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Local News Now case study: Salt Lake Tribune

In conjunction with our ethics conference, “Journalism Ethics & Local News Now” (April 23, 2021), we are publishing case studies of each news organizations represented on our panel “Innovations in Local News.”

The Salt Lake Tribune


The Salt Lake Tribune’s mission is to serve as Utah’s independent voice and to tell stories that are interesting, important and inclusive. The Salt Lake Tribune is also in a unique position. It’s the only major metro legacy news organization to transition into a nonprofit organization and the first to get IRS approval, which took place in October 2019. According to Executive Director Lauren Gustus, the past year has brought still more changes. In December of 2020, The Tribune separated from its partner news organization, Deseret News, and from a 70-year old arrangement wherein a company sold papers and advertising on behalf of both organizations. “We’re 150 years old in 2021, but it feels as though we are a startup,” Gustus said.


Once owned by a hedge fund, the Salt Lake Tribune’s transition to a nonprofit organization has been a major project.

Lauren Gustus
Lauren Gustus

A large part of the transition has been identifying a board for the newsroom, deciding how to position the board publicly and what transparency with the public should look like. “Ultimately, it was important to us as journalists that we publicly state that the board has no day-to-day oversight of the operations of the news organization,” Gustus said. This way, both the journalists and the public know that what it does is not impacted by the board. 

Identifying donors was also a major component of the transition. The newsroom decided to share information about their major donors on their website updates the list on a quarterly basis. Anyone who has donated to the news organization can also be found on their 990 form.


The Salt Lake Tribune recently launched an Innovation Lab, which is a three person team dedicated to covering how Utah is set to double in population in the next 30 years. The premise of the project is that elected officials aren’t able to solve everything. Entirely supported by philanthropy, the lab looks at current and upcoming challenges and works to provide solutions for issues related to the state’s growth.

Other projects include the Utah News Collaborative, which focuses on how to get more journalism to more communities given that Utah has gone from 450 journalists to fewer than 200. This project aims to talk with publishers up and down the state of Utah and especially in rural communities. Participating news organizations can also publish daily stories from The Tribune on their sites and in print. “We are continuing to prepare for that accountability collaboration launch, which will officially lift off with all of the partners this month. We’re pretty excited about where we might take that,” Gustus said. 


“If there’s a north star for us, it’s sustainability,” Gustus said. “Can the Tribune be profitable as a non-profit, such that we can demonstrate that this model works?” To do that, Gustus explained that the newsroom needs to more deeply understand what their readers are telling them and what people and Utah want from them. 

Gustus said that the different beats within the Tribune need to listen to feedback from readers, and to have those conversations one-to-one, so that the newsroom is truly in service to the state of Utah. Gustus believes that this effort will lead to more digital support, digital subscriber growth, donor support and advertising support, which will ultimately get the newsroom to greater economic sustainability in 2021.

Top Projects

The Salt Lake Tribune Podcasts 

Innovation Lab

Additional Info

Inside The Salt Lake Tribune’s plans to become a nonprofit (Lenfest Institute)

Meet The Salt Lake Tribune, 501(c)(3): The IRS has granted nonprofit status to a daily newspaper for the first time (Nieman Lab)

Local News Now case study: WURD Radio

In conjunction with our ethics conference, “Journalism Ethics & Local News Now” (April 23, 2021), we are publishing case studies of each news organizations represented on our panel “Innovations in Local News.”

WURD Radio


Founded in 2002, WURD Radio is the only African-American owned and operated talk radio station in Pennsylvania, and one of few in the country. It has become a multimedia company that has several platforms including: 900AM, 96.1FM,, the WURD App,, and Lively-HOOD. It was founded on the principle that communication and dialogue are central components to empowerment. WURD serves as the pulse of Philadelphia’s African-American community by providing information and solutions that educate, uplift and inspire others.

The Problem

There have always been and still are several gaps in the media landscape, but the most profound gap that WURD Radio seeks to fill, according to President and CEO Sara Lomax-Reese, is for African Americans to be able to tell their own stories from their own perspective and creating a space where Black people can speak and be heard in their own voice. WURD Radio is exceptionally powerful because in its two-way talk radio format, it’s able to collectively wrestle with big problems as a community. A lot of people tune into WURD, making it a real opportunity for different views and perspectives to be heard. 

In a world where opportunity is seen as “top-down,” WURD Radio provides access to opportunities and real leadership in the media space. It acts as a training ground for people to come right out of college and learn, or to come at an intermediate point in their career and advance. WURD Radio proudly looks at the whole person and not just “at the boxes that need to be checked,” making the organization flexible and patient in preparing people for jobs in media.

Head shot of Sara Lomax-Reese
Sara Lomax-Reese


WURD Radio’s main innovation is to serve Philadelphia’s African-American community and beyond by providing information and solutions that educate and boost the community. The team creates product offerings that attract new and different audiences, and they test and learn to better serve the community. WURD Radio has also been successful in securing grants, which has allowed the company to grow.

The newsroom creates content for radio, television, video streams and social media platforms. They are also an environmentally conscious media outlet, with EcoWURD hosting weekly segments on environmental justice, Earth Day special programming and an Environmental Justice Summit  hosted annually on Indigenous People’s Day to explore topics at the intersection of Black and Indigenous rights, income, and the environment and to discuss climate change, land reclamation and water quality in the Philadelphia area. 

WURD Radio also has a jobs and workforce development initiative called Lively-Hood, which is designed to address high poverty and unemployment rates in Philadelphia’s Black community. This initiative uses its platforms to connect Philadelphians to jobs, career readiness information and entrepreneurial resources. 

WURD Radio is also an inaugural member in the new BIPOC network called URL Media, which stands for Uplift, Respect and Love. URL is a network of high performing Black and Brown owned media organizations that can share content and revenues with each other. Its purpose is to amplify and aggregate content as a community. This venture is in partnership with other news organizations in the country, and Lomax-Reese pointed out that a large part of their business model has been partnerships. “It’s not anyone, but everyone,” Lomax-Reese said.


Overall, Lomax-Reese believes that WURD Radio has been successful. She is proud of the fact that WURD has always been “half a step ahead of each growth spurt,” especially with multimedia platforms. For example, in 2020 WURD Radio launched a podcast series called OnWURD 2020 in Black, which is a four-part podcast retrospective of big issues that WURD encountered in 2020 as a news station. It discusses independent Black media, COVID-19, racial justice uprisings and the 2020 election while documenting their work. 

WURD Radio has also faced challenges along the way. “How you start matters,” Lomax-Reese said. She discussed how each business owner should be properly capitalized at the outset of a business launch, and that each business owner needs to learn to build and grow organically, which isn’t easy. 

WURD Radio was purchased by Lomax-Reese’s father, Dr. Walter P. Lomax Jr., in 2002. Over the years, the station had several leaders but struggled to develop a successful business model.  In 2010,  Lomax-Reese was asked by her family to take over the leadership of the organization to see if she could turn it around. She encountered many obstacles, one of them significant: convincing the corporate community to support a radio station that served a community they didn’t care about. Even though Philadelphia is almost 45% African American, there was very limited support from corporate and government stakeholders at that time.  But in 2020, with the racial justice protests,  the COVID-19 pandemic and the presidential election, WURD’s ability to reach and mobilize Philadelphia’s Black communities was undeniable, helping them turn a corner. Lomax-Reese is proud of the progress that has been made, but knows that there is still much work to be done.

Top Projects

Heard on WURD: Nick Taliaferro Interviews Dr. Ashish Jha 

The Spirit of a King: Living the Legacy of the Activist Clergyperson 

#BlackWURDS Book Club With Nick Taliaferro

Additional Info

URL Media launches to help sustain “high-performing Black and brown media organizations” (Nieman Lab)

WURD Radio on Violence (Lenfest Institute)

Local News Now case study: Texas Tribune

In conjunction with our ethics conference, “Journalism Ethics & Local News Now” (April 23, 2021), we are publishing case studies from each of the news organizations represented on our panel “Innovations in Local News.”



Founded in 2009, the Texas Tribune is a non-profit, non-partisan news organization headquartered in Austin, Texas. The primary mission of the Tribune is “to inform and engage with Texans about issues that matter to them,” according to Ayan Mittra, the editor of the Texas Tribune. The goal for the Tribune is to be the news organization that assists Texans be more informed and educated about their state in relation to state government and politics. As a non-profit, the Tribune relies on donations, foundations and corporate sponsorships for its revenue.

The Problem

In 2009, founders of the Texas Tribune saw a problem in the media landscape: coverage of the state government was shrinking. Fewer journalists were reporting on laws circulating and passing in the legislature, leading to fewer citizens receiving news about their representatives and where and how tax dollars were being spent. The organization also aims to reach readers outside of the capital city of Austin, making sure its impact is felt statewide.

Ayan Mittra

“We feel that there’s a personal responsibility to address this [problem] because this is not being addressed on this scale by anyone else,” Mittra said.

In order to maintain its non-partisan status, the Tribune works to represent a wide spread of beliefs by engaging with and reporting on both parties, university systems and regions – a representation that also boosts readership. However, what becomes difficult is having sufficient resources to fulfill its responsibility of communicating this information to its readers and bringing accountability to those in power.

“People may not agree with everything we cover, but that’s not our job,” Mittra said. “Our job is to represent different points of view, to show how policies impact people on different areas, different levels.”


The Texas Tribune seeks to bridge the gap between government and the people through effective engagement with audience members. That engagement includes hosting events and providing data or educational resources. Additionally, as part of its mission of “public service,” the Tribune provides its news for free to both media partners and users to ensure accessibility.

The Tribune’s innovative use of data is a founding pillar of the publication and the organization used data to contextualize information that not everyone has equal access to. This has included developing a government salaries explorer, a public-school explorer, snapshots of different data sets and a project on police-involved shootings in the most populous areas of the state.

The Tribune is also working on ways to be innovative with elections. While it has always had a “robust” elections plan, its audience team has been working to reach out and understand who is consuming, how they are consuming and where the best place is to engage with them. For elections, this primarily looks like “resource-type content,” such as where and how to vote and the best ways to access primary ballots early.

“Teach Me How to Texas” is another way the Tribune addresses another knowledge gaps in the state. The Tribune knows that a lot of people are moving to Texas from other areas of the country and the world, and is working to provide information and resources on Texas, its government and elections.

“Innovation has to come from trying to understand who your audience is and what they need from you, and that really fuels some of the best ideas that we can do,” Mittra said. This includes asking for feedback on coverage from its viewers at events across the state, through its Facebook group and social media channels.


More than ten years into its project, the Tribune is looking at how to move forward strategically, including goals to increase and diversify its audience and expand to other areas of the state. To do so, the Tribune is working to base reporters in satellite locations throughout the state, so they are able to engage with communities beyond Austin and especially in rural communities.

The Tribune is partnering with ProPublica on an investigative team that includes an editor, five reporters, one data reporter, one engagement producer, one research reporter and a development associate. Mittra says this combines the “strength of ProPublica to do investigative, accountability journalism with an impact” with the Tribune’s knowledge of the state and engagement with Texans.

The Tribune is also ensuring sustainable by using different platforms for its audience and reaffirming the message that they’re meeting the audience where they are. Another part of this effort is implementing a “product culture” through the consistent promotion of content that keeps its value and viewership.

The main ethical consideration for the Tribune is making sure it’s being responsible with the data and information it has access to, and ensuring that this privilege is extended to its viewers. This includes analyzing and publishing data-informed journalism responsibly. Additionally, a consistent challenge entails prioritizing coverage of certain issues and being able to adequately communicate why these decisions are made to its base. Employees at the Tribune are ambitious in telling these stories, but constantly have to prioritize what is practically implementable.

Top Projects

Government Salaries Explorer

Texas Public Schools Explorer

Teach Me How to Texas

Elections Data

Additional Info

“Drawing on ten years of expertise, the Texas Tribune wants to coach you on its money-making lessons” (Nieman Lab)

“The American Journalism Project has raised $42 million. Here’s the plan for distributing it” (Poynter Institute)

Local News Now case study: The Marshall Project

In conjunction with our ethics conference, “Journalism Ethics & Local News Now” (April 23, 2021), we are publishing case studies from each of the news organizations represented on our panel “Innovations in Local News.”



Founded in 2014, The Marshall Project is a nonprofit news organization that covers the criminal justice system in the United States. According to regional editor Manuel Torres, the Marshall Project exclusively focuses on criminal justice and offers different forms of storytelling with the goal of bringing more attention to the problems within the system. Along with doing their own original reporting, The Marshall Project also partners with other news organizations and has made an effort to expand its local partnerships in the midst of a crisis within local news.

The Problem

The Marshall Project was founded to address the lack of attention that problems within the criminal justice system receive from the public and traditional media. In a letter from 2014, Marshall Project founder Neil Barsky explained that despite the growing number of problems within the system, there had not been an increase in public discussion and legislative action.

Manuel Torres

“The general public has become inured to the overuse of solitary confinement, the widespread incidence of prison rape and the mixing of teens and adults in hardcore prisons,” he wrote. “The more people we put behind bars, it seemed, the more the issue receded from the public consciousness.”

Even when people are paying attention to the criminal justice system it can be hard to understand the issues at play. According to Torres, for those not directly affected there is a disconnect between what they think about criminal justice and the reality of the system. “People think ‘oh, I watch Law and Order I kind of think I know how courts work,’” he said. “And it’s not like that.“


The Marshall Project’s main innovation is to take an exclusive and in-depth look at the criminal justice system. In practice, this means longer, in-depth investigations, taking angles that traditional news outlets normally don’t and taking a more comprehensive view on issues that other media outlets cover.  For example, their Next to Die feature allowed readers to track executions across the country and their Life Inside series offers first-person essays from those who live or work in the criminal justice system.  

The Marshall Project has also expanded coverage to focus on more local issues, specifically in the South, where there is a higher level of incarceration. According to Torres, they are working to bring their journalism to more local partners and reach both national and local audiences. For example, a piece that they published in the USA TODAY Network may also be published at a smaller, more local, outlet.

The Marshall Project model comes with its own set of ethical issues. One key issue is remembering that they are a journalistic organization and not an advocacy group. “Our job is to shine a light in places that are not getting a lot of attention with the hope of prompting change, but we’re not advocates,” Torres said.

They also work to ensure that individuals are not defined by a crime they committed or were accused of committing, while still providing readers a full story. “In our coverage, we avoid referring to individuals as felons,” Torres said. “You committed a felony, but that doesn’t make you a felon. Your life is not defined exclusively by that act.”

Furthermore, they must recognize that some of their sources may be breaking rules by speaking with them. According to Torres, this is similar to working with a source who is not authorized to share documents, but he says the Marshall Project doesn’t encourage sources to break the rules, leaving the decision to speak up to the sources.


Overall, Torres believes that The Marshall Project has been successful. Torres says that interest in criminal justice has increased and criminal justice reform has come a long way as a result of organizations like the Marshall Project. That success has been recognized with numerous awards including a Pulitzer Prize, Peabody and National Magazine Award.

However, the downsizing of local news organizations across the country has presented a challenge for the Marshall Project. According to Torres, forging partnerships with local outlets has become increasingly difficult as local newsrooms continue to shrink.

“Just simply getting [local] editors that have the time to look at our stories and determine if it’s something that fits into an organization, it’s not as easy as it used to be,” he said. “And even when we provide the reporter, the photographer, we provide all the content, it’s just [that] the logistics of producing with a partnership are getting harder because of the cuts at these organizations.”

The Marshall Project has been more proactive in filling the voids that have been left in newsrooms by providing editing and data analysis for some of their partners. Additionally, as shrinking news organizations have become less able to cover criminal justice issues on their own, they have been more open to collaborations, Torres said.

Top Projects

Pulitzer Prize winner “An Unbelievable Story of Rape

Life Inside Series

The Next to Die

Additional Info

Marshall Project stakes out high ground on journalism’s slippery slope (Columbia Journalism Review)

The Marshall Project, an early model for single-subject nonprofit news sites, turns five today (and got a shoutout on Jeopardy last night) (Nieman Lab)

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 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.

Pulitzer-winner Wesley Lowery’s take on journalism in extraordinary times

Screenshot of Director Kathleen Bartzen Culver, student Tamia Fowlkes and 2020 journalist-in-residence Wesley Lowery during an October 7 discussion of “journalism in extraordinary times.”

By Dana Brandt and Elizabeth Marie Lang Oreamuno

On Wednesday, October 7, Pulitzer Prize-winning U.S. journalist and CBS News correspondent Wesley Lowery was the virtual “journalist-in-residence” and guest speaker for a question-and-answer session hosted by the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. 

Lowery was the first prominent journalist to appear in a three-event series organized by UW–Madison and focused on “journalism in extraordinary times.” Moderated by Center for Journalism Ethics Director Kathleen Bartzen Culver and journalism undergraduate student Tamia Fowlkes, Lowery answered questions on the ethics of reporting on racial justice and law enforcement and discussed objectivity in journalism, a topic he covered in an opinion piece for the New York Times this summer. 

In answering an initial round of questions on newsroom diversity, Lowery stressed the importance of having journalists from different communities and experiences so that news organizations do not miss out on vital stories and angles. 

Image of live tweet from the Q and A session: "A newsroom that's attempting to tell the most accurate coverage of a complex, diverse world needs reporters. 'If you don't have different types of people in the room, you're going to miss out on all types of stories and angles." @WesleyLowery on diversity in journalism

“One of the things we have to remember is that mainstream news media organizations have only been integrated for a handful of decades,” Lowery said. “It wasn’t until the ‘70s that there were any efforts in earnest in having Black reporters, and much less brown reporters in American newsrooms.”

“I believe [newsroom diversity] is a journalistic imperative: We cover a complex, complicated diverse world and we cover it by access to information. We traffic in information,” Lowery said.

Lowery also spoke about the challenges journalists of color face in predominantly white newsrooms, such as different standards of conduct and tokenization. 

“We have to understand where journalists of color in these newsrooms are coming from now because they are very often the only ones,” Lowery said. “They are very often tokenized because they are very often asked to stand in for large representative groups of people.”

He referred to the coverage of the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor as a challenge for Black journalists in the newsrooms.

“George Floyd happens or Breona Taylor happens and a whole room of white journalists turn to the only Black woman at the end of the table and ask: What are people saying about this? What should we do about this?” Lowery said. “That is a fundamentally impossible position to be in.”

Image of tweet recapping a question for Wesley Lowery: "Tell us what you think journalists of color are seeing, hearing and feeling in newsrooms today." - Katy Culver

Lowery then advised young journalists of color to join groups such as the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ), National Association of Hispanic Journalists (NAHJ) and others as well as remembering to speak up for yourself and your work. 

“Journalism is a field that is a profession in which you have to operate on your own ethical compass,” Lowery said. “[That] means that you have to be willing to stand up to your bosses when they want you to do things that you think you should not do or you believe that you should not do.” 

He also said journalists should walk away from things they can’t abide as a means of looking after themselves.

“You are the only one who is protecting your byline, your reputation and your name,” Lowery said.

As for the journalism industry as a whole, Lowery said journalists need to examine their processes to ensure that the methods being used have the intended consequences. Reporters can’t just rely on practices that worked in previous years, since journalism is constantly evolving, he said.

“We can’t be on autopilot. We can’t conduct journalism in 2020 based on a rulebook written in 1980. Why? Because the players have changed, the actors have changed, the dynamics have changed,” Lowery said.

He provided the example of news organizations publishing mugshots — a practice that used to serve the purpose of informing only the local community, but which now result in mugshot photos being available forever on the internet.

“Something that was about informing a community in the short term actually ends up being something that harms an individual in the long term,” Lowey said. “You have a collateral consequence that was not intended because we were following rules that worked at some point, that might be incorrect right now because of the internet.”

Along with this, he pointed out that the idea of “objectivity” wasn’t originally meant to apply to individual reporters but instead to the method of reporting — precisely because no individual is perfectly objective, without preconceptions and beliefs about issues. 

Objectivity initially served as an acknowledgement that reporters have political beliefs, Lowery said, but recently focus has shifted onto individuals becoming “objective journalists” whose work can be discredited when others uncover evidence of political leanings. 

This new definition of objectivity has also earned new synonyms for the term, such as “balance” and “fairness,” Lowery said, which do not mean the same thing. Some reporters then take this idea of “objectivity” to levels where it becomes performative.

“It is cases where it’s a performative objectivity,” Lowey said, providing a hypothetical scenario. “You’re writing pieces on climate change and you’re going out of your way to find a climate denier or scientist so that no one can argue that you did not have that voice included even if there is no factual basis to include them.”

Image of live tweet: "What journalists can do better, according to Wesley Lowery: Break reliance on speed and commit to follow-up reporting. When you're the last person to publish the story, you write the best one!"

Lowery also wants the journalism industry to break its reliance on speed to allow reporters the time to get the full story, put it in context and spell it out when you don’t know something.

This is also true of stories on police violence, a topic Lowery addressed in his piece for the New York Times. Reporters should examine the way they write about police, he said, and ask themselves if they’re advancing the truth with each story and holding powerful people accountable. 

“A police officer is the most powerful person most Americans will encounter in their lives. Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden, they can’t pull out a gun and shoot you in the chest,” Lowery said. 

“Every single sworn police officer in the country can do that. That’s an extreme amount of power,” Lowery said. “Power can require skepticism. It requires accountability and the press is supposed to play that role.”

Journalists can write about the facts of what happened without using laudatory language, Lowery said, such as “in the line of duty” — a phrase that isn’t applied to other public servants like garbage workers or city council members. The framing of words like “armed” and “unarmed” aren’t neutral, Lowery said, and signal to an audience how they should feel about a story.

Live tweet from Natalie Yahr during Q and A session highlighting Wesley's comments on holding the most powerful people accountable in the stories covered.

And lastly, Lowery talked about the media’s coverage of Senator Kamala Harris as being a prominent person of color in the midst of the 2020 elections.

“The media has had a real trouble understanding the complexity of Kamala Harris’s identity being the daughter of a Black Jamaican man and an Indian woman,” Lowery said. “In Black communities that’s not particularly complex because Black communities have always been diverse in this way.”

To watch the entire session with Lowery, navigate here.

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.