There are a number of compelling reasons why news organizations should pursue criminal or civil legal action in response to online abuse. Pursuing legal action sends the message that existing laws against threats and harassment that apply in the analogue world apply in the digital world as well and helps to deter future aggressors. In many cases, unless aggressors are confronted with legal consequences for their actions, they will repeat them. The professional and personal effects of abuse on journalists may be so severe as to justify legal damages.
However, the decision to pursue legal action on behalf of a journalist needs to be made carefully, taking into account a number of factors. In addition to the assessment of a legal team or legal advisor, the news organization should decide in coordination with the targeted journalist, the responsible editor, the head of audience of social media editor and the online safety expert whether or not to file a legal case. In no circumstance should a news organization pursue a legal claim over the wishes of the targeted journalist.
The decision should take into account the following considerations:
• Whether the post contains illegal content according to your jurisdiction.
• The likelihood that bringing a case will deter future online aggressors in general.
• The likelihood that bringing a case will deter the actions of the specific aggressor in this case.
• The possibility that, given the particular context, pursuing legal action will spotlight the particular journalist and amplify and encourage further attacks
• Whether legal action could unwittingly reinforce stories that online aggressors may already be selling about “powerful” media organizations attacking the “little guy”, and thereby potentially further additional harassment.
• Whether the attack appears to have been perpetrated by an individual acting alone or on behalf of a state actor. In the latter case, legal action against an individual acting on behalf of a state may be counterproductive and fuel the type of “stories” referenced above.
• The potential impact on the journalist affected: Will a legal case bring satisfaction to the affected journalist, or will it cause further emotional harm?
• Whether prosecutors have also taken up a criminal case, in which case it may be easier to support that effort.