Online harassment tends to target journalists in very personal ways, and journalists’ own individual strategies to deal with it differ. Therefore, a thorough assessment of the psychological impact of online attacks on the targeted journalists is important in order to prevent and counter any consequences resulting from attacks.

Most journalists with whom IPI has spoken have noted that the existence of an open and understanding attitude towards the psychological consequences of online attacks is key in minimizing the impact of the online attacks.

In assessing the risk of emotional impact, both external elements (the characteristics of the attack itself and the available support structures) and internal elements (the individual reaction to the attack) need to be assessed.

External elements:

Discriminatory content: IPI research has shown that online attacks targeting male journalists who belong to a majority group and attacks targeting women or members of minority are fundamentally different not only in numbers but also in content. Women journalists and members of minority groups are more likely to receive online comments targeting them to their particular identify. Attacks seldom criticize their professional output as such but instead insult their physical appearance or perceived belonging to a particular gender or ethnic group. This type of content tends to harm the targeted individual more than even the harshest professional criticism.

Traumatic images: These types of attacks are usually very harmful for the journalists for various factors. First, the fact that the journalists are repeatedly exposed to violent gruesome images threatening images, especially in the case of women journalists who are often targeted with vivid imagery of rape threats or threat of physical harm, might derived into symptoms of trauma. As the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma highlights in the feature Working with Traumatic Imagery,  “[…] The dangers of what psychologists call secondary or vicarious traumatisation become significant in situations where the exposure is repeated”.

A second important factor, linked to the latter, is that images are more likely to be reposted and shared multiple times by users, therefore, the potential exposition of the journalist to traumatic imagery increases.

Stalking: Comments that are personal or creepy, in particular those targeting women journalists and that appear to come from a cyberstalker, generate fear and a sense of insecurity for the targeted journalist.

Support network: Journalists told IPI that while professional psychological help is necessary in some cases, the ability to talk with trusted people about the attacks can serve as a source of relief and strength. The degree of access to any type of support network – including family, friends and colleagues – can influence the level of emotional burden caused by online harassment.

Internal elements:

In certain cases, targeted journalists exhibit behaviour derived from emotional distress that might affect their performance at work. These usually include changes in eating or sleeping habits, or excessive alcohol or drug consumption, among others. The following symptoms are among the most common indicators to be considered in order to assess whether online violence is taking a toll on journalists:

Depression symptoms include:

  • Extremely self-critical behaviour
  • Expression of hopelessness
  • General apathy
  • Low level of performance at work

In extreme cases, targeted journalists might show symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, including:

  • Hyperactivity
  • Inability to switch off
  • Hypervigilance
  • Nightmares
  • Sleep deprivation
  • Intrusive recollections: Intrusion of the traumatic experience, e.g., unwanted recalling of bad memories, feeling of fear and intimidation.

In order to recognize and address these symptoms, it is important that newsroom staff be trained on mental coping mechanisms [see section Training>Mental Health] and on the characteristics of online harassment [see section Training>Awareness of the Phenomenon]

Some elements may be considered in trying to assess the likelihood that online attacks will result in emotional distress:

Have in mind each individual’s tolerance to online abuse

Sarah Ward-Lilley, Managing Editor, BBC News, UK