The Power of Peer Support

Helping Journalists Persevere in the Face of Online Abuse


Online abuse stifles freedom of expression, undermines equity and inclusion, and threatens livelihoods. In the United States and around the world, it has become a major occupational hazard, affecting everyone from scientists and academics to election officials and journalists.1For scientists, see Bianca Nogrady, “‘I Hope You Die’: How the COVID Pandemic Unleashed Attacks on Scientists,” Nature, October 13, 2021,; For academics, see Atte Oksanen, Magdalena Celuch, Rita Latikka, Reetta Oksa, and Nina Savela, “Hate and Harassment in Academia: The Rising Concern of the Online Environment.” Higher Education 84, (November 23, 2021): 541–567,; see also Naomi Nix, Joseph Menn. “These Academics Studied Falsehoods Spread by Trump. Now the GOP Wants Answers.” The Washington Post, June 6, 2023,; For election officials, see Cat Zakrzewski, “Election Workers Brace for a Torrent of Threats: ‘I KNOW WHERE YOU SLEEP,’” The Washington Post, November 8, 2022,; For journalists, see footnote 10 Journalists in particular, whose work can involve challenging the status quo and holding the powerful to account, have become lightning rods for online abuse. Because journalists increasingly need an online presence to do their jobs, “just getting offline” is not an option.2Viktorya Vilk, Elodie Vialle, and Matt Bailey, “No Excuse for Abuse,” PEN America, March 1, 2021, News organizations, like all employers, have a responsibility to help mitigate these risks. Civil society organizations, professional associations, academia, and news organizations have done a substantial amount of work to reduce the incidence and mitigate the harms of online abuse, particularly by bolstering digital and physical safety.3“Best Practices for Employers,” PEN America Online Harassment Field Manual, 2023,; Ela Stapley, “A Guide to Protecting Newsrooms and Journalists Against Online Violence,” IWMF, September 2022,; “Protocol for newsrooms to support journalists targeted with online harassment,” International Press Institute Ontheline Newsrooms, February 2022, Online abuse, however, can never be completely eradicated, any more than spam or online scams, and it can be profoundly isolating and deeply harmful to emotional, psychological, and physical well-being. 

In this report, we focus on promising approaches to reducing harm and increasing resilience in its wake. We explore the efficacy of existing support networks to help journalists in the United States persevere in the face of online abuse, with a focus on the journalists of color who are disproportionately attacked online. We then examine a specific model deployed in other high-stress professions that we argue has particular promise for the journalism industry: small-group support provided by peers who share a profession, identity, background, or other meaningful lived experience. Finally, we offer recommendations for how the journalism industry—including news organizations, professional associations, unions, civil society organizations, and philanthropists—can strengthen existing support networks and experiment with new models.

“In that moment [of experiencing harassment], I would have really benefited, I think, from a peer support network…what I would have wanted… is just access to other women who had gone through this experience.” Midcareer South Asian-American woman freelance journalist

“[It] would have been helpful to know that I wasn’t alone or that I wasn’t some sort of weak journalist because I couldn’t handle picking up the phone and listening to some guy just spew [racist] bullshit.” Early-career Black woman newspaper journalist

“The magic of any kind of group work or therapy is just being seen. Just having the opportunity to be heard and to be seen and to be listened to is actually really profound for people.” Michael Mitchell, Peer Support Coordinator, Whitman-Walker

What Exactly Is Online Abuse and Why Does It Matter to the Journalism Industry?

Debates abound as to what exactly constitutes online abuse; experts from academia, civil society, journalism, and law have grappled with questions of terminology and taxonomy.4Kurt Thomas et al., “SoK: Hate, Harassment, and the Changing Landscape of Online Abuse,” IEEE Xplore, August 26, 2021,; Kate Klonick, “Re-Shaming the Debate: Social Norms, Shame, and Regulation in an Internet Age,” Maryland Law Review 75, no. 4 (May 2016): 1029–1065, At PEN America, we define online abuse as the “pervasive or severe targeting of an individual or group online through harmful behavior.”5“Defining ‘Online Abuse’: A Glossary of Terms,” PEN America Online Harassment Field Manual, 2023, While we believe that it is extremely valuable for people facing online abuse to have a shared language to describe what is happening to them and ask for help, we also recognize that classifying the behaviors of online abuse is, in many cases, not required for developing meaningful responses to it. We argue that news organizations, in addressing online abuse, should prioritize the needs and experiences of their own staff and freelancers over dissecting the actions of harassers. Effective responses to online abuse require acknowledging that the distress often experienced by those targeted can, if left unaddressed, cause very real harms at both the individual and the systemic levels.6Lisa Feldman Barrett, “People’s Words and Actions Can Actually Shape our Brain—a Neuroscientist Explains How,” TED Ideas, November 17, 2020,

According to multiple studies conducted in recent years across the journalism industry in the United States and globally, online abuse can damage mental and physical health and, in some cases, escalate to physical violence. These risks have forced some journalists to censor themselves, avoid certain subjects, step away from social media, and leave the journalism profession altogether.7Julie Posetti, Nabeelah Shabbir, et. al., “The Chilling: global trends in online violence against women journalists,” UNESCO, April 2021, 12,; Lucy Westcott, “‘The threats follow us home’: Survey details risks for female journalists in U.S., Canada,” CPJ, September 4, 2019,; Michelle Ferrier, “Attacks and Harassment: The Impact on Female Journalists and Their Reporting,” International Women’s Media Foundation and, September 2018,; Katherine Goldstein, “When Harassment Drives Women out of Journalism,” International Women’s Media Foundation, accessed July 21, 2023,; Rebecca Whittington, “Online harms against women working in journalism and media,” Women in Journalism and Reach plc, March 8, 2023, This study showed that nearly one-fifth of respondents had considered leaving the media industry because of online abuse.

The implications of online abuse for the journalism industry are especially alarming because attacks frequently target precisely the professionals that American news organizations have, for decades, struggled to attract and retain: journalists who identify or present as women, and/or members of ethnic, religious, and sexual minorities, as well as transgender and gender-nonconforming people and those with intersectional identities.8“ASNE Diversity,” News Leaders Association, accessed July 21, 2023,; Hanaa’ Tameez, “American Journalism’s ‘Racial Reckoning’ Still Has Lots of Reckoning to Do,” Nieman Lab, March 8, 2022, According to a 2022 Pew Research Center study of U.S.-based journalists, 20 percent of Hispanic journalists and more than a quarter of Black (27 percent) and Asian (27 percent) journalists reported abuse based on their race or ethnicity, compared with five percent of white journalists.9Jeffrey Gottfried, Amy Mitchell, Mark Jurkowitz, and Jacob Liedke, “Journalists Sense Turmoil in Their Industry Amid Continued Passion for Their Work,” Pew Research Center, June 14, 2022, 4, 33,; Global studies have found comparable results, see: Julie Posetti and Nabeelah Shabbir, “The Chilling: A global study of online violence against women journalists,” International Center for Journalists, November 2, 2022, As a result, many of these journalists are leaving the industry, taking with them both significant experience and potential.10Michelle Ferrier, “Attacks and Harassment: The Impact on Female Journalists and Their Reporting,” International Women’s Media Foundation and, September 2018,; Katherine Goldstein, “When Harassment Drives Women out of Journalism,” International Women’s Media Foundation, accessed July 21, 2023,; Carla Murphy. “Introducing ‘Leavers’: Results from a Survey of 101 Former Journalists of Color.” Source. August 26, 2020.; Rebecca Whittington, “Online harms against women working in journalism and media,” Women in Journalism and Reach plc, March 8, 2023,

While online attacks against journalists often appear organic, individual, and personal, they can also be part of deliberate, coordinated campaigns in which attackers draw attention to the identity, background, or work of the targeted individual as a pretext to attract the participation of ever-larger online mobs.11Jeffrey Gottfried, Amy Mitchell, Mark Jurkowitz, and Jacob Liedke, “Journalists Sense Turmoil in Their Industry Amid Continued Passion for Their Work,” Pew Research Center, June 14, 2022,; Lucy Westcott, “‘The threats follow us home’: Survey details risks for female journalists in U.S., Canada,” CPJ, September 4, 2019, The goal of such efforts is often to intimidate, discredit, and silence diverse voices in the journalism industry, as well as to undermine the very idea of a free and independent press.12Caitlin Ring Carlson and Haley Witt, “Online harassment of U.S. women journalists and its impact on press freedom,” First Monday 25, no. 11 (November 2, 2020):; Ben Collins, “4Chan Trolls Flood Laid Off HuffPost, BuzzFeed Reporters with Death Threats,” NBC News, January 25, 2019,; Danielle Keats Citron, The Offensive Internet: Speech, Privacy, and Reputation, “Civil Rights in our Information Age,” ed. Saul Levmore and Martha C. Nussbaum (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010), 31–49. Newsrooms may also become less confident in their own editorial decisions about underrepresented communities, and as a result, they may be more susceptible to online campaigns that suggest representative coverage done by members of these communities is, in fact, “activism” or “bias.” When news organizations disrupt or disavow their own coverage in response to coordinated online attacks against individual reporters, they may end up undermining their institutional credibility more broadly—and inadvertently reinforcing the attackers’ aims.

More than 50 years ago, the Kerner Commission, which was established by President Johnson to investigate causes of civil unrest, concluded that the journalism industry’s persistent failure to accurately represent the American public both increases the homogeneity of U.S. news organizations and undermines the public’s trust in the work that those news organizations produce.13Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders. [Washington: United States, Kerner Commission]: U.S. G.P.O., 1968. Journalist and researcher Farai Chideya, in her 2018 retrospective on the commission’s findings, observed that for contemporary journalists “the heightened risks in covering politics during an era of internet trolls and harassment” is a key obstacle to diversifying coverage in politics and other key areas.14Farai Chideya, “In the Shadow of Kerner: Fifty Years Later, Newsroom Diversity and Equity Stall,” Shorenstein Center at Harvard Kennedy School, May 22, 2018,

Less diverse staff and fewer perspectives means news organizations will continue to struggle to meet the Kerner Commission’s half-century-old recommendation that “ordinary news” about all communities be given equal treatment in the media.15Alicia W. Stewart, “Why Newsroom Diversity Works,” Neiman Reports, June 10, 2015, If left unaddressed, unchecked online abuse will continue to erode the stability and relevance of professional journalism, accelerating the loss of diverse voices and deterring new ones from joining the profession. As one reporter we interviewed, a young Black woman who chose to leave her local crime beat, put it, “[It] would have been helpful to know that I wasn’t alone or that I wasn’t some sort of weak journalist because I couldn’t handle picking up the phone and listening to some guy just spew [racist] bullshit.”16Early-career Black woman newspaper journalist, interview by Susan McGregor, May 2022.

What Is Peer Support and How Can It Help Mitigate the Harms Caused by Online Abuse?

In the most general sense, “peer support” is simply emotional and psychological support provided outside of a clinical context. Beyond this, a wide variety of structures and formats are possible: in direct-support models, a trained peer typically works one-on-one with someone seeking support; in small-group models, a trained facilitator’s focus is on guiding the group’s participants in supporting one another. While not required in all models, many peer support programs and organizations operate under the “shared-experience paradigm,” a concept rooted in the field of psychology in which supporters (in the direct model) and participants (in the group model) share a profession, identity, background, or other meaningful lived experience.17Joseph Swinford, et al., “Academy of Peer Services: Office of Consumer Affairs Webinar Series,” Academy of Peer Services, March 5, 2014,; Mead Shery and Cheryl MacNeil. “Peer support: What makes it unique.” International Journal of Psychosocial Rehabilitation 10, no. 2 (January 2004): 29–37,; Steve Colori, “Dynamics of Sharing Lived Experience.” Schizophrenia Bulletin, vol. 48,4 (2022): 726–727,; “Getting Help,” Academy of Peer Services, April 21, 2020,; “Benefits of Certification,” NY Peer Specialists, accessed November 28, 2023,

Given that even clinician-provided talk therapy is not just about language but about language augmented by relationships, peer support can be particularly effective in leveraging shared experiences to help quickly foster valuable supportive relationships.18Evrinomy Avdi and Chris Evans, “Exploring Conversational and Physiological Aspects of Psychotherapy Talk,” Frontier Psychology 11 (2020): 2–3, As one neuroscientist we interviewed explained, “The single most powerful factor in psychotherapy is the client-therapist relationship. That’s what’s curative; that’s what all the research shows.”19Clinical research neuroscientist, interview by Susan McGregor, June 2022; Tori DeAngelis, “Better relationships with patients lead to better outcomes,” Monitor on Psychology 50, no. 10 (2019),; Gavin Andrews, “Talk that Works: The Rise of Cognitive Behaviour Therapy,” BMJ 313 (1996): In fact, when it comes to managing stressful events, research indicates that certain types of nonclinical support can actually be more effective at promoting resilience than starting work with a new therapist.20Joseph A. Boscarino, Richard E. Adams, and Charles R. Figley, “Mental Health Service Use After the World Trade Center Disaster,” The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease 211, no. 6 (2011): 91–99,

In our research, we found that journalists facing occupational stressors in many instances prefer to seek support from other journalists, rather than from friends, family, or even clinicians. With that in mind, we set out to understand what kind of support networks were available to U.S. journalists, what type of support those networks provided and how, and whether journalists experiencing online abuse were turning to those networks. We discovered a wide range of offerings, including both “organic” and more “structured” approaches. The networks we refer to as “organic” originated in communities of shared affinity and/or practice, such as among alumni of a given training or fellowship program or among journalists who share an identity or coverage area. On the other hand, the networks we refer to as “structured” were often created explicitly to serve a specific mission, such as providing mentorship and professional development programs or providing emergency response services. All these networks were run by some combination of volunteer communities, news organizations, professional associations, and/or civil society organizations. 

While some of the support networks we examined involved peers, others did not. In organic networks, support was typically provided by peers—by colleagues or other journalists with similar life experiences—but they often provided assistance informally, without a set schedule or training (e.g., by responding on a Slack group). In structured networks, providers of support typically received formal training and offered support directly, one-on-one, and during a set period of time (e.g., during hotline hours). However, these providers were not necessarily peers; that is, they did not always share lived experiences with those they were supporting. Overall, we found that U.S. journalists could either access direct, real-time but relatively brief support from trained providers, or longer-term but less predictable support from communities with little or no formal training. 

Our interviews with journalists revealed that these existing support networks offered tremendous value for those who used them, but we also discovered a crucial gap: journalists we spoke with expressed reservations about taking their experiences of online harassment—real or anticipated—to these spaces, and sometimes struggled to find the support they needed. To better understand how to bridge this gap, we turned to other high-stress professions—including nursing, emergency response, and military service—where research shows the benefits of the “small-group peer support” model.21Cindy-Lee Dennis, “Peer Support Within a Health Care Context: A Concept Analysis,” International Journal of Nursing Studies 40, no. 3 (March 2003): 321–332,; Eric E. Griffin, “I Get By With a Little Help From My Friends: Peer Emotional Support in the Emergency Department,” ed. Reneé Semonin-Holleran, Journal of Emergency Nursing 34, no. 6 (December 2008): 547–549,; Natalie E. Hundt, et al., “Veterans’ Perspectives on Benefits and Drawbacks of Peer Support for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder,” Military Medicine 180, no. 8 (August 2015): 851–856,; Charles E. Drebing, et al. “Using Peer Support Groups to Enhance Community Integration of Veterans in Transition,” Psychological Services 15, no. 2 (2018): 135–45.

In the small-group peer support model, trained individuals facilitate a group of peers—people who share a meaningful background or set of experiences—in providing support to one another. While facilitators receive formal training, they do not necessarily share the experiences of the group, and they do not provide support directly to its members. Because the model is nonhierarchical, all participants offer support to and receive support from one another, and the facilitator helps the group follow its own agreed-upon norms. Like other forms of peer support, the small-group model is not a replacement for professional psychotherapy or other clinical mental health services, but it can be a powerful complement to these interventions. 

Small-group peer support offers multiple advantages to strengthening support for online abuse and other occupational stressors in the journalism industry. Unlike the potentially brief or sporadic support we observed in existing networks, facilitated small-group peer support groups may meet regularly for months or years, providing more consistent support to journalists facing online abuse. Because it is the group participants—and not the facilitator—who are providing support, facilitators can effectively guide a peer support group formed around an experience, such as online abuse, even if they personally lack direct experience with it. Once trained in peer support–facilitation techniques, journalists may be better able to recognize and respond appropriately to signals of distress in their colleagues. And finally, because a facilitator who has trained for roughly a dozen hours can typically support a group of six to eight people for several months, this model is financially and logistically feasible in an industry grappling with frenetic schedules, reduced mentorship, precarious employment, and reduced social contact with colleagues.22Mirjam Gollmitzer, “Laboring in Journalism’s Crowded, Precarious Entryway: Perceptions of Journalism Interns,” Journalism Studies 22, no. 16 (October 2021): 2155–2173,; Henrik Örnebring, “Journalists thinking about precarity: Making sense of the ‘new normal,’” International Symposium on Online Journalism 8, 1 (2018): 109,; Julian Matthews and Kelechi Onyemaobi, “Precarious Professionalism: Journalism and the Fragility of Professional Practice in the Global South,” Journalism Studies 21, no. 13 (July 2020): 1836–1851,; Arthur C. Brooks, “The Hidden Toll of Remote Work.” The Atlantic, April 1, 2021,

As a result, we believe that small-group peer support is both a practical and actionable approach for providing consistent and appropriate support to journalists experiencing online abuse. By both mitigating individual harms and creating versatile communities of support, small-group peer support may help journalists from diverse backgrounds stay in the field, fostering a more responsive, resilient, and equitable journalism industry. 

For media leaders managing constant deadlines and the twin pressures of financial precarity and public distrust, confronting an issue as massive and systemic as online abuse can seem overwhelming.23Erin Reid and Farnaz Ghaedipour, “Journalism Jobs are Precarious, Financially Insecure and Require Family Support,” The Conversation, March 21, 2021,; Jeffrey Gottfried, Amy Mitchell, Mark Jurkowitz, and Jacob Liedke, “Journalists Sense Turmoil in Their Industry Amid Continued Passion for Their Work,” Pew Research Center, June 14, 2022, 4, 35 Yet addressing online abuse, and other acute occupational stressors, is vital to supporting the future of professional journalism by transforming current financial and cultural gaps into a source of stability and promise. Research indicates that “social identification” influences both where young people get their information and where they spend their money online; newsrooms that reflect the diversity of younger Americans are more likely to win both their attention and subscription or donation dollars.24Emmelyn Croes and Jos Bartels, “Young Adults’ Motivations for Following Social Influencers and Their Relationship to Identification and Buying Behavior.” Computers in Human Behavior 124, 106910 (November 2021): 1–10. Thus, a more representative news industry has the potential to attract both the younger journalists and younger audiences that today’s newsrooms need.25Nicole A. Childers, “The Moral Argument for Diversity in Newsrooms is also a Business Argument — and You Need Both,” Nieman Lab, November 24, 2020,; Emmelyn Croes and Jos Bartels, “Young Adults’ Motivations for Following Social Influencers and Their Relationship to Identification and Buying Behavior,” Computers in Human Behavior 124, 106910 (November 2021): 1–10.; Jeffrey Gottfried, Amy Mitchell, Mark Jurkowitz, and Jacob Liedke, “Journalists Sense Turmoil in Their Industry Amid Continued Passion for Their Work,” Pew Research Center, June 14, 2022, 6, 46


For this report, PEN America collaborated with research scholar Susan E. McGregor to better understand how the journalism industry could more effectively mitigate the harms of online abuse, with a focus on a specific category of interventions: networks of support from colleagues and other peers. This report is informed by PEN America’s extensive experience supporting journalists, writers, and human rights defenders facing online abuse, as well as by McGregor’s own newsroom experience and over a decade of research on security issues in the journalism industry, including the publication of multiple peer-reviewed academic papers and a book dedicated to the topic.26Rohan Kshirsagar, Tyrus Cukuvac, Kathy McKeown, and Susan McGregor, “Predictive Embeddings for Hate Speech Detection on Twitter,” Proceedings of the 2nd Workshop on Abusive Language Online (ALW2), (October 2018): 26–32,

Between March 2022 and June of 2023, McGregor:

  • conducted 25 semi-structured interviews of one to three hours with support network organizers, journalists, and peer support and mental health experts; 
  • conducted extensive desk research related to peer support, psychological first aid, journalism, social work, and medicine to understand this and other interventions commonly used in high-stress occupations; and  
  • completed training in psychological first aid to understand both the substance of this approach and the feasibility of recommending such resources to others.

Of those interviewed, eight were professional journalists in the United States, the majority of whom had both staff and freelance experience on a range of beats and anywhere from two to 20 years in the field. All conducted reporting and published regularly under their own bylines. Because the effects of online abuse can reach those not directly targeted by it, we deliberately did not screen interviewees for personal experiences with online abuse; nonetheless, most participants reported some form of direct experience with online and/or offline abuse. We prioritized interviewing journalists who identify or present as women, LGBTQ+ individuals, persons of color, and/or members of religious or ethnic minorities because these are the groups disproportionately targeted for online abuse. Among the journalists we interviewed, six identified as women, one as a man, and one as nonbinary, and all self-identified as people of color. In this report, when we quote a journalist we interviewed, we include information about both their professional role and their identity. Included descriptions were either provided directly by the interview participant, or based on statements they made during their interviews; we include this information because journalists often experience identity-based abuse. 

We also interviewed 14 organizers of existing support networks available to and/or designed for journalists in the United States. Most worked or volunteered for civil society organizations, professional associations, and/or professional development programs; a few worked directly for news organizations. The existing support networks we explored included formal in-newsroom support networks; crisis hotlines providing real-time support for journalists facing online abuse and other safety concerns; mentorship and fellowship programs; and affinity groups and other professional communities accessible to journalists via conferences, Slack channels, etc. In speaking with the organizers of these networks, we sought to understand how and why a given support network had been established, as well as how it was funded, organized, and staffed if applicable. While the networks’ confidentiality policies prevented us from learning in detail who used the network and how, these interviewees were able to offer high-level insights into how journalists both did and did not use their services, especially with regard to journalists experiencing online abuse. When we quote organizers of support networks in this report, we include information about their organizational role but not their identity, because the relevant experience they brought to this research relates primarily to their role supporting others facing online abuse, rather than their own direct experiences with abuse.

We also spoke with a number of professionals specializing in peer support, mental health, human resources, newsroom leadership, and security, who are also identified in terms of their professional roles and/or experience. All of the interviews and related procedures associated with this research were approved by Columbia University’s Institutional Review Board; in accordance with these procedures all interview participants spoke anonymously, with the exception of one interviewee who volunteered to be identified by name at the conclusion of the study.

Existing Support Networks for Journalists in the United States

Journalists in the United States have access to a wide range of support networks. We investigated a diverse array of these networks, both within and adjacent to the U.S. journalism industry; some have been in place for over a decade, while others are relatively nascent. As noted above, the support networks we studied fell broadly into two categories: 

  • Organic Networks, which typically evolved from communities of shared affinity and practice—for example, alumni of a given training or fellowship program, or journalists who share an identity or coverage area—and typically operate as chat groups or other informal, asynchronous communities. 
  • Structured Networks, which by contrast were often deliberately established to fulfill a well-defined mission, such as providing mentorship, professional development, or emergency support in a crisis. These are often situated within a specific media or civil society organization, and typically operate in a more structured and formal way. 

Through in-depth interviews with organizers of both types of networks and background information we gathered about each organization, a clear set of patterns emerged about how they were organized and functioned. The table below summarizes our findings.

Network Characteristics Organic Networks Structured/Formal Networks
Communication method Asynchronous (e.g., text, chat, etc.) Real-time (e.g., calls or meetings; in-person, by phone, or online)
Moderation style Informal Formal
Leadership style Fluid, self-selecting Some degree of hierarchy based on specific training or experience
Communication scale Large, many-to-many Small, one-on-one
Anonymity Optional Enforced
Confidentiality Expected Enforced
Support style Organic, informal, longer-term Structured, formal, case-based, timebound
Participant roles All are community members who can both provide and receive support and often share background or experience Some are “support providers” and some are “support beneficiaries,” and may or may not share background or experience
Participant requirements Shared identity or experience (e.g., fellowship program or cohort) Unrestricted (anyone can seek support)
Participant and/or support provider screening Application, verification Application, verification
Participants and/or support provider training None Extensive, multistage
Participants and/or support provider compensation None Some, in form of money or recognition

Common Characteristics

As outlined above, all the support networks we reviewed shared some essential features, such as extensive vetting procedures for participants and strong expectations around confidentiality. Joining any of these support networks involved some kind of application or referral process, sometimes augmented by screening interviews or activities. This process was described by one nonprofit editor in chief, who had also organized a support network, as “exhausting.” Another editor pointed out that the process of personal vetting was, however, “almost essential…[without it] the risk to the people involved would be much too high.”27Nonprofit news organization editor in chief, interview by Susan McGregor, March 2022. Likewise, a commitment to confidentiality was universal, including within support networks operating within news organizations. “Confidentiality is key,” said one newsroom support provider. “Peers are asked to sign a statement of peer principles at the end of training, which includes a vow of confidentiality.”28Large news organization support provider, interview by Susan McGregor, April 2022.

Finally, while strict anonymity was not always possible, it was often available (e.g., through “anonymous” posting to a particular group or channel) even in organic support networks where participants were largely known to one another. In structured networks, anonymity tended to be enforced more robustly, with support providers using pseudonyms and relying only on professional (rather than personal) accounts and phone numbers to protect their legal identities.

Key Differences: Form Follows Function

One central distinction between the organic and structured support networks we studied revolves around who can access the support they offer. Support in organic networks is available only to existing members, whose participation may be predicated on certain professional or personal characteristics. In contrast, most structured networks are essentially “open access”: anyone can call or message for support. As a result, processes in structured networks tend to be comparatively more formal than those in organic networks, to mitigate the risks of offering support (e.g., harassers posing as journalists in order to troll support providers).

In structured support networks, we found that support providers often undergo a dozen or more hours of training and that the network typically relies on some type of hierarchy to escalate difficult cases and to protect less-experienced support providers. As a result, structured networks also have more clearly defined commitments and schedules (e.g., providers are “on-call” for a specific number of shifts weekly), and support providers are often compensated financially for their effort. During shifts, support providers often work one-on-one in real time via SMS, chat, or telephone with those seeking support, though the duration of involvement may range from a few minutes to weeks. 

Organic networks, meanwhile, tend more toward informal moderation, limited training, and fluid (if any) hierarchy. Reflecting the collaborative, reciprocal culture that often gives rise to organic networks, the community members who offer support to others are generally not compensated for their efforts—but are likewise not specifically trained to provide particular services or obligated to be available at particular times. As a result, support in organic networks was almost exclusively asynchronous and many-to-many: requests for support could be sent to the group at any time but might only be answered hours or days later, if at all. Structured networks, by contrast, generally offered nearly real-time support, with support providers working one-on-one with participants on a well-defined schedule.


Peer Support Networks in News Organizations

While the majority of support networks we investigated in the United States operated outside of news organizations, we did find four news organizations that either actively ran in-house peer support networks or had explored the option. In this model, the news organization supports the network financially and logistically, employees serve as peer support providers to their colleagues, and an external clinical provider supervises network activities. The clinical partner in this model also supervises peer support providers via regular check-ins and assists in managing individual cases where necessary.

Such peer support networks are in many ways uniquely positioned to leverage the natural rapport of connecting with colleagues and the quality assurance and confidentiality of a clinical provider, and are responsive to many of the desires and concerns of the journalists we spoke with. At the same time, the exclusively newsroom-based approach makes this type of network largely inaccessible to freelancers, and the expense of working with a clinical provider is financially infeasible for all but the most highly resourced news organizations. In speaking with organizers of these in-house support networks, we also learned that they sometimes struggled with diversity and equity issues, finding that they lacked peer support providers from certain newsroom beats, geographical regions, or personal backgrounds (including different racial, ethnic, and gender identities). Others described differing expectations about whether peer support providers should be compensated or should have those efforts formally recognized as part of their professional obligations or service. While clinically supervised in-newsroom peer support networks cannot serve as a comprehensive response to online abuse, they may still be valuable for managing certain types of occupational stressors within organizations with the resources to implement them.


Are Journalists Experiencing Online Abuse Using Support Networks?

Though the journalists we interviewed described organic support networks as “safe spaces” that sometimes even took on a “familial” quality, they said that they did not—or would not—turn to these networks when experiencing online harassment. And the organizers of structured support networks we interviewed said that journalists facing online harassment did sometimes reach out to their organizations, but that these interactions were often relatively brief “one-offs.” “Some people did not come back,” said an organizer at one structured network. “It was almost as if they were okay and kind of dropped off.”29Nonprofit online abuse response organization cofounder, interview by Susan McGregor, April 2022.

Many of the journalists we spoke with—especially those who had experienced harassment—described not knowing where to turn for help. One early-career reporter, who identified as a Black woman and who had consistently been targeted for harassment, said, “I feel like journalists say ‘[harassment] happens; it’s normal.’ But then nobody teaches me what I’m supposed to do when it happens.”30Early-career Black woman newspaper journalist, interview by Susan McGregor, May 2022. That journalist described drawing great personal and professional value from the organic networks she was a part of, but also reported that she did not feel comfortable discussing her experiences of abuse within a professional mentorship context. Another journalist we interviewed, a midcareer freelancer who identified as a South Asian–American woman and was experiencing ongoing harassment, described a challenge of some organic support networks: “I think there are too many people. I didn’t want to just be like, ‘This is my situation.’”31Midcareer South Asian–American woman freelance journalist, interview by Susan McGregor, May 2022.

Like many high-stress professions, legacy journalism culture offers little encouragement to seek support for dealing with occupational stressors. “With journalists,” one support network researcher and organizer told us, “it’s hard for them to ask for help.”32Nonprofit anti-harassment organization researcher, interview by Susan McGregor, March 2022. Other organizers shared similar sentiments: “You can hear that [journalists] want to ask for things, but they’re not sure what to ask for,” said one.33Nonprofit online abuse response organization cofounder, interview by Susan McGregor, April 2022. Another told us, “I have everybody in this network saying, ‘How do I even talk about trauma? I don’t even have words for it and I don’t know who to talk to.’”34Nonprofit news organization editor in chief, interview by Susan McGregor, March 2022. Even for organizers of support networks within news organizations, this was a challenge. As one such organizer explained: “There doesn’t seem to be a model that works that I can point to and say, ‘That’s it. That’s the thing that we need to do.’ So I feel like we are still ad hoc making do every day.”35Digital media news organization publisher, interview by Susan McGregor, April 2022.

What Journalists Want from News Organizations

The journalists we spoke withwhether they were freelancers or full-time staffwere clear about the support they wanted from news organizations, which we outline below.

Acknowledge Online Abuse as an Occupational Hazard

Our journalist interviewees were unequivocal about the need for news organizations to directly and explicitly acknowledge the occupational hazards of journalism, including online abuse, and to provide basic resources for coping with them constructively. Most wanted a designated point of contact; one reporter even suggested taking a cue from fire safety measures: Give people a designated link. It’s the same way in which you have a designated security person, you know, on the floor who is like, ‘I know where the exits are.’”36Midcareer woman of color investigative data journalist and professor, interview by Susan McGregor, April 2022.

Most of the journalists we spoke with were dissatisfied with how news organizations handled online harassment and other occupational hazards. Yet what they sought was, they felt, fairly modest: namely, an acknowledgment of the stressors of the profession and a few hours of on-the-job debriefing time each month. Our interviewees felt this would be a simple, low-overhead way to make space for employees to build the social relationships needed for long-term resilience. As one midcareer journalist, who identified as nonbinary, put it, “Making the space…[for] one hour per week [of] mental health time, and you don’t have to make up that hour somewhere else? It’d be huge.”37Midcareer nonbinary AFAB (assigned female at birth) journalist/entrepreneur, interview by Susan McGregor, May 2022. Another early-career crime reporter we spoke with explained, “It would have been great if our teams talked more about the effects on mental health around covering trauma. Even if it was just one meeting a month.”38Early-career Black woman newspaper journalist, interview by Susan McGregor, May 2022.

Develop Policies and Procedures for Online Abuse

Our research also indicates that newsrooms need to create meaningful internal reporting, escalation, and safety policies around online harassment, to help reduce the degree of uncertainty experienced by journalists experiencing online attack. When a journalist is harassed online, understanding what to expect from their organization is essential to mitigating harm. As one mental health professional we interviewed explained, “Ambiguity and uncertainty is very expensive, metabolically. An uncertain outcome—which might be either really bad or might be OK—is actually [physiologically] more costly than knowing 100 percent [that] something bad is going to happen.”39Clinical and research neuroscientist, interview by Susan McGregor, June 2022.

In addition to reducing the physiological toll of online harassment, well-defined policies and procedures simply reduce the level of effort needed for everyone within an organization—from targeted journalists to managers, security, and human resources personnel—to respond appropriately. As one network organizer who had also experienced online harassment put it, “If it’s in the handbook, then people know they can ask for it…[we didn’t want] to be in a situation where someone was getting harassed and they were saying, ‘I’m fine, I’m fine, I’m fine,’ because I had [personally] done that before. I wanted us to be in a situation where someone could say, ‘I’m being harassed,’ and we could say, ‘Here is the handbook section on harassment. Would you like any of these options, or other things?’”40Digital media organization cofounder, interview by Susan McGregor, April 2022.

Go Beyond EAPs

Our interviewees were clear that simply providing access to an employee assistance program (EAP) was not a sufficient response to the industry’s occupational hazards, and that newsroom management needed to be more proactive in making sure that care was available to meet the needs of journalists where they were. As one midcareer journalist, who identified as nonbinary, described it, “[Whenever] reporters are going through the ringer, editors say, ‘Remember, we have an EAP.’ Leadership says, ‘Remember, we have an EAP.’ And I find that so incredibly insufficient…After something traumatic, [newsroom leadership] could have at least done a survey of ‘Would you like us to bring in a trauma specialist for a community conversation? For individual conversations?’”41Midcareer nonbinary AFAB (assigned female at birth) journalist/entrepreneur, interview by Susan McGregor, May 2022. 

In other words, the journalists we spoke with wanted their organizations to treat responding to occupational hazards as part of their broader duty of care to support reporters’ physical, emotional, and legal safety.42“Duty of Care,” Global Press, 2023, This duty applies whether journalists are covering traumatic subjects like mass shootings and natural disasters, or facing online abuse in connection with their work; it extends beyond the scope of what an EAP can offer, requiring a more holistic system that protects and prioritizes the mental health of journalists.43Chloe Reichel, “How Journalists’ Jobs Affect Their Mental Health: A Research Roundup,” The Journalist’s Resource, July 30, 2019,; “Duty of Care,” Global Press, 2023,; Lindsay Palmer, “Duty of care: Newsrooms must address psychological trauma,” University of Wisconsin–Madison Center for Journalism Ethics, As one in-newsroom peer-support-network organizer put it, “Mental health isn’t [just] about battlefield trauma or being a war correspondent. The newsroom can be a hostile environment.”44Large news organization support provider, interview by Susan McGregor, April 2022.

Facilitate Access to Professional Mental Health Services

One clear obstacle to accessing professional mental health care for our interviewees was financial; many lacked mental health coverage as part of their insurance plans and couldn’t afford to pay for it out of pocket. Money was not the only issue, however. Many interviewees described struggling to find mental health professionals who understood online abuse and/or the journalism industry. In line with previous research on the mental health needs of journalists, our interviewees emphasized their desire to work with mental health professionals who could help them navigate the demands of the profession, rather than simply suggest that they leave it.45Jonas Osmann, Jeffrey Dvorkin, Yoel Inbar, Elizabeth Page-Gould, and Anthony Feinstein, “The Emotional Well-Being of Journalists Exposed to Traumatic Events: A Mapping Review,” Media, War & Conflict 202014, no. 4, (2020): 476–502,; River Smith, Elana Newman, Susan Drevo, and Autumn Slaughter, “Covering Trauma: Impact on Journalists,” Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma, July 1, 2015, “[Therapists’] advice is usually ‘Your work sounds really stressful. It seems like you should just take a break from it, you are clearly in a high stress industry,’” explained one midcareer freelance journalist. “I feel like journalism in particular is…not well understood by mental health professionals. They’re just like, ‘[journalism] is very clearly a problem. Just get rid of it.’46Midcareer, South Asian–American woman freelance journalist, interview by Susan McGregor, August 2022.

For journalists working in smaller markets, finding appropriate care was often especially challenging. As one early-career journalist, who identified as a woman of color, explained, “The last [mental health services] system that [the employer] used, I think you could look at the therapist and then see their schedule. They would have, like, one woman of color, and then that person was never available.”47Early-career woman of color newspaper journalist, interview by Susan McGregor, May 2022.

Finding mental health professionals who reflect the full range of journalists’ identities and understand their unique needs is an issue bigger than the journalism industry. While there are efforts underway to address this challenge more broadly,48“A Dart Center program training therapists to help journalists,” Journalist Trauma Support Network, accessed November 28, 2023, finding culturally consonant mental health care, even at better-resourced media organizations with HR departments, can still be a challenge. In our interviews, two journalists at such organizations articulated a desire for organizational assistance—even if their organization is unable to cover the costs of these services. As one interviewee observed, “Can we have a little bit more support with HR…actually walking people through the process of finding mental health specialists?”49Midcareer nonbinary AFAB (assigned female at birth) journalist/entrepreneur, interview by Susan McGregor, May 2022. 

Underscoring this point were the testimonies of interviewees who had been able to access effective clinical care, and found it invaluable for affirming their experiences and the stressors they were facing. As one early-career journalist, who identified as a Black woman, put it, “My therapist knows nothing about how journalism is done…But I like that she doesn’t make me feel like it’s weird that I’m being affected. She’s like, ‘Wow, that’s a lot,’ or ‘I can’t believe you have to deal with that.’ It’s nice to have that perspective of like, ‘No, that’s totally not normal; it makes sense that it would affect you in that way.’”50Early-career Black woman newspaper journalist, interview by Susan McGregor, May 2022.

What Journalists Want from Peer Support

In general, the journalists we interviewed welcomed the idea of peer support, though few had direct experience with it because it is still relatively rare in the news industry. At the same time, nearly all had participated in some kind of industry mentorship program, reflecting a desire to connect to fellow journalists. Support network organizers reported hearing similar sentiments, with one stating, “Journalists say ‘I would like to receive support from people who understand my industry or what I’m going through, because it’s not the same as asking for support from a friend.’” She elaborated that journalists “would [also] like to…see how other journalists have navigated similar situations.”51Nonprofit anti-harassment organization researcher, interview by Susan McGregor, March 2022.

For the journalists we interviewed, the reciprocal nature of peer support was especially appealing, provided they were given the right training and support. As one arts and culture journalist, a man early in his career, put it, “[Peer support is] something that sounds really interesting to me in concept, and…training would obviously be helpful. I’m always happy to be an ear.”52Early-career man arts and culture journalist, interview by Susan McGregor, May 2022.

Journalists were especially interested in being connected to other journalists with whom they shared a beat, identity, or experience, including the experience of online abuse—which reflects a key precept of peer support. As one freelancer, who identified as a South Asian–American woman, told us, “Specifically in that moment [of experiencing harassment], I would have really benefited, I think, from a peer support network…what I would have wanted… is just access to other women who had gone through this experience.”53Midcareer South Asian–American woman freelance journalist, interview by Susan McGregor, May 2022.

A midcareer sports journalist, who identifies as an Asian woman, explained, “[I am often] trying to meet other people who are also underrepresented in my [professional] demographic. So in my case, I think it will be great if I can meet other women who are working…[at other] media organizations. Even though we work in different organizations, there are a lot of things to share. Like, ‘Hey, I wrote something that men didn’t like and now people are sending me death threats…Any suggestions?”54Midcareer Asian woman sports journalist, interview by Susan McGregor, May 2022.

Creating a peer support network that could effectively help mitigate the harms of online abuse requires cultivating the confidence and participation of the journalists who experience abuse. Concerns raised by our journalist interviewees underscored the challenges to doing this within individual newsrooms. Most of the journalists we interviewed—and, in fact, the majority of journalists disproportionately attacked online—are already underrepresented and marginalized within their news organizations and may mistrust systems and approaches that have failed them in the past.55Nearly every interview participant had very specific stories about how their institutions had failed them in the past, whether through lack of support when they were harassed, racial stereotyping, or gaslighting. This is backed up by external research: Mark Coddington and Seth Lewis, “Social media policies are failing journalists,” Nieman Lab, March 7, 2023,; Carla Murphy, “The ‘Leavers’ Survey,” OpenNews, 2020,; Naseem S. Miller, “Newsrooms need to do more to protect journalists from online harassment,” The Journalist’s Resource, February 8, 2023, As a midcareer arts journalist we spoke to, who identifies as Black, described it, “A company-sponsored program, it would make me question—kind of like HR—are they on your side or on the company side? And so I think if there was a [network] through the company right now, there would be the skeptical part of me that asks ‘Can I really trust this person fully? Can I express myself fully?’ Like, I’m sure I’ll get something out of this relationship, but can I be my authentic self with this person?”56Midcareer Black woman independent arts journalist, interview by Susan McGregor, May 2022. As another interviewee pointed out, “If we’re talking about a peer support group [involving] colleagues who may be promoted to be my boss?…I’m a lot more cautious when it comes to people who are related to the workplace.”57Midcareer nonbinary AFAB (assigned female at birth) journalist/entrepreneur, interview by Susan McGregor, May 2022.

To foster trust, interviewees proposed that newsrooms craft carefully considered leadership and participation structures that consider the newsroom’s demographics and acknowledge power dynamics, along with rock-solid confidentiality and escalation processes. One midcareer journalist, who identifies as a woman of color, noted, “[The network] has to be led by the right people…someone who is trusted in the newsroom…someone who is known as a good Samaritan of that newsroom.” She went on: “If it’s run by a majority of white people, if it’s run by people who don’t understand, if it’s run by managers who have been known to be kind of problematic—those are all bad things.”58Midcareer woman of color investigative data journalist and professor, interview by Susan McGregor, April 2022.

For organizations large enough to develop in-newsroom peer support networks, interviewees felt that the benefits would accrue not just to individual journalists but to the organization as a whole by making it a more attractive place to work and facilitating the sharing of experiences and skills. As one early-career journalist put it, “I think [an in-house network] appeals to me because these are also your colleagues…It’s a win-win: The people who need mentorship get mentorship. Also, the paper does better because [newer journalists are] learning from more veteran journalists.”59Midcareer woman newspaper journalist, interview by Susan McGregor, May 2022.

For many news organizations, building out an in-newsroom peer support network that meets all these criteria may be extremely difficult, especially in the short term. For this reason, in the next section, we explore a flexible, scalable model for peer support that could be deployed across the industry to help address the needs of journalists experiencing online abuse.

Peer Support in Practice: Models Beyond the Journalism Industry

Although our research identified a broad array of both structured and organic support networks available to U.S. journalists, the journalists we spoke with still felt that they lacked essential mechanisms for managing the negative health effects of on-the-job stressors; this was especially true with respect to online abuse, a finding also supported by previous research.60“Journalists and Mental Health: An API Resource Guide,” American Press Institute, July 31, 2023,; Michelle Ferrier, “Attacks and Harassment: The Impact on Female Journalists and Their Reporting,” International Women’s Media Foundation and, September 2018,; Julie Posetti, Nabeelah Shabbir, Diana Maynard, Kalina Bontcheva, and Nermine Aboulez, “The Chilling: global trends in online violence against women journalists,” UNESCO, April 2021, We found that existing support networks are largely geared to address either acute, immediate distress, such as an active doxing campaign or the threat of legal action; or broader, career-level concerns, such as negotiating for raises or applying to new jobs. As a result, journalists experiencing recurrent or ongoing occupational hazards, such as online abuse, often feel they have few resources to draw on. Fortunately, a long-standing example from the LGBTQ+ community illustrates how the facilitated, small-group peer support model might be implemented beyond the bounds of existing newsroom structures.


Case Study: Peer Support at Whitman-Walker

Whitman-Walker Health is a decades-old nonprofit clinic in Washington, DC, which has offered facilitated small-group peer support for many years as a key part of its community health services for the local LGBTQ+ community.61“Get to Know Us,” Whitman-Walker Health, accessed July 20, 2023, To better understand how their model works, we spoke extensively with Peer Support Coordinator Michael Mitchell, who acts as trainer, liaison, and sounding board for peer support groups and facilitators.62Michael Mitchell, interview by Susan McGregor, June 3, 2022. Note: all direct quotes included in this case study were drawn from this interview. 

At Whitman-Walker, a new peer support group usually begins when Mitchell identifies six to eight people interested in exploring a given theme (e.g., their “Silver Circle” for LGBTQ+ seniors), and then connects them with pairs of trained peer support facilitators, who help guide the group’s conversations. Apart from Mitchell’s monthly “supervision” meeting with facilitators, the individual peer support groups are essentially autonomous, deciding for themselves what they will focus on and how long they will run. What’s important, Mitchell highlights, is that the groups are largely independent: “You get together and then you decide what it is you want to talk about.”

Some groups have met consistently for years, but even groups that meet for just a few months, Mitchell observes, can provide significant benefits to participants. “A time-limited thing can be really good,” he says. As long as participants share key experiences, Mitchell explains, peer support groups can be curated around almost anything. For journalists in the news industry, he suggests peer support groups could revolve around coverage areas/beats, identities, and/or even geographical contexts: “What you might say is, ‘Let’s have a six-session or eight-session group about dealing with small towns, or what’s it like being in a small town and knowing everybody?’ Or, ‘What’s it like being a woman of color [in journalism]?’”

As with all support providers in the structured networks we reviewed for this report, the peer support facilitators at Whitman-Walker, are required to go through an application process and roughly nine hours of direct training, with further virtual modules required of volunteers agency-wide. All Whitman-Walker peer support facilitators also participate in regular supervisory sessions with a more experienced peer support coordinator so that they have their own space to raise concerns or share frustrations. Overall, this brings the typical time commitment of a peer support facilitator to about four to five hours per month, as most groups meet biweekly for 90 minutes. While Whitman-Walker also offers “drop-in” groups designed “just to check in and make sure that you’re alive and okay,” Mitchell emphasizes that true peer support requires a commitment from all participants, as well as facilitators, according to whatever terms the group has identified for itself. “You want people who can commit to the group so that they can actually create a space of trust,” he says. This is essential so that participants can “actually do some work and dig in.”

Mitchell’s experience aligns with existing research highlighting the unique value of peer support, which leverages shared context and experience to establish rapport and quickly build trust. “Peer support is not the second choice; it’s not second runner-up to therapy,” he says. “It’s not because you don’t have insurance so you have to do this.” Says Mitchell, “One of the magic things I find about peer support is the ability for the peer volunteers to say, ‘I know what you’ve been going through. I know personally what that feels like.’” 

Importantly, however, Mitchell emphasizes that exact overlap in experience is not a prerequisite to being an effective peer support facilitator, noting, “I think the fear that most people have is that they won’t be able to lead a group or that they won’t know what to say or what to do.” In addition to robust training and the regular supervision sessions that provide peer support facilitators with the tools they need to manage challenging situations, the most important tool for effective peer support is one that journalists already have in abundance: curiosity. “Curiosity will always save you,” says Mitchell. 

Small-group peer support can be a unique, dedicated space to experience empathy and share lived experiences. “Just having the opportunity to be heard and to be seen and to be listened to is actually really profound for people,” Mitchell says.



The journalists we spoke with placed an enormous value on their existing structured and organic support networks, indicating these are already a powerful source of resilience in the industry. At the same time, many journalists may not know that they can access such networks or may feel that their needs—especially around online abuse—are not fully being met by existing networks and communities. With that in mind, we offer a range of recommendations to help organizers of existing structured and organic networks strengthen and expand their offerings. For organizations interested in building effective, sustainable support networks from scratch, we offer strategies for leveraging existing resources. We also make the case that the wider journalism industry—including civil society organizations, professional associations, unions, news organizations, and philanthropists—should follow the lead of other high-stress professions and explore how the small-group peer support model may benefit journalists experiencing online abuse in particular.

Strengthening Existing Organic Support Networks

For our interviewees, it was clear that organic support networks—such as those run by professional associations, affinity groups, alumni groups, and civil society organizations—were essential to their professional success and personal well-being. Yet these were not the spaces they turned to when experiencing online abuse. By augmenting existing networks with some additional structure and training, however, organizers can build on established community trust to better meet the needs of their members. Below are our recommendations for strengthening existing organic support networks:

  • Create a “staffed” channel focused on online abuse. Recruit and train members to serve as support providers and offer specific hours of availability. This ensures that those seeking help, particularly for online abuse, receive a minimum level of engagement when they need it. 
  • Offer training opportunities for members. By offering members access to courses in providing support to others (such as psychological first aid), network organizers can help build expertise and resilience throughout the community. Some form of training is especially important for support networks that decide to develop a “staffed” channel, to ensure consistency and minimize the risk of support-provider burnout.
  • Develop a compensation/recognition model. Consider options for compensating or recognizing members willing to serve as trained support providers in order to make participation and administration sustainable. This may require raising additional funding via grants, donations, and/or member fees. 
  • Emphasize confidentiality and anonymity. By stressing the space’s confidentiality, and even enabling members to post anonymously as needed, network organizers can give more of their members the confidence to candidly share their experiences and seek support.
  • Connect members to existing anti-abuse resources. Organizers can help members find the wide range of real-time helplines and resources that can support journalists in acute distress.63For example, the Coalition Against Online Violence provides a comprehensive list that includes Vita Activa’s helpline, PEN America’s Online Harassment Field Manual, and the Games Hotline Digital Safety Guide, among others. “Resources for Journalists,” Coalition Against Online Violence, accessed July 20, 2023,; “Recursos / Resources,” Vita Activa, accessed November 27, 2023,; “Online Harassment Field Manual,” PEN America, accessed July 20, 2023,; “Games Hotline Digital Safety Guide,” Games and Online Harassment Hotline, accessed November 27, 2023, Organizers and members could also adapt resources available under Creative Commons licenses to meet their specific community’s needs, potentially in partnership with civil society organizations and funders.

Strengthening Existing Structured Support Networks

Structured networks—whether operating within news organizations or organized by civil society organizations—also play a vital role in providing journalists with support, but maximizing the value of these networks for journalists facing online abuse may require some changes to existing practice. 

Some of the organizers of structured networks we interviewed struggled to recruit or retain support providers, especially if the work was uncompensated (i.e., volunteer work). Though some network organizers we spoke to expressed concern that compensation could create misaligned incentives, we note that relying only on “volunteer” labor can functionally exclude both early-career journalists and those from communities already underrepresented in the media industry; many of these journalists cannot afford to do additional work that does not improve either their income or their career prospects and may not feel they can say no when “asked” to do volunteer work.64Carla Bell, “Constructively Disqualified: The Exponentially High Cost of Unpaid Journalism Internships,” Forbes, September 28, 2020,; Michelle Ferrier and Nisha Garud-Patkar, “TrollBusters: Fighting Online Harassment of Women Journalists,” Mediating misogyny: Gender, Technology, and Harassment (2018): 311–332, Because underrepresented groups are significantly more likely to be targeted for online harassment, networks that lack diverse membership will be significantly hampered in their ability to effectively address these harms.65Julie Posetti, Nabeelah Shabbir, Diana Maynard, Kalina Bontcheva, Nermine Aboulez, “The Chilling: global trends in online violence against women journalists,” UNESCO, April 2021, 12,; “Online Hate and Harassment: The American Experience 2023,” ADL Center for Technology & Society, accessed November 27, 2023,; Shanéa Patrice Thomas, “‘The Dedicated and the Committed’: An Examination of Burnout Within Peer Support for Transgender, Queer, and Non-Binary Volunteers,” (EdD diss., University of Southern California, 2021), 21–25 

Below we share our recommendations for strengthening existing structured support networks:

  • Strengthen recognition/compensation for support providers. Where possible, offer support providers financial compensation for their time. If union rules within a news organization make financial compensation infeasible, consider establishing performance-review criteria that recognize this work as a service to the organization or crediting related training as professional development. Civil society organizations facing funding limitations may consider offering a certificate or other credential that support providers can add to their résumé. Whatever the method, compensation and/or recognition can make participating in structured support networks more equitable and inclusive.
  • Design off-ramping processes for support providers. Develop a structured, explicit offboarding process for support providers to help avoid burnout and to cycle out providers who are not truly engaged or effective. Balancing flexibility with clear minimum participation requirements—and processes for removal if necessary—is essential to keeping a structured network vital, relevant, and responsive in the long term. Network organizers can facilitate this process by conducting regular check-ins with support providers and asking them to complete a brief self-assessment in advance.
  • Conduct creative outreach. For support networks operating within a news or civil society organization, consider moving beyond email blasts and message-board posts. Structured support network organizers could experiment with options such as reminders in email footers, presentation templates, and Zoom backgrounds. If the support network is part of an organization with a shared physical space, consider posting signs in bathrooms and shared kitchen or mail areas, and adding key information to employee ID cards. Adding a “public service announcement” to high-turnout organizational events or offering small incentives for watching a brief video or completing a quiz can help raise awareness about support network availability. Make it clear where experiences or concerns about online abuse can be shared, and don’t be afraid to “over-communicate.” As one midcareer journalist put it, organizations should be “signaling again and again, ‘[We] do this.’”66Midcareer woman of color investigative data journalist and professor, interview by Susan McGregor, April 2022.
  • Situate online abuse within broader organizational policies. Organizers of structured support networks should be transparent with participants about where there may be gaps and conflicts within the larger organization or the wider industry in responding to online abuse. In a news organization, this may be a difference in approach between newsroom management and human resources, while a civil society support network may advocate for approaches that industry organizations disfavor. By being transparent about how the support network’s approach may differ from that of other organizations or other parts of the same organization, organizers can help manage expectations and build trust. As one journalist put it, support networks should communicate clearly: “We won’t do everything. But here’s what we do.”67Midcareer woman of color investigative data journalist and professor, interview by Susan McGregor, April 2022.

Building Structured Support Networks in News Organizations from Scratch

In our research, we found that some news organizations have developed structured in-newsroom peer support networks. Those we described in greater detail earlier in this report partner with external clinical services to train and supervise peer support providers. While only a handful of news organizations can afford external clinical supervision, there are still opportunities to cultivate some type of in-newsroom support network, whatever the resource level of the organization. 

Building a support network from scratch does require some investment of time and money, but getting started could be as simple as setting aside an hour or two per month of on-the-clock time for participants to connect with one another, or to complete a support training program like psychological first aid, which can provide colleagues with strategies for helping one another effectively cope with psychological distress in times of crisis.68Psychological first aid (PFA), like traditional first aid, trains non-clinicians to recognize the behavioral symptoms of neurophysiological distress and provide immediate short-term support. PFA is an evidence-based approach that has been shown to improve long-term health outcomes across a range of cultures and contexts. “Johns Hopkins RAPID Psychological First Aid,” Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health, accessed November 27, 2023,; Jeffrey H. Fox et al., “The Effectiveness of Psychological First Aid as a Disaster Intervention Tool: Research Analysis of Peer-Reviewed Literature From 1990–2010,” Disaster Medicine and Public Health Preparedness 6, 3(April 8, 2013): 247–52, The following recommendations are intended to guide news organizations interested in creating an in-house support network or participating in industry-wide networks, based on our discussions with professionals who have recently initiated or are developing such networks:

  • Build buy-in with leadership and potential participants. Journalists need safe and constructive ways to surface their experiences with online abuse and other occupational stressors to institutional leadership and colleagues. One approach to garner the buy-in to build a support network is working with a trusted facilitator (either internal or external) to assemble anonymized staff experiences and desired interventions around online abuse.
  • Assess budget capacity. High turnover due to burnout and other adverse impacts of occupational stressors, including online abuse, is costly.69Steven Perlberg and Lara O’Reilly, “Newsrooms are Facing a Mental-Health Crisis, and Burnout is Driving Some Journalists to Quit,” Business Insider, April 9, 2021, Experts estimate that replacing a single staffer can cost an organization between 50 and 200 percent of their annual salary, so improving staff retention can significantly reduce overhead.70Shane McFeely and Ben Wigert, “This Fixable Problem Costs U.S. Businesses $1 Trillion,” Gallup, March 13, 2019,; “Journalism managers are burned out. Is it time for a work redesign?” American Press Institute, September 7, 2021, Consider the potential cost of turnover as a starting point for estimating what a support network could save the news organization. Think realistically about how your organization can provide support immediately, in terms of training time, administrative overhead, professional development, and other direct costs. 
  • Align confidentiality and escalation policies. Confidentiality is essential to any support network’s success. At the same time, designing privacy-preserving ways for network participants to communicate systemic issues (and successes!) back to organizational leadership is important for translating individual experiences into organizational insights that can make the workplace safer, more equitable, and more resilient for everyone.71Rosanna Bellini, et al., “SoK: Safer Digital–Safety Research Involving At-Risk Users,” in 2024 IEEE Symposium on Security and Privacy (SP), San Francisco, CA, USA, 2024 pp. 71–71, 
  • Design recruiting strategies that attract trusted leaders for the network. An anonymous process or form for nominating network leaders can reveal who has the trust and confidence of the newsroom. Evaluate how to make participation in the support network an attractive and sustainable option for those individuals.
  • Connect with others doing similar work. Contact similar media organizations or civil society organizations that have implemented support networks to exchange tips and lessons learned.
  • Communicate and situate. Communicate consistently—even repetitively—that the organization wants to more effectively support journalists experiencing online abuse and other occupational stressors, and has developed a support network as a space where those journalists can confidentially discuss those stressors. It also helps to forge connections across available departments (HR, general counsel, security team, etc.) where possible, to ensure that there is awareness of the resources and policies in place for dealing with online abuse.

Adapting the Small-Group Peer Support Model in the Journalism Industry

Organizations that are very small or have limited resources will undoubtedly struggle to organize robust in-house peer support networks that also have diverse representation. We see industry-wide, small-group peer support as an especially important component of reducing the harms of online abuse in the journalism industry because these groups could serve independent or freelance journalists, small newsrooms, and other journalistic organizations. In other words, industry-wide networks could allow a much wider and more diverse range of journalists to reap the health and professional benefits of small-group peer support.

While research on how to implement this approach in the journalism industry is ongoing, we see particular potential in adapting the small-group peer support model detailed in the Whitman-Walker case study above. In our view, a professional association, civil society organization, foundation, and/or consortium of news organizations could spearhead the effort to develop networks, recruit peer support facilitators, coordinate training, and contribute to compensation, as well as help connect these networks with groups of journalists seeking to support one another around a shared issue or experience. Organizers could help match participants to appropriate groups, manage the technologies needed to preserve anonymity and confidentiality, and coordinate regular support check-ins for the peer support facilitators.

Our findings suggest that such a model could help provide the connections that so many of our interviewees wanted, and would allow a much wider and more diverse community of journalists to reap the benefits of peer support, while also providing the consistency and confidentiality required to address some of the industry’s worst occupational stressors, including online abuse. An industry-wide effort should not and cannot function as a replacement for existing networks but can complement and work in concert with them. This will help provide what so many journalists are currently lacking when it comes to seeking support in their work: options. As one journalist put it, “People will tap into different networks whenever they need that particular network…I don’t think you should preclude one solution for every single person…because people are so different.”72Midcareer woman of color investigative data journalist and professor, interview by Susan McGregor, April 2022.

As such, we believe that industry-wide peer support networks can ensure that all journalists, if they need it, have somewhere to turn for help when facing online abuse and the other occupational hazards of contemporary journalism.

Looking Ahead: Building the Pillars of a Resilient Newsroom

By exploring peer support as an evidence-based method for mitigating the harms of online abuse, our goal is to offer the journalism industry in the United States actionable guidance that can help strengthen the field for journalists, organizations, and democracy as a whole.73Kaitlin C. Miller, “Harassment’s Toll on Democracy: The Effects of Harassment Towards US Journalists,” Journalism Practice (2021): 1–20, While our research reveals that existing support networks are an essential resource for many journalists, it also clearly indicates that there is a gap for journalists experiencing online abuse. In this report, we map out how organizations, particularly news and civil society organizations, can strengthen both existing organic and structured support networks, and we make the case that small-group peer support can serve as an effective and affordable model to help bridge this critical gap in support. 

Peer support is only one part of the more comprehensive approach needed to support journalists experiencing online abuse and foster a culture of safety in the media industry. A straightforward first step is for organizations across the journalism industry—from news organizations and professional associations to unions, universities with journalism programs, and civil society organizations—to acknowledge both internally and externally that online abuse causes real harm. The toll online abuse imposes on emotional, psychological, and physical well-being has made it a pervasive and effective tactic for curtailing press freedom and free expression.74“Threats to freedom of press: Violence, disinformation & censorship,” UNESCO, May 11, 2023,; Margaux Ewen and Sierra Reeves, “We Must Do More to Address the Online Harassment of Women Journalists,” Freedom House, November 2, 2023, While a wide range of civil society organizations have developed resources and training around online abuse—and some news organizations have developed explicit policies and procedures—much progress remains to be made.75For civil society organizations, see “Online Harassment Field Manual,” PEN America, accessed December 11, 2023,; “A Mental Health Guide for Journalists Facing Online Violence,” International Women’s Media Foundation, accessed December 11, 2023,; Gideon Sarpong, “Protecting journalists from online abuse: a guide for newsrooms,” Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, University of Oxford, April 4, 2022,; for newsrooms, see “Defector Annual Report, September 2020–August 2021,” Defector, October 4, 2021,; “Duty of Care,” Global Press, 2023, 

Given the many challenges and pressures faced by individual news organizations, we propose that the journalism industry—news organizations, professional associations, unions, civil society organizations, and/or philanthropists—partner to develop small-group peer support networks industry-wide. Growing such networks could also provide the types of interpersonal connections that so many of our participants described needing in order to make their careers sustainable in the long-term by ensuring that all journalists, if they need it, have somewhere to turn for help when facing online abuse and other occupational hazards. 

By focusing time, financial resources, and organizational energy on reducing the harm of online abuse through approaches like peer support, news organizations and the wider journalism industry can more effectively protect targeted individuals in both the short and long term, while also reducing the chilling effects of such attacks on other journalists. Most importantly, by strategically addressing this urgent problem, we can collectively ensure that the U.S. news industry remains a vital, resilient, and effective institution for many decades to come.


This report was written by Susan E. McGregor, research scholar at Columbia University’s Data Science Institute; Viktorya Vilk, director for digital safety and free expression at PEN America; and Jeje Mohamed, senior manager for digital safety and free expression at PEN America. PEN America’s chief program officer of Free Expression Programs, Summer Lopez, reviewed the report and offered thoughtful feedback, alongside PEN America staff James Tager, Ryan Howzell, Aashna Agarwal, and Doris Zhang. PEN America would also like to thank the fellows whose research, fact-checking,  proofreading, and communications support made this report possible: Bryn Carlson, Ciara Moezidis, Hannah Rodriguez, and Peyton Black. 

PEN America extends special thanks to the following experts for providing invaluable input on this report: Dr. Shanéa Thomas, assistant clinical professor at the University of Maryland School of Public Health; Dr. Emily Sachs, consulting psychologist at the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma; Emily May, president and cofounder of Right to Be; Ana Velasquez, public relations and online harassment manager at Right to Be; Jae Lin, programs manager at Feminist Frequency; and Dr. Rebecca Whittington, online safety editor at Reach plc. PEN America is also deeply grateful to the many journalists, organizers, and experts who agreed to be interviewed for this report, including those who are not acknowledged by name but shared their very personal and candid experiences with us.

Our deep abiding appreciation goes to the Democracy Fund and Craig Newmark Philanthropies for their support of this project. PEN America also receives financial support from Google and Meta, but those funds did not support the research, writing, or publication of this report. McGregor’s research and other work is  supported by the Data Science Institute and other departments and institutes at Columbia University, as well as the National Science Foundation, but these funds did not support the research, writing, or publication of this report.

The report was edited by Carol Balistreri. Pamela Parker did graphic design.