How Reputational Attacks Harm Journalists, Undermine Press Freedom – Report

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More than 60 per cent of journalists surveyed as part of a new research project reported at least monthly attacks on their personal reputations.

The Global Reporting Centre and the Committee to Protect Journalists conducted the survey to investigate the effects of disinformation and harassment targeting journalists.

Initial details from the study were released to mark May 3, World Press Freedom Day, and full details of the report were made available this week.

A “reputational attack” is defined in the report as “public messages intended to discredit, delegitimise, or dehumanise journalists. They often take the form of false or misleading accusations, like claims of corruption or incompetence.”

Some of the attacks consist of one-off social media messages, while others are “coordinated smear campaigns,” the report said.

Research for the project was primarily conducted in 2022 and early 2023.

Findings

Details of the report show at least 63 per cent of journalists surveyed reported at least monthly attacks on their individual reputations — and 19 per cent reported facing attacks daily. These journalists reported higher rates of attacks on the reputations of their media outlets (75 per cent) and the broader news media sector (90 per cent).

The most common sources of reputational attacks were politicians and public officials (reported by 72 per cent of respondents).

Respondents in countries with low levels of press freedom reported considerably more reputational attacks from politicians and political parties in power than those in high press freedom countries (58 per cent vs. 22 per cent).

“This is a significant distinction because those who control the government have greater access to resources and influence with agencies (like the police) that can be deployed in tandem with reputational attacks,” the report said.

Similarly, false or misleading accusations of political bias were the most commonly reported form of personal reputational attacks (54 per cent of respondents), followed by claims of incompetence (43 per cent) or unethical conduct (42 per cent).

“These are concerning findings because reputations are critical in journalism,” the researchers said. “A journalist’s reputation affects whether they are heard and believed, trusted by potential sources, and often whether they can survive economically.”

Reputational attacks on journalists are increasing due to changes in the information environment (including the rise of social media platforms) and political landscapes (such as the global trend of democratic backsliding).

At the same time, press freedom and trust in journalism appear to be in decline globally, and threats to journalists’ safety are on the rise.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), at least 67 journalists and media workers were killed in 2022, the highest since 2018, and a record 363 were in jail as of December 1, 2022.

In Nigeria, the Press Attack Tracker, a platform that tracks attacks on journalists, reported that at least 179 cases of attacks on journalists were recorded in the last four years. State actors account for half of the attacks, while non-state actors account for 36.4 per cent and unknown persons for 13.6 per cent.

The new report by the Global Reporting Centre investigated how widespread reputational attacks contribute to the risks and challenges that journalists face.

“Journalists who faced frequent (at least weekly) reputational attacks were much more likely to have been physically attacked or threatened with violence,” the report said.

While the survey can not reveal a causal relationship, some interviewees described “cases in which reputational attacks led directly to assaults or serious threats.”

“Journalists who faced frequent reputational attacks were more likely to have experienced harm to their mental and physical health, to have seriously considered quitting journalism, and to have relocated from their city or country to avoid or mitigate threats. They were also more likely to face legal repression, that is, be targeted with arrest or legal actions because of their work,” the report said.

These findings suggest that reputational attacks can have a negative impact on journalists’ autonomy and ability to do their jobs.

At least 40 per cent of respondents said that they changed or reduced their reporting on some issues to avoid efforts to discredit or harass them.

The reported rate of this “chilling effect” was fairly consistent across the board, even among respondents who faced relatively infrequent reputational attacks.

In addition, journalists who belong to marginalised racial, ethnic, or religious groups in their countries reported more frequent reputational attacks. At least 48 per cent of these respondents experienced weekly reputational attacks, and 23 per cent faced weekly attacks targeting their identity.

By contrast, these numbers were 33 per cent and 5 per cent for respondents who did not identify as belonging to marginalised groups.

Similarly, respondents who identified as belonging to marginalised racial, ethnic, or religious groups were more likely to have been a victim of a physical attack, to have been threatened with non-sexual violence, to have considered quitting journalism, to be displaced from the city/region/country they report from, and to experience harm to their mental health.

Gender is another important dimension of reputational attacks.

The survey found that women received reputational attacks at comparable rates to men, but the forms differed.

Respondents who identified as men were more likely to be accused of committing a crime while respondents who identified as women were more likely to be attacked based on their gender or sexual orientation, and more likely to face sexualised harassment and threats of sexual violence.

Women also reported higher rates of harm to their mental health (63 per cent versus 49 per cent for men), the report noted.

Based on our findings and existing literature, the researchers argue that reputational attacks warrant more attention.

“They are not “just words” and they are not productive media criticism. They can cause or exacerbate personal and professional harms to journalists,” the researchers said. “They can be used strategically to complement or increase the likelihood that journalists will face violence, legal repression, or other severe attacks on their safety and autonomy.”

Recommendations

The report recommends that newsrooms, press freedom bodies, and civil society organisations should develop monitoring systems to identify reputational attacks and harassment targeting journalists.

These groups are also advised to develop best practices to defend journalists’ reputations, from expressions of public support to legal action against those who defame or threaten journalists.

“Newsrooms should establish protocols to support journalists who face attacks on their reputations and harassment. Protocols should include preventive measures like cyber-security training and reactive measures like legal and psychological assistance,” the report said, “Journalists should not be left to cope with reputational attacks on their own.”

It added that social media companies should improve their anti-abuse tools, content moderation, and capacity to assist targeted journalists, along with providing greater transparency to independent researchers and civil society organisations.

“Governments should also strengthen commitments to protect journalists’ rights and freedom of the press and hold to account those who violate journalists’ rights — including other governments.

“More broadly, actions must be taken to address the systemic and ongoing damage to journalism and public discourse. This can poison the atmosphere for journalism more generally, undermining journalists’ collective safety and ability to promote accountability, truth-telling, and democracy,” the report concluded.

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