staff. We had responded well to threats in the past, but we had not clearly established roles and responsibilities. 

Perhaps worse, we had failed to be transparent with our staff about how we would respond to a threat, leaving some to feel they were alone — which could add to their stress. This failure to plan and communicate was leading to additional fear and making the threat of online abuse more intense. 

We needed to do better.

Q: How is this approach related to Table Stakes (e.g. one of the 7 Table Stakes and/or an outgrowth of the Knight-Lenfest initiative, etc.)?

A:  While this effort wasn’t a direct outgrowth of our Table Stakes work, Table Stakes No. 1 and No. 3 point out the need to “Serve targeted audiences with targeted content” and to “Produce and publish continuously to meet audience needs.” However, online harassment and abuse is a focused effort meant to disrupt our publishing and intimidate our staff. In order to serve our communities, we need to protect and support our journalists so they can publish continuously without facing these threats alone.

Q: How did you go about solving the problem?

A: Ela from the International Women’s Media Foundation did a fantastic job of guiding us through what we would need to do: to craft a clear policy that included assigning responsibilities during an attack and to set up a reporting site that journalists could use to collect screenshots and document other evidence of abuse.

This prompted many productive conversations between our newsroom and HR leaders. We have always worked really well together in a crisis, but this was an opportunity to solidify a clear plan during a time of calm. We now have a document that we can refer to during a crisis, which will allow us to respond faster and better support staff. Our plan details the roles that we will take so that the targeted journalist can focus on their own safety.

We also created a drop folder where staff can document evidence of abuse. This is helping us monitor repeat offenders and keep this evidence together in one space. Establishing this reporting site means that it’s one less thing we’ll need to improvise. During an attack, the last thing a staffer should be doing is searching through their email and social media feeds, while communicating to HR and law enforcement. This is another step intended to help the targeted journalist to spend more time focused on protecting themselves. 

This process took a lot longer than we expected. But it resulted in a consensus on both a policy and a reporting site. Once this was complete, we moved forward with the planned digital security training for our newsroom. We rolled out the policy, reporting site and training resources at the same time.

Q: What worked?

A: In October, we held a training led by Harlo Holmes of the Freedom of the Press Foundation and Viktorya Vilk of PEN America

About half of our newsroom attended, including many of the journalists most at risk for online abuse as well as their managers. Harlo and Viktorya were able to offer practical digital security advice, and we were also able to give specific instructions on how to report abuse and how our newsroom would respond.

The policy lays out that, in the event of a specific online attack, the impacted journalist will notify their editor, who will contact newsroom leadership. Newsrooms leadership will coordinate with our HR department, who will contact law enforcement, if necessary. Newsroom leadership will work with digital and marketing staff to coordinate a social media response, if needed. This could include assisting with the impacted journalist’s personal accounts. The division of work is designed to do everything we can to allow the impacted journalist to focus on their own safety and well-being.

The feedback from staff was very positive. We know we cannot prevent every type of online abuse. But having this plan and structure was a relief to several staffers who now know what our newsroom will do to help support them.

Q: What didn’t work?

A: We still don’t know what we don’t know. With experience and continued research, we’ll learn more about different kinds of online attacks and how best to deal with them. Our approach will continue to improve and adapt as we work towards providing even better protection for staff — particularly women and BIPOC staff. But we’re much more prepared than we were just six months ago.

Q: What happened that you didn’t expect?

A: We did not fully understand how much time this would take. There is no one simple policy that can be created to tackle online abuse. In reality, it involves many policies, including reporting mechanisms, social media best practice for staff, documents that build awareness about what online abuse is and who is affected by it, among others. 

These policies also require collaboration from more than one department in the news organization, such as HR, IT, as well as editorial. Each newsroom is different and so it is important to design policies that fit with the culture of the media organization. This meant that we simply couldn’t copy a policy from another media outlet. We used the guidance of the IWMF to help build out our own policies, using case studies of abuse faced by our staff. This involved several months of research and collaboration, something we weren’t really expecting.

We also didn’t fully expect how necessary this would be. We could not have trained our staff on digital security without first understanding how they should report instances and how leadership would respond. The work was a surprise, but it was necessary.

Q: What would you do differently now? What did you learn?

A: We went into this thinking that there was an existing digital security policy from another newsroom that we could adapt and make work for us. While there are helpful resources for newsrooms, including resources from the International Press Institute, PEN America and the Online Violence Response Hub, there are no easy one-size fits all templates that are publicly available. Online abuse is a relatively new threat and newsrooms are behind in having good policies to protect staff. It was a big learning curve for us.

Q: What advice would you give to others who try to do this?

A: Build on this work! Please take the policy we wrote and adapt it to your needs. We would have benefited from seeing an existing policy. We did the work to build it mostly from scratch. There’s no need for you to do the same. 

As with everything, the people who are closest to the problem have the best solutions. Ask your staff for their feedback on your policy and response strategy and then share the best practices you learn. 

Be prepared to revisit and revise your policy and response plan to adapt to ever-changing platforms, threats and technologies. Train managers to understand how online abuse affects their staff and how they can best support.

You still need to do the work of building consensus and a plan within your own leadership team and communicate the policy to your staff. We hope this policy creates a framework to get started and get to that conversation faster. 

Q: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

A: Take the threat of online abuse seriously and get moving on a response plan now. 

As journalists, we tend to be deadline-driven and maybe a bit too reactive. Don’t wait until you’re in the middle of a serious threat to improvise a plan. Recognize that the threat is out there and take time now to build a plan. 

Make sure women and journalists of color are adding their voices and guidance to any plan you devise. Ask them what support they need and what they are experiencing. Building a policy is an important step in protecting your teams from efforts to intimidate and silence journalists.