If your institution relies on the work of writers or journalists (including freelancers), the following guidelines can help you determine a plan for safeguarding your employees by offering individualized support. We encourage anyone working in the fields of literature or journalism to share this resource with their supervisors, HR department, professional networks, and colleagues.
For most of the internet era, writers’ online activities, including any harassment they incur, have been considered beyond the purview of the institutions that employ them—especially because many kinds of online harassment are so difficult to prevent. Some employers see online harassment as stemming from an employee’s personal use of digital spaces and thus argue that it’s inappropriate to intervene. Others might see the value in offering employees some kind of institutional support, but are concerned about exposing the company to unforeseen liabilities should they adopt formal policies for addressing online abuse.
The ubiquity of digital publishing and social networking means that employers are increasingly leaning on their writers to utilize internet platforms to the company’s advantage. Whether your institution works with award-winning poets, freelance journalists, best-selling authors, or little-known bloggers, it’s likely the writing you publish exists somewhere online. Many editors and publishers now insist that their writers be active on social media during book releases and promotional periods and/or moderate the comments attached to the articles they write.
So when a writer is attacked online in a way that intersects with their professional life, employers have a responsibility to take the harassment seriously, listen to the needs of their writers, and, ideally, offer or help develop a plan of action for addressing the abuse. Luckily, there are a number of steps employers can take not only to support their writers during episodes of online harassment but also to help preempt cyberattacks and mitigate certain kinds of abuse.
The following guidelines have been developed based on PEN America’s 2017 Online Harassment Survey; interviews with newsrooms, universities, and individual journalists and researchers versed in issues of online harassment; and insights provided by The Guardian, The Coral Project, The New York Times, and other publications that continue to be publicly thoughtful about how to support journalists and writers facing online hate.
We hope that your institution will take these guidelines seriously. A writer who doesn’t feel safe or supported may decline assignments, self-censor, or even cease to write. These are outcomes that advocates of free expression and institutions trafficking in the written word cannot and should not abide by.
- Take online harassment seriously and encourage your colleagues and subordinates to do the same. Stand in solidarity with your writers, be sensitive and empathetic, and encourage company-wide discussion about online harassment and how it can be stopped.
- Reach out to your employees if you see them being targeted online—you don’t need to wait for them to come to you. Keep in mind that some individuals—based on identity or personal experience—won’t feel as comfortable calling attention to their experience of online harassment and might fear retaliation or increased scrutiny, so be discreet with your offers of help.
- Involve targeted employees in every single decision you make on their behalf, especially if you’re considering contacting law enforcement. Writers of certain demographics and journalists who cover controversial subjects may have very good reasons for not wanting to involve law enforcement in episodes of online abuse.
- Minimize the target’s exposure to online harassment by enlisting outside comment moderators, encouraging blocking and muting, publishing noninflammatory headlines, and encouraging senior leadership to intervene in online abuse as appropriate.
- Encourage counterspeech efforts among your employees and at-large community. Your readers are a great resource: Encourage them to condemn online harassment and to promote civility in the comment sections to which they contribute.
- Celebrate institutional diversity, especially in positions of leadership, and invite diverse voices to serve as decision-makers when it comes to crafting company-wide online harassment policies. Keep in mind that people of different demographics may have different experiences and points of view when it comes to interacting in online spaces and with law enforcement, which is why the perspectives of women, people of color, and members of the LGBTQ+ community are especially valuable.
- Incorporate research into your policymaking. In addition to any internal research, your organization undertakes, look into what other research is available on the subject of online harassment. For example, researchers at Stanford and Cornell have discovered that people are more likely to troll in the evenings and early in the week. This information might serve to inform policies regarding when and how you open up comment threads to your readers.