Players in news industry join up to tackle onslaught of online hate

2021.11.04

Allan Thompson, journalism professor Allan Thompson, a journalism professor at Carleton University, opens the virtual roundtable in which moderators, panellists and invited guests discussed what can or should be done about the wave of online hate directed at journalists.

DEBORAH RICHMOND | Web Editor

Representatives from every corner of the news industry are coming together to call for action and to develop a strategy to thwart a tsunami of hate targeting Canadian journalists, especially women and people of colour.

CWA Canada President Martin O’Hanlon said the media union is working with journalism groups, the labour movement, academics and employers to put a stop to the vile sexist and racist comments and threats delivered via social media, email, voicemail and internet forums.

“This is illegal. It is harassment and hate, and it must not be tolerated,” O’Hanlon said in a statement issued Oct. 5. “As a union that represents 6,000 media workers, we call on law enforcement to urgently investigate these incidents and prosecute those responsible.”

CWA Canada was also a signatory to a statement issued by media outlets across the country and organizations that represent journalists:

“A strong, diverse media is vital for a well-informed, democratic society. While criticism is an integral part of journalism and democracy, there can be no tolerance for hate and harassment of journalists or for incitement of attacks on journalists doing their jobs.

“We are united in supporting our journalists and newsrooms against those who seek to silence their stories and threaten their safety. Together, we will continue to advocate for industry-wide responses to end this behaviour.”

On Oct. 21, the Canadian Association of Journalists (CAJ) and Carleton University’s School of Journalism and Communication convened an invite-only virtual roundtable — “Journalists and Online Hate” — to have a wide-ranging discussion and brainstorm possible solutions.

Facilitators and panellists, including Kim Trynacity, who represented CWA Canada, heard from journalists who’ve experienced hateful messages and delved into topics ranging from the workplace to enforcement, security, community and self-care. The sessions culminated in crowdsourcing ideas for a co-ordinated action plan.

An independent journalist, hired with support from the Canadian Journalism Foundation, sat in on the roundtable and is expected to produce a report later this fall.

An alarming increase in harassment of journalists in late September on the heels of the federal election spurred the collective efforts to confront the problem.

Maxime Bernier, leader of the People’s Party of Canada, posted a message on Twitter on Sept. 22 encouraging his supporters to “play dirty” with three reporters covering his campaign and tweeted out their email addresses.

The next day, O’Hanlon reacted on the union’s Facebook page:

“CWA Canada strongly condemns Maxime Bernier for recklessly and maliciously targeting journalists who are simply doing their jobs. Bernier must know that he is inciting radicals, endangering journalists, and undermining democracy. We expect this in dictatorships, not Canada. We call on Bernier to apologize immediately and remind his supporters to respect the media and its vital role as a pillar of democracy.”

On Sept. 29, the CAJ called for “swift and decisive action from authorities in response to a recent wave of targeted threats made against multiple Canadian journalists.”

“Over the past week” dozens of reporters “have been inundated with intimidating emails and messages on social media with threats of violence, sexual assault, harassment, and death. In an effort to ensure their safety, journalists have had to scour the internet to ensure their personal information is not available,” said Brent Jolly, CAJ president.

“The messages being directed towards reporters and editors are absolutely vile, deplorable, and completely unacceptable.”

Broadcaster Jody Vance wants fellow journalists to catalogue every interaction they have with harassers and report them to their employers and local police.

She went public in an interview with The Globe and Mail after a man was arrested at the end of September and “signed an undertaking with the Vancouver Police Department in which he agreed not to contact her before a court date in the new year.”

The talk-radio host on CKNW had endured several years of misogynistic and violent email messages from one person in particular. She had reported the growing barrage to her employer who took steps to protect her. But after she began receiving threats targeting her son, she finally went to police.

“I put it in my mind that it would make me somehow high-maintenance, and I’ve learned that’s not the case,” Vance told the Globe.

Also taking steps to deal with harassment is the public broadcaster, which announced on Nov. 1 that it was permanently closing comments on CBC-branded Facebook pages in News, Current Affairs and Local.

Brodie Fenlon, editor-in-chief of CBC News, said it was the result of an experiment begun in June because “we were seeing an inordinate amount of hate, abuse, misogyny and threats in the comments under our stories. Our story subjects were attacked. Other commenters were attacked. Our journalists were attacked. Misinformation and disinformation were rife.”

“To be clear,” wrote Fenlon, “we aren’t interested in curtailing genuine criticism of our journalism, which we welcome (you can find plenty of it in the comments on the stories on our news site, which are closely moderated). We’re talking instead about trying to stop, in the online places where we have some control at least, the vile abuse, personal harassment and misinformation that’s so damaging to public discourse.

“The experiment has been a positive one. We are now posting more diverse stories than ever to Facebook. We are no longer moderating a space with few controls. The impact on our web traffic has been marginal. The well-being of our staff has improved, according to an internal survey we conducted during the experiment.”

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