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To our fellow newsrooms: stop surrendering to online attacks on your reporters

It’s time to get smarter about the internet — and fast

Reporters and editors watch news of the Pulitzer prizes in the newsroom of the Washington Post, in Washington, DC. Photo by Bill O’Leary / The Washington Post via Getty Images

In 2018, a reporter at The Verge was viciously mobbed by bad faith attacks in an attempt to discredit her as she moved to a prestigious job at The New York Times. While we did not say it directly at the time, we were dismayed that the Times partially yielded to the targeted harassment of an incoming reporter by accusing her of “serving to feed the vitriol” of online discourse. As then-managing editor of The Verge, I wrote an editorial note that was signed by our entire leadership team, declaring that our newsroom would not be cowed by the tactics of Gamergate and other malevolent online movements meant to intimidate journalists and their newsrooms.

We were glad to see the positive response to our note from others in the industry. But sadly, it seems our colleagues in leadership positions in other major newsrooms have not learned any of the hard-earned lessons of dealing with online abuse in the last decade, let alone those that have been amplified in the past few years of the Trump presidency.

Just this year, two alarming incidents have demonstrated that even the largest news organizations can be shaken by bad faith attackers or online mobs.

In January, The Washington Post suspended reporter Felicia Sonmez for the violation of sharing accurate reporting following Kobe Bryant’s death regarding sexual assault allegations made against him. Sonmez then received a deluge of abuse and threats from an online mob of Bryant supporters. Instead of standing by her in the wake of mob abuse, Washington Post executive editor Marty Baron told her that she was hurting the institution, and she was placed on administrative leave.

Fortunately, Sonmez was reinstated, and the Post confirmed that she had not violated the newspaper’s policies. But the damage was done. Reporters in the Post’s newsroom and elsewhere were left to wonder if, while having their home addresses posted online by an angry mob, they would be reprimanded by their bosses instead of given support.

Then, this week, ABC News suspended veteran journalist David Wright after he was recorded identifying himself as a “socialist” and offering mild criticism of his parent company. The footage was captured by Project Veritas: a right-wing sting operation that attempts to discredit media outlets.

“Any action that damages our reputation for fairness and impartiality or gives the appearance of compromising it harms ABC News and the individuals involved,” a spokesperson said. ABC plans to reassign him away from political coverage when he returns from his suspension. It’s not clear how Wright damaged ABC’s reputation for fairness or impartiality — perhaps his real sin was insulting parent company Disney.

These bad faith attacks target what many newsrooms value: fairness and impartiality. But all reporters have opinions and feelings; becoming a journalist does not mean giving up being human. By pretending to speak the language of editorial values, trolls and organized adversaries have baited newsroom leaders into failing to protect their reporters. The objective of online trolls and harassers is to have editorial organizations waste their time by trying to create wedges in their ranks, whether that’s by digging up old tweets or trying to rules-lawyer an organization’s social media policy. They want to intimidate us and have us disavow our colleagues. And they are using “fairness” and “impartiality” to do it.

We take no pleasure in calling on our fellow leaders in newsrooms elsewhere to do better — in fact, we would much prefer to simply read and credit the excellent work of our colleagues. But the stakes are high, and the threat of bad faith attacks is real. Last year, The New York Times reported that a network of operatives allied with the White House plans to launch “an aggressive operation to discredit news organizations deemed hostile to President Trump by publicizing damaging information about journalists.”

If the only thing needed to damage a journalist today is to leak a video in which they admit fundamentally true and transparent things about the tensions in any newsroom or say they’re a socialist, we’re going to lose a lot of good reporters. And if the largest, oldest, and most well-financed editorial organizations in the world can’t handle a reporter’s substantially fair and accurate tweets about an NBA star, how are they going to handle even more sophisticated campaigns against their people?

It’s time to get smarter — and fast. The business of truth depends on it.