Protect Florida’s Journalists From Physical Harm

[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.

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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.

Cover of October 2018 report, Attacks and Harassment: The Impact on Female Journalists and Their Reporting
Attacks and Harassment: The Impact on Female Journalists and Their Reporting, Fall 2018.

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, online pest control for journalists.



Women Journalists Suffer Online Abuse in Silence for Fear of Retribution

A new research report, written by TrollBusters founder Dr. Michelle Ferrier, shows significant short- and long-term effects for women journalists facing online abuse, including changes to their reporting routines and censoring of topics covered. In most cases, this abuse goes unreported to management, as women journalists fear retribution, including removal from assignments and their jobs.


Attacks and Harassment: The Impact on Female Journalists and Their Reporting, Fall 2018.

The Fall 2018 report, Attacks and Harassment: The Impact on Female Journalists and their Reporting, released in conjunction with the International Women’s Media Foundation and with funding from the Craig Newmark Philanthropies, provides a sobering view of female journalists and the digital culture in which they do their work. These new findings, which detail the short- and long-term impact of online harassment on more than 600 individual journalists, freelancers, media workers and others, also illuminates the changing nature of the attacks. The survey was distributed to women journalists around the globe during January 2018- March 2018.

The survey examines both online and physical threats against journalists and was distributed in a year when journalists around the globe, and especially in the United States, saw the violence against journalists come to public attention and outcry. President Donald Trump of the United States has called the press “the enemy of the state,” creating a hostile work environment for journalists the world over. Recent attacks on the press in the United States, resulted in the June 28 killings of journalists at the Capital Gazette newspaper and the vicious murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi. A December 2, 2018 CNN news report points to intercepted WhatsApp messages that doomed Khashoggi as the Saudi government cracked down on dissenters:

Khashoggi_text-capture_god help us.

It is against this global backdrop that these 600 women journalists shared the myriad ways they are threatened and attacked online and off and the impact on their work. In the era of #MeToo and #TimesUp movements in the United States, female journalists the world over feel the constant pain of a hostile work environment. Women journalists receive daily threats via social media, email, and other digital forms. However, female journalists also fear surveillance of their online activities, with 37 percent citing surveillance as a concern. Another 26 percent have received unsolicited invitations of a sexual nature. Nearly a quarter of the respondents (21%) indicated that their family and friends had been threatened too. Nearly a quarter (24 percent), indicated that the online threats and harassment had interfered with or negatively impacted their career development.

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Key findings from the report:

  • Sixty-seven percent (67%) say that in the last five years, online threats or harassment are occurring much more often. The same number also say that physical attacks are on the rise as well, with attacks occurring more often in the past five years.
  • Women journalists report a variety of ways in which they are attacked and stalked online, in gendered, sexist ways. Sixty-five percent (65%)  indicate they have experienced sexist comments within the past year; 29 percent say they’ve received racist comments; 28 percent say someone has verbally attacked them to their face. Eighteen percent (18%) say they have been stalked in the past year.
  • Thirty-six percent (36%) cite concerns of psychological stress, while nearly half (48 percent) fear a loss of job or income.
  • More than 50 percent (52%) fear the loss of future employment opportunities.
  • More than a third (37%) say they avoided certain stories after online attacks.
  • Nearly a third (29%)  indicated they they thought about getting out of the field/profession.

For the full report, Attacks and Harassment: The Impact on Female Journalists and their Reporting, download our PDF file: Attacks-and-Harassment_Fall-2018



Online News Association Workshop to Tackle Online Abuse

In conjunction with the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the International Women’s Media Foundation, TrollBusters Founder Dr. Michelle Ferrier will be co-leading a workshop to develop strategic initiatives for female journalists under attack online. “Online Harassment of Female Journalists: From Impact to Action,” will be hosted on Thursday, September 13, from noon to 1:30 p.m. at the J.W. Marriott Austin Hotel in Austin, Texas.

Building on the gap analysis Ferrier led at the Internet Freedom Forum, the invitation-only workshop will share a new report funded by the Craig Newmark Philanthropies on the impact of online and physical abuse on journalists. We will discuss policies, strategies, tactics and management best practices for addressing this persistent and dangerous issue.

Contact if you will be attending the Online News Association and have a contribution to bring to the dialogue.

Press Push Back Against President Trump


  • In an unusual move of coordinated action, newspapers across the United States shared editorials and commentary this week on the values of a free press, pushing back against President Donald Trump‘s attacks on the press as “enemies of the people.”
  • This is NOT a drill. White House correspondent April Ryan says she pays for a bodyguard, after repeated death threats. 
  • Many police departments post mugshots online to name and shame those arrested. Recently the online posts of Berkeley Police Department were used by websites coordinating White Lives Matter rallies to target protestors. The doxing of those who have been placed in public view causes their continued harassment. Read about our client and the continued fights over, the company using off-shore servers to continue to operate.
  • While alt-right conspiracy theorist Alex Jones and his Infowars is in the center of a public debate about Internet platforms censoring content, these websites control public discourse  using algorithms that protect some offensive content while deleting other content.

  • Parents of children who were targeted at the Sandy Hook Elementary School are still trying to prove that the shooting wasn’t a hoax. Conspiracy theorists have been rampantly using the internet to spread misinformation about the incident but some websites are protecting these conspiracy attacks more than others.

  • When Orange is the New Black star Ruby Rose, an openly lesbian actress, was cast to play the lesbian Batwoman, it was a historic moment for queer representation in the media. That is until trolls harassed Rose so much, she quit Twitter.

  • In our men behaving very, very badly file, a pilot from United Airlines shared explicit photos of a flight attendant. The U.S. government is now suing United for creating a hostile work environment but United told Insider that it “will vigorously defend against this case.”

Student Press are Under Attack

Student press are increasingly under attack from coordinated external groups seeking to target an individual journalist or fracture an already contentious campus atmosphere. Gershon Harrell of the reports in April 2018 that Madison Newingham, a liberal political activist and junior double majoring in political science and history, drew the attention of internet trolls for her columns in The Kent Stater.


Figure 1. Madison Newingham leads a pro-choice rally.

“People would call me an idiot and stupid and a lot more vulgar words,” Newingham said in the KentStater. “I was appalled. I had no idea people would attack my character because of my beliefs.”

Harrell reports that female students and students of color were most attacked at Kent State. Newingham recalls her time at The Kent Stater, where most of her trolls were younger men or “baby boomer men.”

“I wrote an article about sexual assault and one guy literally told me he hopes I was assaulted,” Newingham said. “I was kind of like, ‘Ha! Jokes on you, I was!’”

Newingham says she became uncomfortable speaking in public and stayed off campus as much as she could.

Encountering these online attacks early may derail these young journalists from their career paths. Many rethink their professional paths, choosing strategic communication, public relations, or other communication fields where they can limit public exposure.

What Students and Educators Can Do

  • Students should think about how they use social media and consider changing their names or setting up separate professional accounts as they move on through the profession.
  • Set up separate phone lines for professional and personal calls. Same with email.
  • Get your own domain name. Set up a website. Make sure your name is the top result/first page on search engines.
  • Use a post office box to remove a physical footprint to your doorstep.
  • Set up privacy protections on any domain names you own.


Doxing of Reporters Chills Coverage

At least 11 Huffington Post reporters were doxed and threatened online by the alt-right in May 2018 after reporter Luke O’Brien produced a story that identified the Twitter account of social media user @AmyMek, suspected of spreading hate speech. Doxing is when personal information, such as work or home address and telephone numbers are distributed on the web.


O’Brien said he received thousands of threatening and harassing tweets following the article. The account @AmyMek, promoted this thread below, encouraging her followers to go after the HuffPost:

In an ironic twist, Twitter suspended the reporter’s account rather than the account of the user breaking community standards.

What Journalists and Management Can Do

  • Engage the company’s social media team to do more monitoring of threatening social media users and to engage corporate security, if necessary.
  • Close off commenting on virulent comment threads.
  • Don’t archive articles that may retrigger an attack on the journalist/writer/photographer.
  • Block abusive messages or re-route away from targeted journalist(s).


And We Persisted: Online Threats Leave Journalists Exposed to Physical Attacks

To Our Capital Gazette Colleagues,
we've got your back. #wepersisted ❤

IMG_9237The recent deaths of five journalists at the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Maryland on Thursday underscore the hostile environment journalists are experiencing here in the United States. News organizations are reporting that the shooter had a long-standing anger at the newspaper for coverage surrounding a stalking charge reported from a police report. The shooter used a variety of social media accounts to lob jabs and physical threats at the newspaper staff over the years and filed and lost a defamation lawsuit against the organization. And most recent reports indicate that the shooter had also sent threatening letters to the news organization just days before this attack on Thursday, reports NBC. The 2:33 pm shootings at the Capital Gazette headquarters were preceded by years of online attacks against the organization and its personnel.

The subject line of TrollBusters’ 8 a.m. Thursday morning newsletter: Underestimating online threats can be deadly. We were referring to the recent death of a Japanese blogger who was giving a talk on online harassment, when his online stalker met him after the talk and killed the blogger. We did not know it would become the epitaph for our colleagues at the Capital Gazette.


These are dangerous times. The Boston Globe reports that Capital Gazette staff have received threats after the attack, celebrating the massacre. And as one reporter recently tweeted:

“People are going to say that journalists are overreacting,” tweeted Anne Helen Petersen, a Buzzfeed reporter cited by the Associated Press who said she’s received emailed death threats and someone who threatened to slit her dog’s throat.

Petersen tweeted. “We’ve been under-reacting for years.”

In today’s Boston Globe, @NotesfromHel describes the hate she and other women journalists of color have endured for years. Death threats should not be part of the job, Helen Ubinas, wrote in her column “The hate we get: Why journalists need to stop accepting threats as part of the job.” Ubinas describes why she has publicized these audio, text and verbal threats that she receives on every platform.

“Why? Because … receipts, but also because for years journalists — women and journalists of color especially — were expected to absorb the threats and hatred in silence, while others, often in the very same newsrooms, had the luxury of being blissfully unaware.”

“That was BS then. And it’s BS now.” calls Ubinas. As founder of TrollBusters, I too hold “receipts” of the years of hate mail I received as the first African-American columnist at a Florida newspaper. My experiences led me to create TrollBusters to support journalists from online threats and provide coaching to media organizations on navigating digital threats.

TrollBusters joins with the Associated Press Media Editors and the American Society of News Editors, in honoring our Capital Gazette colleagues this Thursday, July 5 at 2:33 p.m. with a moment of silence. The organizations have issued this list of safety practices to protect against physical attack.

However, the document does not provide management guidance on how to navigate online threats — before they result in physical attacks. TrollBusters provides coaching, infographics, education and training work and a growing consortium of organizations are working to combat online abuse and threats, particularly among journalists.

This week, TrollBusters is releasing its Global Safety Resource Hub, a geotagged directory of country-specific resources and organizations working to combat online abuse and threats against journalists. The Google map includes journalism professional organizations, governmental organizations, nonprofit organizations, training and education institutions, professional organizations and others working around the globe on online harassment and privacy issues.


We want our colleagues around the world to be able to receive just-in-time resources to combat online and physical threats. We invite you to suggest additional global resources to protect journalists under attack at

In addition, media management must examine their social media policies and protect their talent online and off. Here are some recommendations for immediate action as suggested by journalists from our research:

  • Educate management on the challenges journalists face in the field and assist management with devising strategy for prevention and greater security (both physical and digital).
  • Publish attacks on media sites to call attention to circulating rumors; support your journalists and their work.
  • Take threats more seriously by investigating and/or providing security while working.
  • Close off commenting on an article that is drawing fire.
  • Provide additional personnel on live shots or Facebook Live shoots.

Dr. Michelle Ferrier is the founder of TrollBusters: Online Pest Control for Journalists. Report #onlineabuse #onlineharassment @yoursosteam, and

Student journalists not immune from online trolls


  • What We’re Watching: Indian journalist Rana Ayyub has received death threats, gang rape threats and worse for her critical exposes of the government. She recently appeared on BBC to name her attackers and how violent threats have become a Twitter storm.
  • Zambian media workers are pushing back against the Zambian government for fast tracking several cybersecurity bills without proper vetting with civil society.
  • At the G7 summit in Canada, British Prime Minister Theresa May urged internet firms to do more to prevent online abuse and harassment of women, Reuters reports.
  • U.S. constitutional lawyer Noah Feldman explains the tenuous balance when we start to regulate how platforms limit free speech, even to prevent abuse or protect the right to follow the U.S. president’s Twitter account.
  • And a member of the U.K. parliament advocates digital IDs and ending online anonymity as a way to curb trolling and “mob rule.”
  • A new book, “Uncovering Online Commenting Culture: Trolls, Fanboys and Lurkers,” from Renee Barnes looks at why people behave the way they do online.
  • The Tweet Police? This language-policing AI is unlikely to make you more civil on the Internet, but it’s determined to try.
  • Does the Sarahah app, popular among teenage girls in Australia, facilitate cyberbullying? A spike in online harassment and bullying may lead to suicides, warn experts.


Student journalists are not immune from idiots on the web. This Kent Stater columnist experienced threats that caused her to go to authorities. How should student media workers defend themselves? Gershon Harrell talks to TrollBusters founder Dr. Michelle Ferrier for tips on best practices. Photo courtesy of Madison Newingham.TrollBusters Infographic HindiOur practical “What to Do?” infographic leads journalists through response to different types of threats…now in Russian, Spanish, Hindi and English.

Highlight of the Week

The Best Antidote is a Good Laugh…and a Great Clapback

You know…like Stephen Colbert, we just don’t appreciate all the #onlinehate toward our leading womxn of color, especially the recent trashing on Kelly Marie Tran on Instagram. So this new Star Wars trailer highlights all the sheroes in one mega femflick just to piss off the Fanboys. WATCH HERE.


Claim Your Seat: Digital Self-Defense Class

Register now for Orientation: Defense Against the Digital Dark Arts, a 1-1/2 hour guided tour through the dark web and digital security for journalists:

This 1 1/2-hour webinar, taught by Michelle Ferrier, provides an orientation to online abuse and digital security, the legal boundaries of online speech and ways in which journalists are exposed to online harassment. Participants will also generate their personal threat model and explore tools for protecting their digital reputation online and off. Learn more about our course offerings. Register now.

In the meantime, browse our Digital Hygiene Course, 10-minute mini lessons on digital practices to keep online pests away.

Check out these and other lessons at

Stop the silence…Sharing your #onlineabuse is self-care


  • Independent music journalist Zachary Stoner and self-described “Hood CNN” was killed in Chicago. The Committee to Protect Journalists asks for a thorough investigation into whether Stoner’s community stories of Black men and Chicago gangs played a role.
  • Journalists wrote an open letter to messaging apps asking the platforms to make changes that could curb online abuse, IFEX reports.
  • In exposing hate-monger @AmyMek, a HuffPost reporter was doxed and Twitter suspended HIM. Find out how the dark web has weaponized the same technologies designed to protect users from threats.
  • Parkland survivor David Hogg‘s home was swatted this week, where law enforcement is called to your home under false pretenses. Authorities are investigating.
  • What was she thinking? Roseanne trolls Valerie Jarrett, and we learn that trolls don’t always win.
  • Inside Higher Ed reports on the many ways social media is used to harass women academics. One of the article’s conclusions? “Women in particular are harassed partly because they happen to be women who dare to be public online.”
  • Annemunition, a female gamer on Twitch, shows just how sexist other gamers can be.
  • Rwanda gets this right? Maybe? A new law there will criminalize cyberstalking.
  • And Gender Equity Victoria tries to equip bystanders to intervene in online abuse, The Guardian reports.

Highlight of the Week

Breaking the Professional Silence Around Online Abuse

Dr. Elana Newman, director of the Dart Center for Trauma and Journalists, discusses the emotional and psychological impact of online abuse on journalists. “Journalists aren’t used to being the story,” Newman says, “but they need to talk about it.” TrollBusters has worked with Dr. Newman and the #SOFJO campaign to raise awareness of the trauma of online attacks. LISTEN.


Register Now to Learn Digital Self-Defense

At TrollBusters, we’re hard at work developing a series of webinars to help you protect yourself from the dark forces that lurk online. The first of these is now available, with more in the works.

Registration is now open for Orientation: Defense Against the Digital Dark Arts, a 1-1/2 hour guided tour through the dark web and digital security for journalists:

This 1 1/2-hour webinar, taught by Michelle Ferrier, provides an orientation to online abuse and digital security, the legal boundaries of online speech and ways in which journalists are exposed to online harassment. Participants will also generate their personal threat model and explore tools for protecting their digital reputation online and off. Learn more about our course offerings.  Register now.

In the meantime, browse our Digital Hygiene Course, 10-minute mini lessons on digital practices to keep online pests away.

Check out these and other lessons at