Being a reporter is a public-facing profession by nature, and the exposure that accompanies a byline often comes with harassment, unwanted critiques, and ridicule from strangers and sources. Veteran reporters with years of experience have a hard enough time navigating harassment, especially if they’re from marginalized communities. But unlike reporters for major news platforms, who may receive a measure of respect due to their personal reputation or the reputation of their news outlets, student journalists aren’t always considered serious or “real” journalists due to their inexperience. Often, that means their rookie status makes them even more vulnerable to harassment. The level of vitriol can be unnerving, especially when no one has prepared them for the harsh, boundary-crossing, uncomfortable situations they’ll inevitably face throughout the course of their career. As harassment of journalists grows more widespread—both nationally and internationally—students’ experiences raise the question of whether their education ought to include training for dealing with the new reality.
That preparation might have made a difference for Emalyn Muzzy, an incoming senior at the University of Minnesota. In June, Muzzy was working for the student newspaper, The Minnesota Daily, and writing an article about how local businesses near the university felt about mask mandates being lifted in the city. A business owner responded to Muzzy’s inquiry for a response by criticizing her reporting skills, told her that no one cared about the topic she was reporting on, refused to discuss the subject matter she requested, and told her that if she really wants to be a successful journalist, she should focus on a different topic.
“I’ve never had someone be that condescending towards me,” Muzzy said.
While Muzzy’s professors had briefly mentioned that journalists get harassed, none of them actually taught students how best to respond when it happens, or how to cope with the emotional impact. Baffled by the owner’s response, Muzzy decided to take a screenshot of the email and share it on Twitter. Typically, Muzzy only received a handful of reactions to her posts, usually from other student journalists, but once she shared the screenshot, reactions rapidly flew in, eventually reaching over 3,000 likes, 400 retweets, and hundreds of comments.
“At first, I saw the comments that were nicer, and then the mean ones started rolling in that were calling me a bad reporter, and it was just so overwhelming,” Muzzy said. “It was a very stressful couple of days and I eventually had to turn off all of my Twitter notifications. I still have my Twitter notifications turned off. I’m afraid to turn them back on. Then I just deleted Twitter for a couple days and refused the login because it was just too much.”
After the owner expressed his anger and frustration over Muzzy posting his email, she decided to delete the post to avoid harming his business. In response to how the situation unfolded, The Minnesota Daily now plans to implement training in the fall to teach its reporters how to handle similar situations in the future. Muzzy is feeling better about the experience now, but the reactions from both the business owner and the Twitter commenters still stung.
“It’s not so bad when there’s only one or two people that are coming at you for how you handled a stressful situation, but when you start to have more than that, it really gets to you,” Muzzy said. “I don’t regret it, but I wouldn’t do it again.”
Harassment training in the classroom
Journalists receive harassment that can go much deeper than critical emails or rude remarks in the comment section of an article. In some cases, it can escalate to doxxing or even stalking. Journalism professors have been noticing that harassment and rudeness toward their students is becoming a growing phenomenon, and now some are trying to incorporate it into their curriculum to help them prepare.
Meg Heckman, assistant professor of journalism and media innovation at Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts, is currently working with colleagues to collect data on the harassment of student journalists. The idea to study the issue came after a discussion with fellow professors about the increasing number of students complaining about the harshness they received from sources when they’re out reporting.
“I’ve seen issues on several levels,” Heckman said. “There are far fewer people who are willing to let students practice interviewing. The other thing that I have noticed is that a lot more students are being threatened when they’re out in the field, are hung up on, are yelled at, [and] are called names—both in person and online—just for identifying as a journalist.”
Though her research is in its preliminary stages, Heckman said she is eager to see what the extent of the harassment is. She believes the anti-press, anti-journalist rhetoric that has been going on in the U.S. and around the world in recent years is beginning to have a ripple effect that impacts journalists-in-training.
“People just feel like they can say whatever they want to a journalist,” Heckman said. “Not everybody has to talk to us, and that’s totally fine, but in the course of saying ‘no,’ you don’t have to scream at an 18-year-old who is doing a class assignment.”
Heckman says one of the most important pieces of advice she gives her students is that no story is worth their life or physical safety, and to assess the risks and remove themselves from any situation they feel isn’t right.
“We can’t protect students from people being rude to them,” Heckman said. “That’s just life. But there’s a difference between someone being rude and someone being threatening, and in my experience with my students, it feels like there has been an increase in threatening interactions.”
In 2018, researchers at the University of Texas at Austin who examined the harassment of women journalists said journalism students “should be taught how to deflect what they may face online, so it does not hamper their ability to engage online.” The following year, the Committee to Protect Journalists released a survey that included student journalists, full-time journalists, freelancers, and journalism academics. Eighty-five percent of respondents said they felt journalists had become less safe over the previous five years, and only 44% said they had received training for it. That’s where people like Karen Chasen step in. Chasen is the vice president of Prepare Inc., an educational services organization that offers comprehensive violence prevention programs. She gives annual presentations to journalism students at Columbia University about maintaining appropriate boundaries with classmates, colleagues, sources, and editors.
“When it comes to the question of what harassments and threats student journalists should be aware of, we talk about the different strategies of manipulation, the rhetoric of persuasion for moving people into behaving in ways that are against their better judgment or against their own interests, and how boundary-crossers use them,” Chasen said. “We talk a lot about dealing with people you know. ‘Stranger danger’ is a thing, but for most journalists, inappropriate behaviors are much more likely to come from someone that they know, like their boss or their videographer or their fixer.”
Chasen said she regularly receives questions from program participants who have concerns that multiple aspects of their identity make them more vulnerable to threats, attacks, and harassment.
“They want to know which resistance strategies that they can act out safely without certain consequences,” Chasen said. “There’s no magic wand to make that a better situation because of our social construct right now. I talk to people who feel more marginalized or have lower power, and acknowledge that it’s gonna be harder to go it alone, to make a report or an accusation on their own, to resist on their own. I ask them, ‘Who are your allies, and how do you build a team of people [around you]?’”
Chasen doesn’t offer “do’s and don’ts” to students for how to handle harassment or uncomfortable situations during her lectures because there’s no one-size-fits-all answer. Instead, she offers a wide range of strategic and verbal options to consider for handling or de-escalating conflicts with different types of people: temporarily ignoring the harassment with a “wait and see” plan, speaking up to the person who is harassing them, turning to management or other allies for support, using a different person to work with or as a source, trying to go to a different source, or bringing someone with them the next time they plan to enter an uncomfortable situation.
‘I don’t necessarily know what to do’
Journalism students at Columbia University might be getting some guidance on how to handle harassment, but many students at other universities aren’t as fortunate. Despite the lack of instruction in how to handle harassment, student journalists are aware that it’s a growing problem, and some have even been covering the issue in their campus newspapers. Some students have warned that professors who are slow to incorporate harassment discussions into the curriculum can leave students unprepared for potentially dangerous or traumatizing situations—and that can have tangible consequences.
“It takes a toll on [student journalists] to know that for every desire they have to speak their mind, there exists someone with the desire to threaten them,” wrote Isabella Soto, a former writer for The Daily Northwestern, Northwestern University’s student newspaper, in 2017. “It affects daily life and school work, and it is an anxiety-provoking endeavor to await these messages, regardless if you’ve blocked the sender or sent all the messages to spam.”
Vesper Henry, a nonbinary student journalist at the Grady College of Journalism at the University of Georgia, has been writing for their campus newspaper, The Red & Black, for the past three years. They said that beyond suggesting that some students attend certain protests together for protection, no professors have offered any instruction about what students should do when they inevitably have to deal with online trolls, in-person harassment, or hostile sources.
“To be honest, I don’t necessarily know what to do if someone approaches me while I’m out reporting, other than what I’ve learned as an AFAB (assigned female at birth) person who has walked the world by themself,” Henry said. “What I think should be taught is conflict de-escalation, as well as some degree of self-defense.”
Henry is aware that their nonbinary status could make them a target for offensive comments or harassment. They are currently applying for internships at newspapers and are mentally preparing for potential harassment that could be unleashed when they start working for a more notable news outlet. In order to help student journalists and professional journalists cope with harassment and the everyday stressors of the job, Henry believes schools and news organizations need to prioritize the mental well-being of their students and staff.
“The journalism industry as a whole and journalism schools need to put a better and more authentic emphasis on mental health and self-care,” Henry said. “And I don’t mean just saying, ‘Here’s a bath bomb. Take a day off, even though you’re gonna have to make up all that work on your day off.’ We need to have real conversations about mental health, and especially the impact it can have on journalists—especially marginalized journalists, BIPOC journalists, queer journalists, and queer BIPOC journalists.”