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

OSCE Makes Recommendations for Media Management on Online Abuse

A report from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)’s Representative on Freedom of the Media details the threat online abuse of female journalists poses to freedom of the media. Founder of TrollBusters Michelle Ferrier authored the report, part of the 2017 relaunch of OSCE’s Safety of Female Journalists online campaign (#SOFJO). This installment of the report focuses on recommendations for media organizations.

The #SOFJO campaign sought to spread awareness of online abuse and its impacts on female journalists as well as provide tools, resources and other support to those who have been targeted.


Online harassment can have a silencing effect, particularly on female journalists, who, the report states, are trolled more often than their male counterparts. These threats, which can include rape, assault, exile and death, can lead to emotional distress, physical ailments, prolonged stress and physical attack. In addition, the attacks can have devastating effects on female journalists’ career trajectories: they may stop writing, no longer report on important topics, or have their job advancement opportunities diminished by the tarnishing of their reputations and journalistic credibility. They fear for their safety and that of their families, and experience invasions into their privacy.

In addition to the effects on individual journalists, the OSCE report says online harassment poses a threat to the press as a whole. OSCE, which conducted targeted research, surveys and workshops between 2015 and 2017, presented some key recommendations for taking action in the report. These recommendations were directed to policymakers and civil society, media organizations and individual journalists.

The report made these recommendations for media organizations:

  • Respect the needs of individual journalists. Each journalist has her own level of privacy, risk and exposure.
  • Designate a point person who is responsible for collecting reports of online harassment from journalists and engaging other parts of the media organization, such as legal, management and information technology teams.
  • Provide training in supportive and empathetic response and trauma response and effects.
  • Train journalists in where, when and how to report online abuses. Develop various protocols for handling social media accounts in the event of a coordinated attack.
  • Discuss possible strategies with the target of the online abuse and determine how legal and IT teams and colleagues might help.
  • Practice information security techniques throughout the news workflow.
  • Learn how hardware, software, mobile technologies and other workplace platforms leave data and information exposed. Train staff on encryption solutions to workflow.
  • Determine how social media will be used/required for your journalists. Do you have a social media policy? How flexible is it to accommodate different needs of different journalists?

Learn More:

Read the full, final reports, including the latest Communiqué on the growing safety threat to female journalists online on the RFoM website at

Follow the campaign on Twitter @osce_rfom and the hashtag #SOFJO to keep up with the latest developments.