NEW YORK (AP) — The Associated Press' recent firing of a young reporter for what she said on Twitter has somewhat unexpectedly turned company and industry attention to the flip side of social media engagement — the online abuse that many journalists face routinely.
During internal meetings after the Arizona-based reporter, Emily Wilder, was let go, several journalists expressed concern over whether the AP would have the backs of employees under attack from the outside.
“The Emily Wilder situation triggered this for many people on the staff,” Jenna Fryer, an AP sportswriter who spoke at one of the meetings, said in a subsequent interview.
Wilder was fired last month because of what the company said were tweets on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that violated AP's social media policy against offering opinions on contentious issues. Before her firing, a conservative group had sparked an online campaign against her over her pro-Palestinian views, and while the AP has said it wasn't responding to pressure, her dismissal ignited debate over whether the news organization acted too rashly.
Journalists are often subjected to racist or sexist slurs, vile insults and threats of rape, dismemberment or other violence from online readers.
Online harassment is hardly unique to journalists. But the visibility of reporters makes them particularly vulnerable to attack, said Viktorya Vilk, program director for digital safety and free expression at the literary and human rights organization PEN America.
Fryer, who covers auto racing, said she “was in tears daily” over online abuse she received for coverage of a noose found last year in an Alabama garage stall used by NASCAR's only full-time Black driver. She said the only time she heard from the company about harassment was when a manager remarked that Fryer had gotten a lot of it.
“Sometimes you feel like you're on a total island,” she said.
The news agency says it has worked with law enforcement in many cases when its journalists were attacked online. Still, following the meetings, the AP ordered a study on whether more can be done.
“I can speak from personal experience that we have not been ignoring this,” said Julie Pace, the AP's Washington bureau chief. “What we have to do is put this on a par with the way we handle what we have traditionally viewed as security threats for our journalists — if you are going to Syria, or if you're covering protests that could potentially become chaotic.”
News organizations were often quick over the past decade to press their journalists to build social media profiles, recognizing it as important to their brands, but slow to see its dangers, said Vilk, who has worked with more than a dozen media outlets on this issue.
Women and minorities usually have it worse. Vilk believes the preponderance of white men in management has contributed to the industry's delay in reacting.
Some members of the AP's race and ethnicity reporting team approached their editor, Andale Gross, following Wilder's firing with concerns over whether the company would support them if their stories or tweets proved controversial, he said. Racist slurs and threats happen frequently to the reporters he supervises, who include Blacks, Latinos and Asian-Americans, and AP security has responded to a number of them, he said.
The team's story two weeks ago about racism in the military provoked many hateful messages from people who said they were in the military — essentially proving the article's point, he said.
“I don't want people to think it should be accepted or tolerated,” Gross said. “But it comes with the territory of the things we write about. We know that every story we produce, we can be dealing with an onslaught of racism.”