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University of Wisconsin–Madison

Category: HOMEPAGE FEATURE

The “fundamental, non-politicized ideal”: toward a new BLM coverage

#BlackLivesMatter protest in Stockholm, Sweden. Photo by Teemu Paananen on Unsplash

When news of another fatal police shooting broke in the U.S. in late October, the first headline Anita Varma saw didn’t include any mention of the victim’s name. 

“The first news notification I got was about a Footlocker that was looted,” says Varma, an assistant director for the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University. “In that moment I didn’t know about Walter Wallace Jr., what had happened, the mental health crisis or the police shooting him,” says Varma. “It was sobering.”  

Unfortunately, the tendency to foreground the physical destruction that follows some police shootings is common in the news media. Some news outlets have long emphasized incidents of property destruction or vandalism – categorized as “riots” or “lawlessness” – in their coverage of movements or issues affecting Black people. 

Reignited after the killing of George Floyd, nationwide protests by the Black Lives Matter movement brought the call for defunding law enforcement to the frontline of American discourse. While such movements are not new, for many journalists working today, the challenges of covering this moment are. 

From sensationalism to implicit biases, news media have struggled over the past year to understand and report on this movement, exposing the need for journalists and newsrooms to reconsider their role in representing, framing and sharing movement stories. 

WHAT IS NEWSWORTHY?

As journalists, editors and media professionals report on unfolding protests, the decision-making process to determine what details or stories are meaningful and relevant can often be hurried and hasty. This can result in misleading and largely inaccurate coverage that nonetheless holds the power to strongly influence readers’ perceptions of the event. 

“It boils down to how journalists and editors are making decisions about what is newsworthy,” Varma says. “Is it only newsworthy if there’s a fire? Can it be newsworthy that this many people are concerned, and what are they trying to accomplish by coming together?” 

Much of this coverage ignores peaceful congregations and organized viewpoints to instead concentrate on property destruction.

In June, The New York Times published the highly-criticized and controversial opinion piece “Send In The Troops” by U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton. In it, Cotton described the Black Lives Matter demonstrations as “an orgy of violence” and argued for military interventions. And while Cotton is far from a journalist, the editors’ decision to publish it matters. 

The New York Times attempted to foster conversation by platforming the opposing side, but when Cotton failed to ground his counterargument to the demands of the demonstrators the op-ed became an exercise in sensationalism. The Times failed to recognize or correct Cotton’s mischaracterization of the movement and in fact gave his ideas a broader audience. 

THE LANGUAGE THAT DELEGITIMIZES PROTEST

Danielle Kilgo, a professor of journalism at the University of Minnesota, researches the way news outlets have used words such as “riot” to delegitimize protests of anti-Black racism. Her research shows  that anti-Black racism demonstrations tend to be trivialized in the media by a focus on dramatic moments rather than ideology. 

“Mainly the way these protests become delegitimized is by focusing on the actions and extending the narrative that the protests are extremely disruptive, chaotic, not politically normal,” Kilgo says.

Kilgo found that demonstrations against anti-Black racism often lacked quotes from protestors involved, but highlighted views from officials who were opposed to the protests. The coverage also relied on sensational aspects to frame the story as an event rather than a movement. This lack of context, or meaningful exploration of what motivates protestors, cannot do justice to a growing social conversation. 

Fair coverage of protests means using a framing that focuses on the movement’s demands. Even when reporting on individual demonstrations, journalists should first and foremost center the protest’s message and provide adequate context for their demands. 

THE PROTEST PARADIGM

Characterizing social unrest as a riot fundamentally influences the reader’s perception of the movement and its intention, which tends to lower public support. Media scholar Douglas McLeod has researched a phenomenon he dubbed the “protest paradigm,” a tendency to portray protests as dangerous or without meaningful impact.

“Framing in terms of how you tell the story, a lot of times it is about looting and property damage, burning a police car, going into stores, stealing stuff, and there’s kind of an assumption that the people that were looting those stores were the protesters themselves,” McLeod says. “There’s kind of an implication that they weren’t interested in any social justice, but were interested in getting theirs. This goes without ever stopping to ask questions like, ‘Were the people who are engaged in looting actually part of the protest group?’” 

Newsrooms commonly categorize all protestors and all property damage as part of the movement, without verifiable proof. McLeod, who has studied protest coverage and this paradigm for more than 30 years has seen the persistence of this misperception. 

“One of the things that the media does is they kind of define things, define situations, define what happened and what went down. So what was the protest about? Looting? Anger? Civil disobedience? We tend to ignore the less dynamic things like children walking hand-in-hand, calling for peace and understanding that doesn’t make good TV news,” McLeod says. 

When movements and protests seek out media coverage, the temptation is to shift their actions to fit the criteria set by the outlets for what is considered newsworthy. This often results in more violent demonstrations to gain the necessary news coverage. Journalists and editors thus not only have the power to shift public perception of a movement but to influence the movement’s actions.

THE FUTURE

While “objectivity” has been a journalistic cornerstone for a long time, its value to newsrooms is increasingly in question. Media outlets are beginning to grapple with their role in maintaining the status quo and the harm that has been done to the most vulnerable communities. A hard look at the way protest narratives are framed is a crucial place for this reevaluation.

“Starting stories with the perspective of the people who are showing up can be a major intervention,” says Varma, whose research focuses on journalistic solidarity with the public. “Once journalists and news outlets have that defined, they are much less likely to lose sight of that issue.” 

The perspective of the individuals involved is critical to capturing the full scope of an individual demonstration. It can radically change the reader’s perception of the demonstration and help break down the movement’s intentions. 

A sensationalized focus on destruction without the perspective of protesters largely ignores any insight into the movement. Instead, journalists must recognize the power they have in representing movements and use that power to accurately report the movement’s purpose.

“If we can get journalists, editors and newsrooms to shift to this fundamental, non-politicized ideal that human rights should be privileged and to look at our journalistic ethics that show this is what we are supposed to do in the first place, then that will plant the seed for a better future,” Kilgo says.

See also, “Five problems with your protest coverage: what reporters and news consumers need to know about protest narratives.”

The Center for Journalism Ethics encourages the highest standards in journalism ethics worldwide. We foster vigorous debate about ethical practices in journalism and provide a resource for producers, consumers and students of journalism. Sign up for our quarterly newsletter here. 

The Indigenous affairs news desk: “We’re the only ones in the room listening”

Photos of Texas Observed editor-in-chief Tristan Ahtone (left) and Indigenous affairs reporter Pauly Denetclaw (right).
Tristan Ahtone and Pauly Denetclaw

A Q&A w/ Texas Observer editor-in-chief Tristan Ahtone and reporter Pauly Denetclaw

When Texas Observer editor-in-chief Tristan Ahtone announced in October that the 66-year-old Austin-based news nonprofit and magazine would create an Indigenous affairs desk, he pointed to the state’s six state and federally recognized tribes, as well as dozens of tribes that the state has displaced and yet more that the state has decimated or disbanded. 

“For whatever reason, news organizations in Texas don’t report on Indigenous communities. The Texas Observer intends to be different,” Ahtone wrote. 

The announcement came just three months after Ahtone stepped into the Observer’s top role, and he’d been planning for it before accepting the job. A member of the Kiowa tribe, he’d helped High Country News create its Indigenous affairs desk and later became its first editor. He wasn’t interested in working for an outlet that wasn’t willing to create such a desk. 

The Observer has received a year of funding for this reporting from the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, but Ahtone aims to continue the effort after the initial funding runs out. 

Leading the reporting is Pauly Denetclaw, a citizen of the Navajo Nation, who spent three years reporting for the Navajo Times. Since joining the Observer in September, Denetclaw has reported on families’ calls for investigations following the deaths of two Navajo soldiers at the Fort Hood Army base  and the unprecedented steps tribes in Texas have taken to control the coronavirus. Her latest story reveals that, as U.S. companies race to build the 650,000 new cell towers needed to make 5G cellular networks a reality, Texas tribes have been inundated with building requests, often without enough time to research whether the project would damage a cemetery or a place of religious or historical significance. 

“The great thing about reporting in Indian Country is you can just throw a microphone in a room and walk away with a story,” Ahtone said. “I think one of the greatest advantages here, which feels really weird to be an advantage, is apparently we’re the only ones in the room listening. It’s just completely untapped.”

Ahtone and Denetclaw sat down (virtually) with Center for Journalism Ethics contributor Natalie Yahr to discuss why this beat matters, how news media can begin to undo years of harm to Native communities and why writing with Native readers in mind can make for better stories.

These desks are not yet a common thing. What’s the case for why an outlet should consider making this a priority?

AHTONE: You’re right that they’re not exactly common at least in terms of mainstream or legacy outlets, but I think, to date, we’re looking at more than 30 Indigenous affairs desks around the country. There are quite a number. The catch, obviously, is that these aren’t being adopted by large newsrooms like the Washington Post or the LA Times or The New York Times, and especially not television outlets either. I guess I would just say that you’re not serving your audience if you don’t have somebody who covers Indigenous communities. And I guess I would argue that if your newsroom is sort of taking the active stance of not diversifying and ignoring Indigenous voices or expertise in covering Indigenous communities, it’s hard to hide the sort of colonial nature of your news outlet.

DENETCLAW: If you don’t have a designated person to report on Indigenous communities, it’s just not going to happen. Maybe around specific dates like Thanksgiving and Native American Heritage Month, as well as Indigenous Peoples Day, but Indigenous communities should be covered year-round. And I think that is a disservice to the entire community that you are reporting for because Indigenous people live all over the United States in urban areas. 

Absolutely. I worked on a story about a year ago about Native American law students here in Wisconsin, and the students I spoke to talked about how, at some point in their schooling, other students told them that they didn’t think Native Americans were still around. What kind of responsibility do you think news media have for that misconception? 

DENETCLAW: That narrative is very common. The media is responsible for this narrative that Indigenous people don’t exist, so it is the responsibility of media to tell Indigenous stories and correct the misconception that was created through media. 

AHTONE: I would just add to that, in terms of looking at the history of a lot of journalism outlets, 100 years ago, even 50 years ago, we’re looking at outlets that are calling either for the active removal or outright killing or assimilation of Native people. So there is a deep-rooted history, and I think one of the things that we see when it comes to the sort of reckoning that’s going on in journalism right now is that there is one area that journalists refuse to touch, and that is any sort of reconciliation for treatment of Indigenous people.

For those reporters and editors who are working at outlets that don’t yet have an Indigenous Affairs desk, do you have suggestions for how to try to be watching for the stories that matter?

AHTONE: I think it’s just really being aware of what communities are in your state or your coverage area. At NAJA (the Native American Journalists Association), we put together a worksheet to help reporters start looking at different Indigenous nations that they may be reporting on. It’s just got such basic stuff like, How is their government set up? Who’s their primary leader? What is their economy? I think these are all things that editors and reporters just tend to not think about. One of the big examples that I come back to a lot is that there were dozens and dozens reporters out at Standing Rock (for the Dakota Pipeline protests), but we’d talk to folks after Standing Rock who wouldn’t be able to tell you what their economy was or where money came from or couldn’t tell you who famous tribal members were. You sort of got the impression very quickly that there was absolutely no research put into anything else about the tribe other than Standing Rock itself. What we advocate for is that you have to treat coverage of Indigenous communities a lot like foreign correspondence. It’s not an exact sort of one-to-one, but you have to treat Indian Country like an archipelago of different small islands and chains that are connected to each other, but also very, very different from each other.

DENETCLAW: I think that it’s also just really important for folks to understand that Native nations and being Native American is a political classification, not a racial classification. And I think that when that distinction doesn’t get made, then issues around the Indian Child Welfare Act get misreported. And so I think it’s very important to also have a very small understanding of federal Indian law in order to tell these stories accurately.

And how about for outlets whose coverage area might not include a tribal government — how should they be thinking about covering Native Americans in their area? 

AHTONE: I would say that it just requires reporters to think differently about Indians. If the idea is that you can only be tied to covering Indian Country if you’re near a reservation but can’t see Indigenous people outside of that setting, then I would argue that that’s something that’s wrong with the editors and reporters. 

DENETCLAW: Also, Native folks who live in urban areas do have different issues that they have to overcome versus folks who live in their Native communities or those who live in rural areas. Many places have Indian centers that work on these issues, and that is also a great place to reach out to.

Pauly, this is your first staff job at a non-Native news outlet. What’s different about reporting on Indigenous communities and Indigenous issues for a mainstream audience versus at a Native outlet?

DENETCLAW: Just explaining a little bit more. (When I worked) at the Navajo Times, our tribe’s newspaper, most of our audience were folks from my tribe, so there was a basic level of understanding. And now that I’m writing for a more diverse audience, there’s history that is also worth reporting on, and it’s very interesting.

AHTONE: I would add that, unless you’re reporting directly for your own tribe, the same rules apply for other Native readers. I think one of the big differences is, as reporters, we have a higher standard of work ethic that we have to reach, mainly because we run into people again. You know, Indian Country is technically a small place. It is very rare that I don’t see a source again. That is something that I think non-Native reporters don’t have to worry about. When they get it wrong, they don’t have to come back and deal with the consequences as members of the community. 

When you report on Native communities, how do you think about who your audience is and who you’re reporting for?

AHTONE: I always think about our audience as other Native readers. One, it just really helps to sort of think about who you’re serving, regardless of what kind of story it is. But, two, I think it also really helps cut through a lot of stories that are already well-known to the community. And one example I can give you, in terms of where this decision might become really clear: When I was still at High Country News, there were so many stories (on missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls) that were coming out. I would argue that most Indigenous people are very familiar with the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls and have been for decades. So the story isn’t new, but there were just hundreds of stories suddenly coming out about it. Just doing a story that this thing is happening did not serve Indigenous readers, so we basically didn’t touch it until we had a really good, strong angle from one reporter we worked with that looked at how the system allowed (this phenomenon) to happen more regularly in Indigenous communities that we could essentially point to specific laws and specific agencies as being almost facilitators and collaborators in the process of allowing (it) to happen. So, this gave us an opportunity to lean in and say, “OK, we’re gonna report on this to this too, and here is who is accountable for it, or here is a really good starting point on who’s accountable for it.” 

DENETCLAW: Yeah, I’ve actually been thinking about this a lot recently because I am a new reporter to working at a non-Native news outlet. And so it was really important for me to really understand that I am reporting for Native people in Texas. That is my audience. 

Is there anything else you want to add?

AHTONE: We’re looking forward to continuing to do this work. I feel like Pauly is sort of in the unenviable position of not only having to develop the beat completely, but having to be an ambassador for an industry that has been historically pretty horrible to the communities here in Texas. So it’s not only building trust but also convincing folks that journalists aren’t jerks. I think that’s an ongoing process.

DENETCLAW: And this is not an uncommon issue. The way that news outlets have historically treated Indigenous people is awful. Building that relationship back is why I love journalism and why I choose to continue to do the work that I do. And so I’m super excited for the coming months when I’m able to hopefully meet people in person and (say), “We are trying to do something different.” Healing those relationships is important. And I’m trying. I will continue to try. I will try for years, and I’m happy to do that work because I think journalism is so powerful and there is something so healing about having your community’s stories written about in a way that is truthful, authentic, and well-written and well-reported.


The Center for Journalism Ethics encourages the highest standards in journalism ethics worldwide. We foster vigorous debate about ethical practices in journalism and provide a resource for producers, consumers and students of journalism. Sign up for our quarterly newsletter here. 

One step ahead: preparing reporters before they’re targeted by disinformation and online harassment campaigns

Photo by Calle Macarone on Unsplash

In his 15-year career as a reporter, Eric Litke has come to expect a certain number of angry emails and social media messages from people who are incensed by his stories. 

“That always comes with the trade,” he said. 

But since he started fact-checking for USA TODAY and PolitiFact Wisconsin — a partnership between the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and the nonprofit organization PolitiFact — he’s sensed a shift in the public perception of his work. He’s always shared the stories he’s most proud of on his social media accounts, but the abusive messages he receives have become more personal over the past three years, and increasingly come from people in his own orbit. 

Despite striving for objectivity, his fact-checks — some of which help Facebook moderate its content — seem to prompt irrational and highly emotional reactions. He recently had a longtime friend tell him on Facebook that he “used to do work that mattered.” 

“The tenor of the comments in response to that is very different when I’m doing something investigative versus when I’m doing something in the fact-checking role,” Litke said. “Now there’s this instinctual reaction where people are not interested in critically engaging with the arguments and the data and the critical thinking behind it. They’re just looking at, ‘OK, you rated this guy in this way, therefore you are scum of the earth, or you’re a brilliant person to be commended,’ purely based on where we landed.” 

Even worse, he received a vaguely threatening email from a stranger that he and his editors decided was serious enough to alert the police. 

“That hasn’t come up in my career before,” he said. “It’s kind of an indicator of where things are at, that people are willing to send off emails that reach that extreme point where you kind of go, ‘I don’t really think you’re going to show up at my house, but we’re far enough over the line that we should probably notify some people.’”

The current hostile climate for reporters causes one to consider previously far-fetched possibilities: physical threats, doxxing, digital privacy and security breaches, and malicious manipulation of photos from their social media accounts. Such attacks can represent real-life threats to reporters’ safety, limit free expression, and even force journalists to leave the industry entirely. 

As objective truth has come under assault in online spaces, so have reporters — who should probably think twice about their digital security. 

II. ‘Inextricably linked’: Disinformation and online harassment 

Online harassment is when an individual or group targets somebody else in a severe, pervasive and harmful way. It’s an umbrella term that includes several types of tactics, including hate speech, sexual harassment, hacking and doxxing — which means spreading someone’s personal information online.

Female reporters disproportionately bear the brunt of these attacks. A recent report from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and the International Center for Journalists declared online harassment as the “new front line for women journalists.” In a global survey of more than 700 women in journalism, 73% said they had experienced some form of online violence. 

The respondents said they received threats of sexual assault and physical violence, digital security attacks, doctored and sexually explicit photos of themselves, abusive and unwanted messages, attempts to undermine their personal reputations and professional credibility, and financial threats. About two-fifths said their attacks were linked to orchestrated disinformation campaigns.

Online harassment is often “inextricably linked” with disinformation campaigns, which seek to discredit newspapers and other democratic institutions, but can also be directed at individual reporters, said Nora Benavidez, a First Amendment and voting rights advocate with PEN America, which offers online abuse defense trainings to reporters and newsrooms across the country. 

“These are issues that permeate online and are used as weapons in maybe distinct ways, but their tactic writ large is to constantly sow doubt, to discredit the narratives that people see,” she said. 

In both cases, the attacks can be highly coordinated, despite looking as if the victim is being bombarded at random. (The Media Manipulation Casebook is a collection of in-depth investigations that show a high level of coordination in online harassment and disinformation campaigns, including medical misinformation about COVID-19 that started metastasizing in online Black communities early in the pandemic.)

“The accurate information they’re trying to discredit comes from reputable sources. In order to do that, you have to prove that those professional reputable sources aren’t reliable — you have to discredit, intimidate and silence the reporters behind the accurate, professionally produced information that you want to undermine or dilute.”

Viktorya Vilk, PEN America

“I think of online harassment and disinformation as something like two sides of the same coin, or maybe two prongs of the same spear, right?” said Viktorya Vilk, the director of digital safety and free expression programs at PEN America. “The goal in both cases is to spread disinformation or inaccurate information to pollute the larger landscape. The accurate information they’re trying to discredit comes from reputable sources. In order to do that, you have to prove that those professional reputable sources aren’t reliable — you have to discredit, intimidate and silence the reporters behind the accurate, professionally produced information that you want to undermine or dilute.”

But that doesn’t mean the two issues always go hand-in-hand. Not all online harassment is part of a campaign; sometimes it’s truly chaotic, as incensed social media users pile on to somebody who has drawn their ire. 

Despite their similarities, disinformation and online harassment aren’t studied and understood the same way. Whereas much of disinformation research is devoted to uncovering networks of bad influencers, social media bots and faux new outlets, online harassment tends to get a less scientific examination, according to Benavidez and Vilk. Researchers and reporters often choose to focus on the anecdotes of individuals who have suffered acutely from being doxxed or otherwise targeted, rather than digging into the mechanisms behind the attacks. 

“Because there aren’t really good forensic investigations as this stuff plays out, we don’t have a lot of evidence,” Vilk said. “There might be all kinds of coordination happening in the dark corners of the web. … But we don’t have loads of evidence to say, at scale, this is how coordinated these (harassment campaigns) are.”

III. Batten the hatches: How journalists can tighten their online presence before they’re targeted by online harassment 

For local reporters, getting doxxed can feel like a far-off hypothetical scenario that only happens to national reporters or those in other countries. 

“It is still a new version of harassment that is on the periphery for most people,” Litke said. “If you don’t know somebody who it’s happened to, it doesn’t feel real.” 

But as mis- and disinformation creep into every aspect of public discourse, the likelihood of reporters getting targeted by abusers online increases. And preparing for the possibility of being doxxed, impersonated or otherwise targeted by online harassment is more effective than reacting to it, according to PEN America’s Online Harassment Field Manual

Damon Scott, a reporter with the Seminole Tribune in South Florida, says that reporting on disinformation feels different than most beats. In 2020, he monitored local mis- and disinformation as a news fellow for the global fact-checking organization First Draft. He’d never taken such a deep dive into disinformation before last year and “went into it a little bit naive about what I’d end up dealing with on the day-to-day,” he said. 

“I had never really sat down and analyzed misinformation like we did for the fellowship, and I wasn’t prepared for how it affected my mood and my spirit,” he said. “The whole experience was more distressing than I thought it would be. If I had to do it all over again, I would do it, but it was way more eye-opening than I thought it would be.” 

He was particularly discouraged by the scale of the problem and seeing so many social media influencers with significant followings using their megaphones irresponsibly. But as a local reporter who mostly worked behind the scenes to produce newsletters about Florida-specific information disorder — he didn’t engage directly with bad actors on social media — Scott was moderately concerned about his digital security. 

He tightened up his social media presence by unfriending practically everyone in his Facebook network, changing his username and approaching his account as strictly professional. 

“Not that anybody in these (Facebook) groups would have known who I was before, but if they tried to track me down, they might be able to find out,” he said. 

“The good news for reporters is that they’re trained to investigate things, they just never turn that on themselves,” she said. “But that’s what they need to do — they need to basically think like a doxxer and start digging into their own footprint online in order to understand what’s out there and how to get that information.”

Viktorya Vilk, PEN America

Building a support network is another effective way to be proactive. Reporters who produce solid explanatory work and become trusted resources in their online communities may be less vulnerable when they’re targeted by hackers and trolls. 

“Once you have a pretty good brand, you can tell people what’s happening to you and they will come to your assistance, especially if you give them some guidance on what kind of help you would want,” Vilk said.

For example, if a reporter discovers that they are being impersonated on social media, asking their network to help them report the account to a tech company will increase the likelihood that it will quickly be removed. 

“In that case it’s quite important to speak out about it,” Vilk said. “Say, ‘Hey, this isn’t me, please help me report this account. I’m being impersonated, don’t believe anything that comes out of this account.’ ”

One way for reporters to build trust within their networks is to use social media to explain and provide insights into their newsgathering process, Benavidez said. 

“At the risk of sounding like it’s homework, I think tiny nuggets like that can be incredibly moving and powerful for readers,” she said. “And those can help as preemptive tools you use in the event that a disinformation campaign targets you or your newsroom.” 

Another way to stay a step ahead of abusers is by tightening up one’s social media accounts and online presence, Vilk said. 

“The good news for reporters is that they’re trained to investigate things, they just never turn that on themselves,” she said. “But that’s what they need to do — they need to basically think like a doxxer and start digging into their own footprint online in order to understand what’s out there and how to get that information.” 

  1. Google yourself

Though this may seem “comically obvious,” Vilk said, get started by running your name, account handles, phone number and home address through various search engines. Start with Google, but don’t stop there. Google tailors search results to each individual user, which means a doxxer will get different results when they’re searching for your personal information. Use a search engine such as DuckDuckGo, which prioritizes users’ privacy, to break out of the filter bubble of personalized results. For an even more complete view of your online footprint, run your information through the Chinese search engine Baidu

  1. Set up alerts 

You can’t be expected to monitor mentions of your name and personal information around the clock — and you don’t have to. Set up Google alerts for your name, account handles, phone number and home address. At least you’ll know if your information starts circulating online. 

“You might want to do it for friends and family, too,” Vilk said. 

  1. Audit your online presence

Perhaps the most important step is tightening settings on your social media accounts so bad actors don’t have access to your personal information, or that of your loved ones. Be strategic about which accounts you’re using for which purpose, Vilk recommended. If you’re a reporter who uses Twitter to share your stories, keep up with colleagues and interact with your audience, keep it strictly professional. This isn’t the place for pictures of your cat or holidays with relatives, and it’s wise to scrub the account of potentially embarrassing tweets and photographs you forgot about. Don’t share where you live, your birthday, your cell phone number, or anything else that could be used to track you down.  

“If you’re using Instagram for photos of your dog and your baby, you should set your Instagram to private and put whatever you want on there,” she said. “But it should be separate from public accounts.” 

  1. Search for old CVs and bios

In a not-so-distant era of the internet, it was common for journalists and academic researchers to upload CVs, resumes and bios including personal information to personal websites. Search for forgotten documents that still live online and could potentially serve as goldmines for would-be doxxers. 

  1. Don’t forget data brokers

As a reporter, you may have come across data broker websites such as Spokeo and Whitepages while tracking down hard-to-reach sources. Such websites scour the internet for personal information and sell it — giving doxxers an easy way to find a target. 

As of August 2020, users can request their personal information be removed from Whitepages.com by following the steps on the website’s help page. For websites that don’t have a step-by-step protocol, you can demand via email that your personal information be removed. 

If that’s too time-intensive, consider subscription services such as DeleteMe or PrivacyDuck, though the expense may be difficult for an individual reporter to cover. 

  1. Practice good password hygiene 

This goes for everyone, not just reporters: If you’re using your birthday as the same six-character password for all of your online accounts, you’re unnecessarily exposing sensitive personal information to hackers and making it far easier for somebody to pretend to be you. The longer the password, the more secure it is. Two-factor authentication is even better, and it’s wise to use a different password for every account. 

IV. You shouldn’t be alone: How newsrooms can support their employees 

Though they can shore up their online presence, reporters shouldn’t be left to combat the twin monsters of disinformation and online harassment alone. Many media employers, however, “appear reluctant to take online violence seriously,” according to the UNESCO report. (See PEN America’s guide for talking to employers about online harassment.

“We all need to be doing something,” Vilk said. “Individual reporters need to be doing things. Newsrooms need to be doing more than they are, and platforms need to be equipping reporters with better tools and features to protect themselves. It’s such a massive problem, it has to be a multi-stakeholder solution.” 

Newsrooms can brace for worst-case scenarios by developing policies and protocols to help staff members who are facing abuse from disinformation and discreditation campaigns. 

“That sends the message that discreditation campaigns are real and the newsroom takes them very seriously,” Vilk said, “and creates a culture where reporters feel comfortable coming forward and talking internally with the institution about what’s happening to them.”

She hasn’t always been successful, but Vilk encourages newsrooms to develop an internal reporting mechanism for reporters to flag particularly egregious attacks. Then the news organization can escalate the issue to a tech company, law enforcement, or a private security company. Creating clear guidelines for what reporters should do under extreme circumstances is critical. 

“Sometimes, when you’re in the middle of an attack, it’s so unsettling, frightening, and traumatic, you’re paralyzed,” she said. “So if you have a protocol you can be like ‘OK, I’m going to do this and this. I know who to talk to in my newsroom when this is happening.'” 

Newsrooms can also support their reporters by subsidizing subscriptions to information-scrubbing services and providing access to mental health care and legal counsel. And finally, if a reporter is made to feel unsafe at home — perhaps they’ve been doxxed and their home address has been shared — it’s their employer’s responsibility to ensure they have a safe place to go, Vilk said. 

“To be honest, a lot of this isn’t happening,” she said, “but it could and should be happening.” 

Single-handedly offering such comprehensive support is out of reach for many cash-strapped newsrooms. While disinformation and online harassment campaigns represent a growing threat to the free press, many news organizations are navigating the most resource-scarce landscape they’ve ever encountered. 

But Vilk sees opportunity in the way many news organizations have partnered with each other to deliver high-quality reporting during the COVID-19 era. The same spirit of partnership could apply to protecting their reporters from doxxing and harassment, she said. For example, multiple newsrooms could pitch in for a shared security specialist or internal reporting system. 

“I think that’s the future,” she said. “That has to happen because I don’t think the disinformation and abuse campaigns are going to let up anytime soon.”  


The Center for Journalism Ethics encourages the highest standards in journalism ethics worldwide. We foster vigorous debate about ethical practices in journalism and provide a resource for producers, consumers and students of journalism. Sign up for our quarterly newsletter here. 

How reenactments re-victimize crime victims

Illustration showing two hands controlling a film strip with puppet strings
Illustration by Beatriz Castro

On July 20th Costa Rica woke to tragic news. María Luisa Cedeño, a 43-year-old Costa Rican anesthesiologist and head of the Anesthesiology and Recovery Service at the private Hospital Cima, had been murdered at the five-star hotel La Mansión Inn in Manuel Antonio, Quepos. She was found in her room after a weekend of relaxation at one of Costa Rica’s most renowned beach towns.

Cedeño’s death sparked intense journalistic coverage. But the Costa Rican media organization Teletica, one of the mainstream television channels in the country, stood out for its striking and unethical coverage of Cedeño’s death.

Its weekly show 7 Días (7 Days), which is dedicated to interpretative journalism, aired a special episode on August 31st called “El crimen de la habitación número 3” (The crime of room number 3). The story quickly prompted criticism from national institutions in Costa Rica and outrage on social media, with critics accusing the story of imbalance and questioning the use of a reenactment for a case still under investigation by the Costa Rican authorities.

The National Institute for Women (INAMU), the College of Medicals and the College of Journalists spoke out publicly against 7 Días. The show’s director, Rodolfo González, who is a journalist and lawyer, proceeded to apologize publicly on September 2nd on behalf of the media and Barbara Marín, the journalist responsible for carrying out the news story. Teletica then removed the story from its website.

While reenactments are more often used in documentaries, their use in journalism is an ethically delicate matter. The Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics says re-enactments should be “clearly labeled.” The journalistic guidelines of PBS’ long-form news documentary Frontline also cautions that reenactments “must be clearly and unmistakably labeled” and that “public affairs programs in particular need to use these devices with great care.”

The 7 Días program seems to have lacked that care. According to Larissa Arroyo, a Costa Rican lawyer specializing in human rights and director of the citizen association ACCEDER, the reenactment, which presented the victim as cutting loose and drinking alcohol, did not inform so much as serve as a moral “lesson” to María Luisa Cedeño, her family and women in general, one that pretends to show that certain behaviors run the risk of getting any woman killed.

“They start assuming and acting out ridiculous images [or videos] of situations that we do not really know about. That is very painful for everyone. If you are not careful about that on television, it can become an absurd narrative of the good and the bad, of love and hate. It becomes a soap opera.”

Alejandro Fernández

“It becomes an emblematic case. She [was] a successful woman, a professional woman, a socially and culturally fulfilled woman,” Arroyo said. “And in spite of that, this ends up happening to her.” 

But the reenactment also contained another lesson – this one for journalism itself. 

“In the case of journalism,” Arroyo said, “it’s very important to know how to approach it and not have examples like these ones because the task of informing and reporting is not being fulfilled.” 

For Alejandro Fernández, a senior data journalist at PlayStation, the 7 Días’s story presented a series of assumptions and images acted out without any meaningful context.

“They start assuming and acting out ridiculous images [or videos] of situations that we do not really know about,” Fernández said. “That is very painful for everyone. If you are not careful about that on television, it can become an absurd narrative of the good and the bad, of love and hate. It becomes a soap opera.”

Reenactments as symbolic representations

The use of a reenactments as a creative tool in telling crime stories is a “slippery slope” because it can act as a stressor for the audience, the victim and the victim’s relatives. For Sarah Shourd, a US trauma-informed journalist and former John S. Knight fellow at Stanford University, reenactments deserve critical attention.

“I think we have to be more careful of the audience being deceived by our use of creative tools, creative reenactments being one of those tools,” Shourd said.

For her, journalism has the responsibility of taking into account the impact of stories on people’s lives as well as understanding reenactments as symbolic representations of a story.

“It’s completely unethical to create a representation of a crime as the truth when that crime is still being investigated and still undergoing in its process in the legal and court system.”

Sarah Shourd

“Reenactment has the word acting. It’s using the human form to create the illusion of an event,” Shourd said. “That is dangerous territory when you’re using an actual human body to symbolically represent another human being’s life.”

The dangerous territory in Cedeño’s case was enhanced by the fact that her case is still under investigation. For Shourd, reenactments are an inherently unethical tool while a legal case is underway because it interferes with the process.

“It’s completely unethical to create a representation of a crime as the truth when that crime is still being investigated and still undergoing in its process in the legal and court system,” Shourd said.

The unethical aspect of reenactments is not limited to questions of representation. There are also serious psychological components. How do reenactments affect the audience, the victim and the victim’s family?

The psychological impact of reenactments

According to Dr. Debra Lee Kaysen, a US clinical psychologist and professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Stanford University Medical Center, when carrying out a story about a sensitive topic such as violence against women, the sources should be given control over their narrative. Otherwise journalism risks exposing victims in a public space. 

“It is really [about] helping someone understand what is going to happen with their story,” Kaysen said. “And what might happen with it in a public space and what the person’s cons and risks [are].”

The same rule applies to interviewing the relatives of the victim.

The impact reenactments have on audiences is another critical ethical consideration. In cases of violence against women, dramatizations can reinforce myths about sexual violence against women, including that the violence was the woman’s fault because of how she was dressed or that it is the victim’s responsibility to not be assaulted.

“Often those are done in such a dramatic way that it can reinforce some of those beliefs,” Kaysen said. “And it makes it seem more like a movie, something that you passively experience versus really hearing a story in someone’s own words.”

Dr. Elana Newman, a US clinical psychologist, research director at Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism and psychology professor at the University of Tulsa, said that sensationalized violence can also serve as a trigger for people who are suffering from grief and can be distressing, demoralizing and insensitive. To avoid sensationalism and damaging narrative framing, Newman points to the general journalistic coverage recommendations of the Dart Center.

These include: being respectful, taking your time, being honest about what information you need, being very clear about your informed consent, allowing survivors to take the lead, suggesting they bring support with them, not rushing and not asking for inessential details.

“I often ask journalists to write and then go back through it and think: if that was my family member or someone I loved, is there anything I would change in tone?,” Newman said.

“I often ask journalists to write and then go back through it and think: if that was my family member or someone I loved, is there anything I would change in tone?”

Dr. Elana Newman

According to Mary Rogus, a US associate professor of journalism at the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University and former television reporter, producer and executive producer, reenactments should never be used because of the re-victimization it entails.

“Ethically, I don’t think they should ever be used because of the potential of re-victimizing the victims and family members of the crime,” Rogus said. “It violates the very basic ethical principle of not deceiving the audience.”

“You can do all kinds of damage to those who were trying to get over the loss or the injury or the harm to a loved one,” Rogus said.

The journalistic implications of reenactments

Rogus teaches her students how to report these kinds of stories in a respectful manner by asking an essential question.

“How would you report the story if sex was not part of it?,” Rogus said. “Treat it the same.  Don’t treat it any differently. That’s how we get rid of some of the stigma and that’s the way victims will feel more comfortable coming forward.”

Like Rogus, Dr. Chris Allen, a US journalism professor at the University of Nebraska Omaha and former television news producer and television assignment editor, reenactments are never a good choice in television news stories because they are not portraying the truth.

“Journalism is storytelling based on facts and you cannot do a recreation without taking license with the facts. And that’s never good,” Allen said. “The victim in the video is not the victim. The perpetrators in the video are not the perpetrators. The crime is not the crime. It is never an accurate recreation of what we think happened.”

For Allen, reenactments are an unethical way to tell a story.

“When we put somebody else into the living role of the victim, it’s almost like a tear in the fabric of ethical reality,” Allen said.

He also believes that this adds into creating a false narrative about women.

“Every time we blame the woman or make the woman helpless, we damage the reality for women: for girls growing up watching this, for teenagers, for young adult women and for elderly women all along,” Allen said. 

“Journalism is storytelling based on facts and you cannot do a recreation without taking license with the facts. And that’s never good. The victim in the video is not the victim. The perpetrators in the video are not the perpetrators. The crime is not the crime. It is never an accurate recreation of what we think happened.”

Dr. Chris Allen

“We create a false narrative about women and in that way, empower those men in our society who are predisposed to violence. We empower to continue to create the violence against women,” Allen said.

For Dr. Donna Halper, a journalism Associate Professor at Lesley University, former deejay, music director, radio consultant and the woman credited for discovering the classic rock band Rush, reporters that are addressing sensitive topics must actively question their own journalistic process.

“It’s much easier to tell the story through the tropes, narratives and stereotypes of your culture until somebody calls them into question,” Halper said. 

To question the process means to be fair to the facts. 

“When I train journalists, I teach them two things: be fair to the facts and don’t get out in front of the facts,” Halper said. “If you don’t have the information, don’t just make it up. Don’t speculate. Don’t guess. Don’t put two things together that may not have been put together. You’re not a legal expert, you’re a reporter.”

Being fair to the facts implies looking for all the sides of story to have a balance, fairness and providing context in an ethical manner.

Context was not present in the story aired that 7 Días aired in Costa Rica. For the Costa Rican journalist Fernández, that lack of context led to the story having the wrong focus.

“The social approach and framing that we do about these events as a society is distorted. It does not reflect what is going on. We do not focus on what’s important,” Fernández said. “They forget that a woman was murdered. It begins to turn into an absurd narrative. A human being was killed and it is happening with much more frequency.”

For Fernández the story raises a very basic and essential question, “what do we learn from this as a society? Which is the moral?”


[CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article referred to Debra Kaysen as a “psychiatrist.” Kaysen is a clinical psychologist and professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Stanford University Medical Center. We regret the error.]

The Center for Journalism Ethics reached out twice to the Costa Rican director and journalist Rodolfo González. The messages sent were seen and unanswered. The Costa Rican reporter Bárbara Marín was also contacted. She did answer and was open to an interview, but never gave it because she had to have the approval of the director Rodolfo González. María Luisa Cedeño’s case is still under investigation by the Costa Rican authorities.

The Center for Journalism Ethics encourages the highest standards in journalism ethics worldwide. We foster vigorous debate about ethical practices in journalism and provide a resource for producers, consumers and students of journalism. Sign up for our quarterly newsletter here.