Political Season and Journalism: Overview of Threats and Tactics

Dr. Michelle Ferrier, a digital content architect with 30 years of experience in media entrepreneurship and a founder of, joined ElectionSOS for a conversation about threats journalists face this election season and how they can protect themselves. 

Key Takeaways & Best Practices:

  • In the last 5 years, threats of violence against journalists have increased, with women and other minorities bearing the brunt of the assault.
    • 63% of female journalists surveyed in 2018 had experienced some form of online harassment or threat.
    • 58% had experienced in-person threats or harassment.
    • 26% reported having been physically attacked.
    • 10% had received death threats.
  • The survey observed 5 major contributing factors to the rise in online abuse towards female journalists:
    • Gender
    • The stories or beats covered
    • The changing reputation of journalism
    • The current media climate, including claims of “fake news”
    • The angle or way in which a story was reported
  • The overwhelming effect of this increased abuse is a corresponding increase in self-censorship by journalists.
  • Other effects on journalists include:
    • irritability (and other symptoms of PTSD) when thinking about the abusive incident
    • discomfort
    • difficulty concentrating on work
    • avoidance of people or places that call to mind the abusive incident
    • leaving the profession
    • fear of reprisal by their own organizations
  • Ways in which journalists can protect themselves online.
  • Misinformation and disinformation form part of the same campaign as online harassment. Both seek to eliminate diverse voices and discredit journalism.
  • Trolls use subreddits and other well-guarded forums to coordinate attacks on journalists. They have sophisticated methods to get around the platform’s algorithmic filters, such as using memes (which the system cannot read automatically) and a mix of characters and emoji to get abusive messages past platform settings.
  • To prepare for this election season, ask yourself some Threat Modeling 101 Questions:
    • What do you want to protect? Make a list of assets. It can range from “my passwords” to “my family.”
    • Who do you want to protect it from? Identify potential enemies, whether anonymous trolls, hackers, etc.
    • What happens if I fail? This can include impact on your work, health, and so on.
    • How likely is the threat?
    • What are you willing to do to prevent potential consequences? How much money are you willing to spend? What trainings do you wish to attend? How much time do you want to devote to this?
  • Think about your holistic security, which consists of physical security, psycho-social security, and digital security.

Next Steps: