LSU Team Awarded $5M to Study Harassment of Journalists

BATON ROUGE — From LSU’s Manship School of Mass Communication:

Journalists are increasingly reliant on communication platforms such as Twitter to do their job. They find sources, build their network, grow their audience and promote their work online. At the same time, cyber abuse and harassment are growing — malicious actors troll online spaces, often creating hostile environments.

For journalists, particularly women and women of color, the result is concerning. Nearly 70% of women journalists report experiencing online abuse and harassment. A significant number say they’ve altered their reporting, and about one-third consider quitting the profession, as a result of the abuse, said Kathleen Searles, associate professor of political communication at LSU’s Manship School of Mass Communication.

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“How do we find ways to change the norms in these spaces that ultimately can shift the likelihood that someone will be abusive?” Searles said. “And if not that, then at least create an environment in which people can step up and support journalists if they see they’re being abused or harassed by bad actors.”

Searles is co-leading research, funded by the National Science Foundation, to expand work on supporting journalists facing online harassment campaigns. The project, totaling $5 million over two years, will fund the creation of a comprehensive system of care that merges social and technical resources for journalists in need. The NSF cooperative agreement is housed at the George Washington University’s Institute for Data, Democracy & Politics, where the study’s principal investigator Rebekah Tromble is director.

Phase 1 of the research launched last September as part of the 2021 NSF Convergence Accelerator Program with a $750,000 grant to conduct research and development to stand-up a potential prototype for addressing online abuse and harassment. Having securing funding for Phase 2, Searles’ team will be focusing on actually building out the tool, a socio-technical system that ensures journalists who have experienced online violence will receive trauma-informed support.

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“Dr. Searles’ research reflects a core commitment to protecting and empowering today’s journalists, whose work is essential to public discourse, while also showing a willingness to explore issues essential to equality and accessibility,” said Josh Grimm, interim dean of the LSU Manship School. “This is the work we are proud to do.”

Through her work to develop a comprehensive system of care for journalists who have experienced online abuse and harassment, Searles identified another factor at play: bystanders.

“There are different buckets of people you could tap for support if a journalist in your life is being harassed,” she said. “Some are colleagues, friends, family. Another one is bystanders, or in journalists’ terms, their audience, supporters, fans and readers. So, you can imagine a world in which the public could also be a positive place for journalists experiencing harm.”

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As a 2022 Anti-Defamation League (ADL) Center for Technology and Society Belfer Fellow, Searles will explore the role of bystanders in the online advocacy space for journalists. Her project will test the efficacy of online bystander interventions for journalists who have been targeted by online hate and harassment campaigns. Instead of focusing on the bystander or other parties, which traditional bystander research has done, Searles intends to center the person in need, i.e., the journalist.

“We’re going to talk to journalists, learn from them what strategies might be useful and test those strategies against others,” she said. “The goal is to have a set of recommendations to issue to the public, to the people who want to help, who care about journalism, who care about the health of democratic discourse online who might do something as simple as send a supportive tweet or report an abusive user or whatever the strategy might end up being.”

Building on this line of research, Searles hopes these dual projects will help decrease cyber abuse and harassment, starting with journalists and, eventually, scaling to all experts. Additionally, she hopes her work will increase the likelihood that journalists—specifically women, BIPOC reporters and other historically oppressed groups acutely affected by online abuse—will persist in these spaces. Healthy democratic discourse, she said, depends on their voices and expertise.

“Right now, we very much have an information environment that’s hostile to journalists,” Searles said. “And women, LGBTQ communities, people who have disabilities and reporters of color all experience this harm acutely. … As someone who cares a lot about representation in journalism, I want to do everything I can to create an environment in which [they] can continue to do the excellent, amazing work they’re already doing and the bad actors don’t win.”

Searles holds a joint appointment in the Manship School and the Department of Political Science at LSU. Her research interests include political communication (partisan media, news, journalistic decision-making), political psychology and political behavior (public opinion, campaigns). She’s published more than 30 articles and book chapters and has two forthcoming books. Searles is a founding member of Women Also Know Stuff and a member of the organizing committee for the Election Coverage and Democracy Network.

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