[Submitted for op-ed column, Tallahassee Democrat, April 3, 2019]
By Michelle Ferrier
I used to think that only foreign correspondents had to worry about violence as they reported from elsewhere on the front lines of war. Now, I know. Journalists are at risk in their own back yard.
This month, news of a database of U.S. journalists solicited by and created for the U.S. government circulated on Twitter. The tweets were barely noticed by users, amidst the tweets from the president of the United States calling journalists “enemies of the people” and “fake news.” The article barely registered in the Twittersphere as it streamed alongside of renewed calls for justice for Jamal Khashoggi, the Washington Post journalist brutally murdered in Saudi Arabia last year. Or journalists inexplicably selected for extra scrutiny entering into or leaving the country. Because violence against journalists has become routine and attacks on journalists on social media and in real life have intensified because of the violent rhetoric coming from the White House.
Databases, such as the one the U.S. government has created, are tools of surveillance, designed to monitor the actions and work of journalists. But these databases can also be used to facilitate the movement of online threats into offline spaces. It’s time to add journalists to the group of protected professions in state statutes around the country and remove personal, identifying information of journalists from public records.
For journalists that have been doxed, where personally identifying information and addresses have been leaked on the web, these online threats take on a more horrific tone, as their lives and those of their family, are put at risk. I left Florida and the newsroom nearly 10 years ago because my life and my journalism work was being threatened through hate mail and digital channels.
Florida Statute 119.071 protects certain professionals from public scrutiny. It allows state residents who work in protected professions to opt-in to the removal of private information from property and voting records that show home address and other personal, identifying information. Police officers and judges are on the list. Social workers and bankers are on the list. When Florida legislators created the statute, journalists were considered…and voted off the final list.
Against a global backdrop that has changed significantly in the past five years both politically and digitally, social media threats and violent actions have created a hostile work environment for journalists here and abroad. They mirror the attacks on journalists in other far-right regimes as a tactic for intimidating and silencing journalists critical of the government. And it’s working. Not only has trust in the media hit new lows (PEW/Gallop Poll), but these threats affect the work of the journalist and the news-gathering enterprise.
In recent research I released in October 2018 with the International Women’s Media Foundation, more than 90 percent of women journalists indicate that online and physical threats have increased over the past five years. Eighty-two (82%) percent indicate that digital attacks are on the rise, including such activities as having social accounts hacked or data stolen or compromised. Many self-censor and seek to protect themselves and their families by staying away from issues that may inflame social networks. More than one-third of the women I surveyed indicated they had considered leaving the profession.
As a journalism educator, I’m coaching my young students to use a pseudonym or pen name as they grow their professional careers. They don’t have a reputation yet, and they can create a fire break between the always on, professional persona they cultivate online, and their lives as private individuals. Journalists who have been using their real names online are much more exposed through these public records that often are easily accessible through government websites and third-party aggregators who scoop up such data for sale.
Before Khashoggi was murdered, his online profile was monitored. He was threatened. He was doxed. Before the Capital Gazette shootings, where five media workers were murdered in their newsrooms, there were letter, email and social media threats. The violence moved from online into physical space.
Journalists everywhere are under attack. But here in Florida and across the United States, we can help protect journalists from online and physical attacks by amending Florida Statute 119.071, F.S. that provides confidentiality to public records.
Michelle Ferrier, Ph.D., is the dean of the School of Journalism & Graphic Communication at Florida Agricultural & Mechanical University in Tallahassee, Florida. She is also the founder of Troll-Busters.com, online pest control for journalists.