This article was provided by Eye on Ohio, the nonprofit, nonpartisan Ohio Center for Journalism in partnership with the nonprofit Matter News. Please join Eye on Ohio’s free mailing list and follow Matter News as this helps us provide more public service reporting.
Exacerbated by a polarized political climate, an increasing number of reporters in the U.S. are facing unrelenting threats of violence and harassment from people online. Here in Columbus, several reporters have experienced harassment directly.
“It was maybe a week after we ran the piece,” recalled Andy Downing, editor at Columbus Alive. “I started getting all these random calls on my cell phone, like from South Africa, just all over, leaving threatening voicemails.”
Downing said he then received a message from the other Alive editor who worked on the story, Joel Oliphint, telling him to check the homepage of The Daily Stormer, a white supremacist website. Downing and Oliphint had spent more than four months in 2016-2017 reporting a story on Andrew Anglin, a Worthington native and founder of the Nazi website.
“There was like a 4,000-word post about Joel and I. Pictures of us, pictures of our families, our kids,” Downing said. “My first daughter was six-months old at the time and she was on the website.”
The calls from strangers that Anglin had influenced to harass Downing and Oliphint eventually stopped a few months later. Although he said it doesn’t bother him anymore, Downing said the incident gave him a window into the experiences that women and people of color experience throughout their lives.
To get a rough estimate of the amount of online harassment, Eye on Ohio and Matter News looked at a large sample of tweets directed at Ohio political journalists recently, using text analysis tools. (See our methodology here.)
Overall, replies contained a large number of negative words compared to positive ones.
The tweet that generated the most negative response was a post from Cleveland.com reporter Sabrina Eaton, who shared her story on the clash between Rep. Jim Jordan and Dr. Anthony Fauci.
The most popular words in the same also reflected Twitter users’ interest in the issue:
Commenters also often shared links (the “t.co” and “https”), referenced other journalists, and told others to shut their mouths.
Ohio Journalists, though, weren’t the only ones to elicit a gloomy reaction.
A similar sample of tweets directed at Ohio politicians also contained many more negative words overall.
Tweets that users directed at Ohio politicians loved to reference the founders, Rep. Mike Loychik, and voting.
In comparison, popular topics such as NASA photos, kittens and sunshine were generally very positive.
But Eaton isn’t alone in experiencing a surge in online negativity and harassment. In 2020, UNESCO released a survey study on women journalists that revealed more than 70% of respondents had experienced some form of online violence in their work.
Some journalists have coped with this extreme increase in online harassment by concealing their identity when publishing, reducing the number of stories they create, and even leaving journalism entirely — making online violence against journalists a significant press freedom issue, according to the DART Center for Journalism and Trauma.
The balance of journalism and press freedom is a push and pull between many forces, including between reader and journalist. That delicate relationship is one reason why Doug Oplinger decided to bring journalists and readers together offline through Your Voice Ohio, a project out of the nonpartisan Center for New Democratic Processes.
During three-day in-person dialogues, Your Voice Ohio brings roundtables of journalists and community members together to discuss how to best cover issues of community importance.
“When people first enter the room, they dislike the media, consider it biased, liberal and not factual,” Oplinger, project manager for Your Voice Ohio, said.
The dialogues help build community connections between readers and journalists, and give journalists the opportunity to share the processes and struggles associated with newsgathering, such as being harassed and intimidated online for pursuing certain stories.
“People tend not to know when they are being harmed by journalist-intimidation because we never tell them of the intimidation and the reasons we think it’s important to be working on the story in the first place,” Oplinger said in an email.