Expert Commentary

Report explores and recommends peer support networks for U.S. journalists facing online abuse

The PEN America report fills an important gap in knowledge about the existing structures of peer support networks inside and outside of the news industry and journalists’ general views and needs for peer support.

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In the face of increasing online harassment, an exploratory report published this month examines the role of peer support networks in reducing harm and increasing resilience among U.S. journalists, especially for women, journalists of color and LGBTQ+ journalists who are disproportionately targeted online.

The Power of Peer Support,” published by PEN America, calls on the journalism industry to invest in creating peer support groups, modeled after evidence-based approaches in other high-stress professions like emergency services, where journalists under attack online can come together and find support.

The authors make the case that under the current industry pressures and without sufficient support, journalists, especially those from diverse backgrounds, will leave the profession.

“I genuinely see this as something that as an industry, especially if we come together, we can make work for journalists and for news organizations,” says Susan E. McGregor, one of the report’s authors and a research scholar at Columbia University Data Science Institute and a former journalist.

The report fills an important gap in knowledge about the existing structures of peer support networks inside and outside of the news industry, effective models from outside the industry that could be adopted, and journalists’ general views and needs for peer support.

In addition to McGregor, the report’s authors are Viktorya Vilk, the director of digital safety and free expression at PEN America, who has been focused on digital safety and online abuse defense for more than six years, and Jeje Mohamed, senior manager of digital safety and free expression at PEN America, a nonprofit organization that champions free expression and the freedom to write. The Democracy Fund and Craig Newmark Philanthropies funded the report.

The report is not published in a peer-reviewed academic journal, but the research behind it was approved by Columbia University’s Institutional Review Board. It is based on interviews with eight journalists of color and 17 support network organizers, newsroom leaders, and experts in peer support, mental health, HR and security, between March 2022 and June 2023.

Even though the authors interviewed eight journalists, they were able to gain a broader of view of journalists’ experience via peer support network organizers who have worked with many journalists in their groups.

The report’s findings aren’t generalizable to all journalists who have experienced online abuse, the authors note.

Despite its limitations, the report is a deep dive into peer support in journalism, says Matthew Pearson, an assistant professor at Carleton University’s School of Journalism and Communication in Ottawa, Canada, who researches mental health, well-being and trauma among media workers and was not involved in the report.

“I appreciate how [the report] connects peer support to the consequences of online abuse, but I also really appreciate that it makes a link between online abuse and how that abuse impacts the very people that we’re trying to get and retain and promote in U.S. organizations,” Pearson says, referring to women, people of color and people from diverse backgrounds.

Scott Blanchard, an editor and director of journalism at WITF in Pennsylvania, who has extensive experience in bringing peer support and trauma awareness to local newsrooms, said in an email that the paper “is the first report I’ve seen to drill down this specifically on peer support for journalists, and the first I’ve seen to draw conclusions and make recommendations.”

The report comes at a crucial election year in the U.S. and at a time when journalists, particularly women, journalists of color and LGBTQ+ journalists, face increasing levels of online abuse and harassment.

A 2022 Pew Research Center study of 11,889 U.S.-based journalists finds that 27% of Black journalists, 20% of Hispanic journalists and 27% of Asian journalists experienced online abuse based on their race or ethnicity, compared with 5% of white journalists surveyed.

Many times journalists under attack don’t know where to turn or don’t have a place to turn to, leaving them feeling alone and isolated.

“If you look at the literature, social isolation is extremely, extremely bad for one’s health, particularly if you’re going through these kinds of high-stress experiences,” says McGregor.

Peer support and small-group peer support in journalism

The authors of the report define peer support as emotional and psychological support provided outside of a clinical setting.

Research shows that certain kinds of support, including peer support, can be more effective at promoting resilience than working with a new therapist, the authors note, although it’s not a replacement for therapy.

“We explored all kinds of support networks,” Vilk says. “Not all of the support networks that we found were peer support, and they were all extremely different from one another, and they did very different things,” such as anonymous hotlines that people can call, online chat groups, mentorship programs in professional associations, or in-person programs.

In their search for the types of support networks for journalists, the authors find two main types of programs:

  • “Structured” networks, which were created with a specific mission, such as professional development or providing emergency response services.
  • “Organic” networks, originating in communities such as alumni of a given training or fellowship program, or among journalists who share a beat.

But while many journalists are proponents of peer support networks, and prefer to receive support from other journalists, many don’t reach out to the existing ones when facing online harassment or other job stressors.

The authors find several reasons driving this disconnect. Some journalists are concerned that the details of their experiences or their feelings might find their way to an employer, potential employer or future collaborator. Others might find it difficult to be vulnerable without knowing how their experiences in a group might be received or responded to.

The authors believe that another model called small-group peer support, could be the solution.

The model currently doesn’t exist in the news industry, according to the authors, but it is beneficial in other high-stress professions, research shows.

In the small-group peer support model, a trained individual facilitates a group of four to ten peers in providing support to one another. The facilitators don’t necessarily share the experiences of the group and they don’t provide direct support to the group’s members.

“The small-group peer support model is built on norms and expectations defined and maintained by the individuals in the group, with support from trained facilitators who can offer guidance and direction as needed,” the authors write. “In the examples we’ve studied, small-group peer support operated in ‘real time’ (e.g. in-person meeting or online call), so participants could be confident that, when sharing, they would get a response.”

In the authors’ view, this model will likely work better for journalists if members are also given anonymity and confidentiality, It can also be a more inclusive space for freelance journalists who often lack support from news organizations, they say.

“Many initiatives that being in the newsroom begin with full-time, permanent employees in mind, or even employees who are on contract, and don’t necessarily consider freelancers,” Pearson of Carleton University says. “So I’m glad that this includes freelancers.”

The report suggests that professional associations, foundations, universities, unions, philanthropists or news organizations could spearhead the effort to develop networks, recruit peer support facilitators, coordinate training, help with finances, and help connect journalists with these groups.

“I would love to see as many organizations in the journalism industry as possible experiment with this model because small-group peer support has not been done in any kind of deliberate, structured, thoughtful way in the journalism industry that we were able to find,” Vilk says.

Blanchard of WITF is in support of the model but he’s also skeptical about how quickly and widely it could be adopted across the industry.

“I think there’s also a catch-22 here: Journalists and newsrooms are so stretched and stressed that they may not have the time and energy it would take to create a way to address how stretched and stressed they are,” Blanchard said. “That’s why the idea of philanthropic money could play a huge role in pushing this issue forward across the industry, including the model recommended by the report.”

Other findings in the report

The professional journalists interviewed for the report were based in the U.S., with staff and freelance experience on a range of beats and from two to 20 years in the field.

The authors recruited participants who identified as journalists of color, given the disproportionate impact of online harassment on them.

“We wanted to explicitly understand what kind of peer support exists for folks who are disproportionately targeted based on their identity,” Vilk says.

Six of the eight journalists identified as women, one as a man and one as nonbinary. The journalists worked at various mediums, including print, online and audio.

Even though the journalists interviewed described support networks as “safe spaces” that sometimes even took on a “familial” quality, “they said that they did not — or would not — turn to these networks when experiencing online harassment,” the authors write.

They also find that existing support networks mostly address either immediate distress — such as an active doxing campaign or threat of legal action — or career-level concerns, such as negotiating a raise. This leaves out journalists who experience ongoing distress such as online abuse.

The majority of support networks for journalists in the U.S. operate outside of news organizations, according to the report. However, they found four news organizations that ran in-house peer support networks or had explored the option.

In the in-house model, news organizations provide financial and logistics support to networks. Employees serve as peer support providers and an external clinician supervises the network. Although there are many benefits to this model, its exclusive nature to the newsroom makes it inaccessible to freelancers. Also, the expense of working with a clinical provider makes it infeasible for newsrooms with limited resources, the authors write.

When asked what they wanted from news organizations, most journalists in the report said they wanted their news organizations to “directly and explicitly acknowledge the occupational hazards of journalism, including online abuse, and to provide basic resources for coping with them constructively,” the authors write.

They also wanted news organizations to develop policies and procedures for online abuse, so that journalists know what to expect from their news organization, and said that employee assistance programs (EAPs) are not enough.

“I don’t think the journalism industry has fully come around to the idea the profession involves an enormous amount of stress and trauma and occupational hazard, the way that it is understood if you’re talking about first responders or other kinds of fields,” Vilk says.

Report’s recommendations for setting a peer support network

They offer several recommendations to news organizations and the wider journalism industry:

Strengthen existing organic or structured support networks. Some ways to do so include:

  • Creating a “staffed” channel focused on online abuse, and recruiting and training members who can serve as support providers and offer specific hours of availability.
  • Offering members training opportunities, such as psychological first aid; considering a compensation or recognition model for the trained support providers.
  • Allowing support providers to take breaks from their duties to prevent burnout.
  • Providing members with existing anti-abuse resources.
  • And, importantly, emphasizing confidentiality and anonymity.

Build an in-house structured support network:

  1. Set aside an hour or two per month during work hours for participants to connect and complete a support training program like psychological first aid.
    1. Get buy-in with the news organization’s leadership and potential participants. One way is to work with a trusted facilitator from inside or outside the news organization to collect anonymized staff experiences with online abuse and their desired interventions. This information can then help show the need.
    1. Assess your budget. “Think realistically about how your organization can provide support immediately, in terms of training time, administrative overhead, professional development, and other direct costs,” the authors write. Also, think about the cost of losing a staffer due to burnout.
    1. Connect with other organizations that have implemented peer support networks.
    1. Communicate within the organization consistently that the news organization wants to be more effective in supporting journalists experiencing online abuse and other job stressors, and that it has developed a support network where journalists can confidentially discuss their issues.

Adapt the small-group peer support model.

One example is peer support at Whitman-Walker Health, a nonprofit clinic in Washington, D.C., serving the local LGBTQ+ community. The clinic has been offering small-group peer support groups to the local LGBTQ+ community for many years.

A new group usually begins after the peer support coordinator identifies six to eight people interested in exploring a theme — such as the “Silver Circle” for LGBTQ+ seniors — and connects them with pairs of trained peer support facilitators, who help guide group conversations.

The groups are largely independent. Some have met consistently for years and some meet for just a few months.

Whitman-Walker peer support facilitators go through an application process and a nine-hour training. They also participate in sessions with more experienced supervisors. The typical time commitment of a peer support facilitator is four to five hours per month.

The organization suggested that journalists can form small-group peer support around beats, identities or locations.

“What you might say is, ‘Let’s have a six-session or eight-session group about dealing with small towns, or what’s it like being in a small town and knowing everybody?’ Or, ‘What’s it like being a woman of color [in journalism]?’” Whitman-Walker officials told the authors.

McGregor is now researching whether and how the small-group peer support model might work in the journalism community.

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