(NEW YORK)-Online abuse is a growing occupational hazard for journalists, particularly women and journalists of color. Experts predict the problem will only get worse as the U.S. enters another contentious election, threatening to silence voices already underrepresented in journalism.

A new report by PEN America and Columbia University research scholar Susan E. McGregor calls on the news industry to invest in approaches to give journalists under attack online the support they need, especially from those who share their background or lived experience.

 The Power of Peer Support: Helping Journalists Persevere in the Face of Online Abuse argues that peer support—modeled on evidence-based approaches used in high-stress professions like emergency services and veteran’s groups—can mitigate the harms of online abuse and build journalists’ resilience in unique ways.

“Online abuse disproportionately impacts journalists who are people of color, women, LBGTQ+, and members of religious or ethnic minorities,” said Jeje Mohamed, coauthor of the report and PEN America’s senior manager of digital safety and free expression. “Without sufficient support, the diverse voices that American news organizations have, for decades, struggled to attract and retain may leave the profession altogether.” 

The report draws on the insights of experts who run existing support and mentorship networks for journalists, as well as the experiences of journalists who have been subjected to or witnessed both online and offline abuse. Because the isolation often created by online abuse can negatively impact both psychological and physical health, effective, sustainable support is critically important. By way of example, one woman sports journalist interviewed explained how much she would value being able to ask  women from other media organizations who had experienced abuse, “Hey, I wrote something that men didn’t like and now people are sending me death threats. Any suggestions?”

Although journalists value the professional support and mentorship of their existing networks, the report finds that many still struggle to find spaces where they can candidly discuss online abuse. This presents an opportunity for newsrooms, professional associations, and civil society organizations to strengthen existing support networks, but also suggests the need to experiment with new models, including one that has been successful in other high-stress professions: facilitated, small-group peer support. 

Susan E. McGregor, research scholar at Columbia’s Data Science Institute and co-author of the report, explains: “Journalists repeatedly tell us that they prefer to seek support from other journalists when faced with occupational stressors. By creating an environment where journalists can share experiences and provide mutual assistance, facilitated peer support groups offer a practical and accessible means of coping with online harassment.”

Key findings from the study include:

  • Journalists value existing support networks. However, they do not report turning to these networks when facing online abuse.
  • Journalists express a willingness and desire to both receive and provide assistance as part of the reciprocal nature of peer support.
  • Peer support groups that operate independently of the newsroom have particular promise because they can connect journalists across the industry with others who share their backgrounds, experiences, and concerns. Such groups can also help mitigate concerns about organizational confidentiality, career advancement, and power dynamics.

In response to these findings, the report proposes a multi-faceted approach to strengthen support available to journalists experiencing online abuse, including:

  • Building industry-wide small-group peer support networks, which would extend the benefits of peer support to freelancers and journalists from underrepresented backgrounds and low-resource newsrooms.
  • Financially compensating and/or providing professional recognition to existing support providers for their work.
  • Providing more structure, training, and resources to existing support networks so that they can better meet the needs of journalists facing online abuse.

“While online abuse can feel direct and personal, it’s often part of a whole spectrum of coordinated tactics to suppress a free and independent press and intimidate journalists into self-censorship,” said Viktorya Vilk, PEN America’s director of digital safety and free expression and co-author of the report. “A critical part of defending election integrity and democracy is to ensure that journalists receive the support they need.”

About PEN America

PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect free expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible. Learn more at pen.org.

Contact: Malka Margolies, [email protected]