Wednesday, October 13, 2021
The press is under a growing and dangerous form of attack through identity-based online harassment of journalists. Armies of online abusers are strategically targeting non-white and non-male journalists to intimidate and silence their voices using a variety of rhetorical tools (including references to lynching, the Holocaust, rape and dismemberment). Such expressive violence is matched by the mounting physical dangers faced by reporters, both in the United States, as evidenced during Black Lives Matter protests in summer 2020, and around the world. Unsurprisingly, identity-based online harassment of reporters has increased at the very moment that news organizations attempt to enhance the diversity of the professional press.
The ‘double whammy’ of online harassment and physical danger goes far beyond harming individual journalists, although those damages ought not be understated. The scale and intensity of these online identity-based attacks collectively undermine all journalists and the press as a whole. While prior accounts, especially by media studies scholars, have recognized the threat to the press writ large, this Article is the first to identify these attacks as one of three reinforcing tactics designed to hobble journalism at critical inflection points in its lifecycle. The refrain of ‘fake news’ is designed to undermine public faith in press output, critiques of libel law seek to roll back press-protective judicial outcomes, and identity-based verbal violence works to undercut and paralyze the journalistic process. Thus, racial and misogynistic vitriol, while generated ‘bottom up’ by members of the audience, is also an element of elite press-delegitimating strategies that presidential change has not derailed.
The Article analyzes the factors that most contribute to growing peril for our democracy, including the professional self-monitoring and self-censorship inevitable in conditions of harassment; the likely effects of reporter intimidation on news organization diversity; and the particularly ‘sticky’ character of identity-based vitriol for the audiences exposed to it.
Finding realistic ways to stem and counteract online identity-based abuse is an imperative next step if the press is to perform its constitutionally-recognized role under current conditions of existential threat. Traditional legal responses are insufficient for such non-traditional devices. The Article develops and advocates a variety of ameliorative moves directed to a spectrum of actors: news organizations, journalism schools, press-protective organizations, social media platforms, and social science researchers. Collective, rather than individual, solutions across a range of constituencies offer the only realistic hope of stemming this tide.