Photo credit: Nora Loreto

Journalists across Canada remain unequipped to deal with online harassment

News organizations need to step up their commitments to share aggregated data of online threats against employees and offer flexibility to journalists when dealing with harassment. Continue Reading Journalists across Canada remain unequipped to deal with online harassment

On August 11, 2022, a group of journalists broke journalism’s well-accepted (though criticizable) golden rule: do not publicly do activism. The cause was important, though. After a few weeks of high-profile and relentless hatred that targeted three journalists in particular, Rachel Gilmore, Saba Eitzaz and Erika Ifill, media industry leaders issued an urgent letter calling on the leadership of the Toronto and Ottawa police forces to do something about online harassment against journalists. 

The letter was signed by industry heavy hitters: Anne Marie Owens, editor of the Toronto Star,  Sonia Verma, Global News editor-in-chief, Kate Malloy and Charelle Evelyn from The Hill Times and Brent Jolly, president of the Canadian Association of Journalists.

Notably, the letter was carbon copied to four federal cabinet ministers, the Ontario attorney general and the then-commissioner of the RCMP, Brenda Lucki. It had three demands: 

  • “A process be established whereby media organizations can provide the police with summaries of multiple incidents and patterns of abuse that might not be apparent when police rely solely on the reports of individual complainants; 
  • Police provide regular updates to complainants on the progress of investigations and actions taken,” and 
  • Give media organizations “a formal role … in filing complaints on behalf of or with journalists who have become targets of hate and harassment.”

Less than one month later, another letter was issued, this time sent to the prime minister, signed by 52 groups including most of Canada’s media companies. In addition to the same demands made before, this new letter called on Justin Trudeau to “pull together relevant government ministries, law enforcement agencies, social media companies and civil society, including journalists, to develop national plans to protect journalists and thus democracy.”

In the year and a half since the first call to action was issued, online harassment has seemingly stopped being the crisis that it was back in summer 2022. The targeted threats that Gilmore, Eitzaz and Ifill had received, prompting the issuing of that first urgent letter, have calmed down somewhat and, altogether, online harassment has fallen out of the news. 

But this doesn’t mean that it has stopped. 

The Coalition for Women in Journalism has tracked 12 instances of harassment and violence in Canada since August 2022. The CWJ follows global reports of online mobbing and other kinds of harassment that women-identified journalists experience. Of the 12 instances, five are related to Brandi Morin and Amber Bracken’s run-ins with police stopping them from reporting protests involving Indigenous people and three related to more rounds of abuse hurled at Gilmore and Eitzaz. (Full disclosure: I’m one of the instances too, for having been blocked from attending the national Conservative convention in fall 2023 and for being threatened with arrest for trying to get a media pass).

J-Source’s Canada Press Freedom Project has also been tracking online threats and hate directed at journalists since the start of 2022.  In its 2023 annual report, CPFP documented 65 online threats and targeted harassment, all addressed to women. In addition, of the incidents tracked but not formally documented since CPFP began tracking online threats in 2022, nearly all were aimed at women media workers, with a disproportionate percentage targeting Indigenous women and women of colour. 

Where news organizations initially looked for help from police forces, the harassment tracked by the CWJ shows that the most common barrier to a woman doing her job as a journalist is actually police. This reality fits awkwardly with the media leaders’ calls for help from law enforcement, and also with Prime Minister Trudeau’s response to the matter so far. He told the Canadian Association of Journalists in September, 2022, that then-public safety minister Marco Mendicino “spoke with the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police about the need to recognize and treat the pattern of hate and harassment targeting journalists, and other public figures, seriously and as a systemic issue.” He also noted his government would explore providing more resources for the RCMP as an option. 


But is the decrease in online harassment a direct result of measures put in place by management in media organizations, the people who have the greatest responsibility in keeping journalists safe? Or has this form of abuse mostly sorted itself out? J-Source set out to find out what news outlets across the country have been doing to tackle the issue. 

Is online harassment getting better or getting worse? 

Being able to see whether or not harassment is getting better or worse requires newsrooms to track and report this data, something that nearly none of them do. Gathering information about how each media organization in Canada handles harassment of their journalists is, to put it mildly, just short of a nightmare. It has taken months to gain access to internal policies and most were obtained thanks to employees who passed them on quietly. Postmedia did not respond to requests for their policy and neither did the newspaper company Saltwire or the broadcasting conglomerate Stingray Radio. Rogers, Global and CTV refused to share their policies or provide interviews. 

CBC was fast to reply but exceedingly slow to follow up. Emma Iannetta, senior specialist in media relations for the corporation, said that they don’t release data about the threats that CBC journalists receive. But, via email, she did share that, since 2021, the security team has received more than 1,000 reports of “security incidents” involving CBC employees. The vast majority of the complaints are from journalists. 

“Of the reported incidents, approximately 65 per cent were digital or online in nature and approximately 19 per cent were physical in nature (e.g. field harassment, protest, vandalism, etc.),” writes Iannetta. To put this in context, there were 6,597 permanent employees at CBC as of March 31, 2023. 

The Toronto Star’s Owens said that between January 2021 and December 2023, the paper’s public editor has logged almost 70 reports of online harassment from their journalists. “We believe the reality of the online abuse is considerably higher,” she notes. The newsroom has 185 people. 

Tracking complaints is one of the many best practices that international journalism protection bodies have identified as being key to keeping journalists safe. In a report titled Breaking the News: Media Workers Under Attack, produced by Unifor, results from a 2021 Ipsos survey called Online Harm in Journalism found that harassment online, over the phone and in-person had all increased during the previous two years. So too did physical attacks.

But that was three years ago, and newsrooms are still reluctant to report the data that some of them track. It’s impossible to say definitively whether or not media organizations’ responses to online harassment have gotten better or worse. We are left with public reporting from groups like CWJ or journalism unions, and anecdotes. 

Take this X thread written by Global journalist Mercedes Stephenson last December, where she recounts how a man used his personal accounts to stalk and harass her. The man was sentenced to six months in jail, something that she notes is not a normal sentence for situations where “there isn’t physical contact.” The abuser is already serving a sentence for criminally harassing another woman. Stephenson recently posted that the man is still contacting her, despite a court order forbidding contact

Despite its significance, where the perpetrator was found guilty and sentenced, no media organization reported on the Stephenson case. In the past, articles about abuse have been critical to let the public know what’s happening. It’s been through the news that we’ve heard about cases like that of Gilmore, Eitzaz and Ifill and how we grasped the urgency of the situation. If we want to truly understand how bad and pervasive online harassment against journalists is, we need to know the data. Whereas Global News, Metroland, CTV, and the Toronto Star said that they do keep internal figures related to online harassment, all refused to share that data with J-Source.

The only exception in this quest for information was CBC/Radio-Canada. Joe Hill, senior director of security and resiliency, and his team of five employees, have developed a reporting protocol that helps employees throughout the corporation deal with online harassment and, critically, scrape data related to the kinds of complaints they receive — anonymized, of course. This mechanism allows the organization to build a dashboard based on the kinds of attacks and the location where they took place.

Hill says that online harassment complaints have been declining, though it’s always impossible to know if that’s because online harassment is actually declining, or if it’s because they need to better make staff aware of the reporting mechanism. When I mentioned the reporting tool to a personal friend who works at CBC, they immediately said that the numbers will be low: workers, especially the youngest ones, don’t know how to report. 

CBC’s “well-being champion” Dave Seglins says that it’s critical for CBC to encourage journalists to report any harassment they’ve received because the corporation tracks data to look for trends, but not even Seglins has seen the data.

Having access to anonymized, big-picture data to understand where online harassment against journalists stands today would be helpful to gauge what strategies for prevention or addressing the issue work. Without data, we’re left with anecdotes and social media threads. At CBC, Seglins says that, based on workshops that he’s hosted for employees, “I think things have crested, in some ways, in terms of the overall volume” for harrassment, but he still thinks it’s acute when it comes to “very specific issues and very specific people who get targeted.” 

Seglins says this without wanting to downplay how bad it still is, noting that one factor can be that various shifts on social media have changed where journalists are. Notably, an exodus from Twitter (“X”) has meant that journalists have moved onto other platforms, like LinkedIn or Instagram, where the harassment is noticeably less prevalent. Hill made the same observation. 

Sandra Martin, standards editor at the Globe and Mail, couldn’t say if online hate was better or worse now than before, just that it seems to come in waves; but she warns that “when it’s bad, it’s really bad.” She adds that “there’s no blanket solution we have right now to address it. We are still playing Whack a Mole … bad actors pop up, and we react to them, and other than basic cyber security and hygiene, there’s not a lot you can do because journalists are public-facing.”

For its part, Global News says it has for a while now de-emphasized how much journalists are expected to be online. In an email, director of communications Rishma Govani writes: “A few years ago, we provided our staff the choice to opt out of being on social media altogether. Previously, having a social media presence was a requirement of the job. We’ve also hired people to promote content on social media taking the pressure off reporters to participate or push their stories. In addition, we’ve revamped social media tools to monitor targeted individual accounts.”

Govani says that Global has increased their security budget for people working in the field, noting that they’ve hired “a dedicated person to support our security needs when it comes to online harassment and physical threats.” And, “Lastly, we continue to work with other industry leaders and organizations to lobby police and law enforcement, raising awareness and seeking guidance,” writes Govani. In her X thread about her ordeal, Stephenson mentioned Corus (owner of Global News) security as having helped her with the situation. CBC also has a security team available to help people deal with instances of criminal harassment.

But there are limits to this approach. Not everyone wants to stop engaging online. Corporate policies often don’t contemplate allowing journalists to respond to online harassment on their own terms. Govani says that Global has hired people to promote social media content to take pressure off journalists of having to do it themselves. That is great for the journalists who don’t want to be in these spaces, but it misses the journalists who do and who have opinions about how best to respond. Gilmore, for example, says that not being allowed to reply to trolls and haters as she wanted to felt as bad as the harassment itself. 

***

These days, Gilmore is doing great. Not even a year past her layoff from Global News, where she became Canada’s most harassed journalist for covering the trucker convoy and related news, she sounds positively positive over the phone, which feels like it doesn’t make sense: here’s a reporter who went from working for Global News, having  supports and resources in the face of harassment, to working freelance and contracts, where the supports are significantly more limited. But Gilmore says she actually felt better, not worse, after losing the backing of her news organization when she was let go. Since we spoke, Gilmore was hired to be an investigative journalist for Check My Ads, which is trying to hold the ad industry accountable for supporting disinformation.  

“The systemic and institutionalized inadequacies within newsrooms to address the kind of harassment that people like me face, doing our work, was an added stressor that I didn’t realize I was subjected to until it was removed. That weight being lifted made such a big difference,” she says. Now, she feels supported by other colleagues and her independence has allowed her to respond to harassment “in my own way. In a way that makes me feel validated that I did not have when I was working for the mainstream.” 

Gilmore notes that Global News didn’t want her to be the story – a problem when the only consistent way to track online harassment is through media reports. And while Gilmore benefitted from the individualistic approaches like personal digital hygiene checks, she says that the way that trolls came after her still put her job in jeopardy; she was threatened to have her beat taken away from her several times and was “constantly told” to not talk about what she was dealing with and. Gilmore was eventually laid off from Global. The duel stressors of being told not to talk publicly about what she was experiencing and the threat of losing her beat “were only there because of the way that my newsroom was handling the harassment.”

Many newsrooms direct their journalists to stay quiet when dealing with trolls. In the Halifax-based Saltwire newspaper network, one journalist told me that they’re instructed to not respond to trolls, and to use instead a strategy of blocking and ignoring. That’s fine when the harassment is coming from an account that’s clearly a troll, they said. But sometimes it’s more complicated than that. “We’re told to block trolls and not respond, which is my inclination anyway, but things are much more muddy when it comes to legit sources who happen to be shitbags. Not every abusive person is a faceless troll, so there’s not much nuance for how to handle bullies who we may actually still need to talk to, like developers, cops or politicians.” 

Indeed, these directives assume that the harassment always comes from faceless accounts, and therefore the insults and threats are something that can either be ignored or condemned. They don’t take into account the fact that sometimes the harassment comes from public figures – individuals who are actively trying to stop a story from coming out. 

Or worse, sometimes the abuse comes from a colleague. That kind of abuse, known as Dogpiling, is when an individual with stature posts something online that incites a mob to pile onto someone. If the person is someone who has connections within the industry, this kind of abuse can feel far more dangerous than even thousands of messages from faceless trolls. One journalist who routinely experiences dogpiling told me that they fear that if a person with the right connections dogpiles them, they risk losing their job if their employer feels pressure from peers and in the end chooses not to stand up for them.

I asked Unifor Media Director Randy Kitt if he could think of any newsrooms in Canada that offer advice specific to dogpiling and he couldn’t think of any. Unifor represents some 10,000 media workers in workplaces such as Bell, Rogers, Corus and Telefrançais. Certainly, not even the Toronto Star, which has the most elaborate anti-harassment policies, considers the case when the journalist is being harassed by another journalist or public figure. The Star’s “Harassment and Discrimination Policy” (updated in January 2023) doesn’t contemplate allowing a target of harassment to get legal assistance or advice to help navigate the potential launch of a defamation or libel lawsuit against the harasser. In fact, the policy doesn’t mention defamation or libel at all, which is strange considering how both can end the career of a journalist. 

Policies are written to be one-size-fits-all but a key factor of online harassment is that it’s highly personalized – not just in terms of who is attacked and how, but also in how the individual feels they should respond. Do you fight back? Call a lawyer? Shut off your computer and go on vacation? These all could be options, but giving journalists the space to respond can be risky for employers.

At the Globe and Mail, journalists are discouraged from responding to a fight online, whether it’s online harassment or trolling, says Martin. She says she’s unaware of a situation where a journalist wanted to respond to either online hate or a troll in a way that was different from Globe and Mail protocol. 

Seglins, from the CBC, thinks the best manual to guide journalists and newsrooms through online harassment is PEN America’s Online Harassment Field Manual. In this guide, anyone receiving online abuse is discouraged from replying to harassers. “Unless you feel confident that the content of the message is not directly threatening, it is best not to engage your attacker in any manner. Such exchanges are rarely productive and can often elicit further abuse.” However, the guide also states that if “the content of the message is not threatening and you feel it would empower you to engage your attacker, please follow these Guidelines for Safely Practicing Counterspeech.” But when it comes to Dogpiling, it only suggests that you take a break from social media or you report the abuse. 

The counterspeech guide helps someone evaluate the level of risk in harassing conversations and offers ideas for how to fend off the trolls. PEN’s guidelines stand out because they recognize that, for the person being targeted, “challenging the authority of online trolls, engaging in counterspeech, or directly confronting one’s harasser can be an important and empowering step in countering online abuse and reclaiming control of online narratives about one’s life and work.” None of the Canadian policies that J-Source obtained contemplated giving people room to respond to online harassment on their own terms.

***

Many Canadian journalists have access to two guides that have been developed to try and address online harassment, with mixed results. One is NotOK/C’est assez, sponsored by CBC/Radio-Canada, Torstar, La Presse, CTV, APTN, Global, Le Devoir and the Canadian Association of Journalists. The other is an online tool created by Unifor’s media council. 

NotOK/C’est assez combines mental health with online harassment — which are imperfect bedfellows, as both have unique causes and impacts. It’s very individualistic, with advice like use “robust passwords,” take social media breaks and that even if harassment feels personal, remember that it isn’t, usually. It also reminds journalists to “consider how your personal social media accounts intersect with your professional social media activity.” There’s nothing more suggested after someone has done adequate considering.  

NotOK/C’est assez has two tip sheets: one for journalists being attacked and one for newsroom leadership where a journalist is being attacked. None of the recommendations in NotOK/C’est assez offer systemic solutions to online harassment and, for individuals, there are no suggestions about how to address online harassment, beyond reporting it. For newsroom leadership, they are told to adopt NotOK/C’est assez’s best practices, like the recommendation that companies create databases of previous attacks to form risk assessments for certain kinds of topics. NotOK/C’est assez doesn’t even mention Dogpiling at all. How many of the media organizations that have signed onto NotOK/C’est assez are following their own guidelines is anyone’s guess. 

Unifor’s media council has developed an online list of resources to help journalists navigate online harm. Their guide has advice for unionized workers, non-unionized workers and freelancers. 

As a union, their approach does not automatically assume that managers, supervisors or the employer are the best, first place to go when reporting abuse. Where NotOK/C’est assez suggests going to a line manager followed by someone you trust if you have experienced online harassment, Unifor encourages people to report abuse to their shop steward, bargaining unit chair or local president, and then to someone trusted. 

Unifor reminds journalists that “the primary responsibility for protecting journalists from online harassment and harm lies with the employer, working with your union and representatives of your newsroom, but you need not wait to ensure you have all the protections you deserve.” While this makes sense, the fact is that only the larger newsrooms have resources to tackle the issue as an organization, whereas smaller organizations, especially ones that aren’t unionized, don’t have the same capacity.  

Kitt says that there are plans to launch a national campaign that involves employers to combat online hate and harassment. Kitt’s goal is to create a Canadian version of the Committee to Protect Journalists, an international group that promotes press freedom and the safety of journalists worldwide. 

A new national campaign and a new organization would help extend resources to smaller outlets which don’t have the same capacity as big corporations such as CBC/Radio Canada. 

Many smaller and newer organizations have little to no capacity to combat online harassment. For example, when I asked for a link to their harassment policies, The Georgia Straight’s editor-in-chief Sara Horowitz directed me to an Instagram post that told readers that harassing comments are not acceptable. Maureen Halushak at Chatelaine said that parent company St. Joseph Communications didn’t have any policies at all related to online abuse and harassment (they own Maclean’s, Toronto Life, Hello! Today’s Parent, among other publications, in addition to Chatelaine). The Breach do have protocols that they’ve developed to navigate online harassment.

The Tyee, a well established, independent publication based in B.C., has a robust social media policy that, notably, includes advice from other Tyee employees about how they manage social media, especially as it relates to harassment. Staff are encouraged to block and mute, engage with accounts in good faith and be in touch with colleagues or a supervisor in the case that the individual feels like they need help. 

***

Ultimately, online attacks are a political problem. Disinformation and social disintegration have all triggered an increase in attacks on journalists and sadly, all political parties play a role in conditions declining. Rising frustration with Canada’s status quo is often projected onto journalists, for both upholding a system that feels like it’s falling apart and also for not being able to adequately report about politicians’ failures critically. Whether it’s Pierre Poilievre lying about the Liberals being the funding arm of the Canadian Press or the Prime Minister’s Office limiting access to media, both create the conditions for online harm towards journalists to spread. As Seglins says, journalists are often attacked just by virtue of doing what they do. No amount of being a journalist differently is going to stop online attacks unless there are more fundamental societal changes. After all, online harassment is both a symptom of broader social forces and a tactic to silence certain voices.

Indeed, broader social forces are much harder to change, and so it’s perhaps unsurprising that many newsrooms have opted for the route of meeting with police, even if they’re the source of some of the harassment, and appealing to government

I asked Toronto Star Editor-in-Chief Anne-Marie Owens what had changed since that letter was addressed to Justin Trudeau in the summer of 2022. Owens said representatives of the media have met with Canadian police chiefs and encouraged them to allow employers to report harassment on behalf of journalists. They’ve also proposed that law enforcement treat these incidents in the same way they treat cyber crime: rather than taking these as isolated incidents, it’s important to identify when these attacks are part of larger, co-ordinated attacks against journalists. Owens added that, “the police seem to have made some changes in response to the letter and the industry’s advocacy — not that they led to arrests.” For now, the police have designated a point person for editors at the Star to report incidents on behalf of their employees.

Owens noted that after the letter was issued industry leaders met with Marco Mendicino, then public safety minister, to talk about better national co-ordination in responding to online harassment and threats. When I asked Public Safety Canada what the ministry has done about this request since 2022, a spokesperson emailed this statement: “There will be no tolerance for this or any other form of intimidation, harassment, or harmful targeting of specific communities or individuals within Canada. Anyone who feels threatened online or in person, should report these incidents to their local police. If someone in the public is in immediate danger, they should call 9-1-1 or contact their local police.” 

The spokesperson also directed me to Heritage Canada’s Online Harms webpage, an initiative to develop a regulatory framework to try “to address online harms.” The page hadn’t been updated since August 2021 (a year before Gilmore, Eitzaz and Ifill were targeted) before the Liberals released its Online Harms Act on Feb. 26.

The act doesn’t mention journalists at all. 

***

In the midst of reporting this story, Bell Media announced devastating layoffs to local and national news broadcasts. One thing that none of the guides help journalists navigate is the connection between looming layoffs and online harassment. Journalists who experience online harassment can feel far more precarious when a layoff is right around the corner. 

In Gilmore’s case, that was certainly true, as many trolls online celebrated her layoff from Global in April 2023. Gilmore was relentlessly Dogpiled when she worked for Global but, ironically, it was freedom from the newsroom structures that actually allowed her to build what she needed the whole time: an external network of people who would defend her online. Online harassment is meant to isolate a person and so when there are people who fight on your behalf, it’s a powerful antidote. 

Media organizations would be wise to learn from experiences like Gilmore’s and others who have experienced similar, constant and relentless harassment and have managed to create support networks that empowered, rather than cowered, them. 

“There’s a lot of people who will go to bat for me,” says Gilmore, noting that she could only build that network after leaving the confines of a formal, full-time job. “It’s definitely a lot more balanced now … being silenced on social media in the way that I was when I was working in mainstream media, it prevented me from building that positive following as well and now I can do that … because really, all we have is community. Police aren’t helping, newsrooms aren’t helping, policymakers aren’t moving that fast on anything that’s making any significant difference on this file, and all we have is each other,” says Gilmore. 

Only two of 12 people from Postmedia outlets I contacted replied to requests for information. They both directed me to Phyllise Gelfand, ice-resident, communications for Postmedia, including copying her email to my reply in one case. Gelfand did not reply to four attempts to contact her through email. Postmedia owns 110 news outlets located all over Canada and 10 national platforms and brands. 

Nancy Cook, the chief people officer for Saltwire, didn’t reply to two requests for comment. Saltwire owns several newspapers in Atlantic Canada, including the Chronicle Herald, Cape Breton Post, the Guardian and the Telegram.

Nora Loreto is a writer based in Quebec City. She is the president of the Canadian Freelance Union and is constantly harassed online.