Not just words

Reputational attacks against journalists

June 20 2023

We surveyed 645 journalists based in 87 countries (and interviewed 54) about their experiences with reputational attacks. Here’s what they said.

A project of the Global Reporting Centre, in partnership with the UBC School of Journalism, Writing, and Media, the Committee to Protect Journalists, the Disinformation Project at Simon Fraser University, and PEN Canada. View full project credits.

Respondents who said their personal reputation is attacked:
  • Monthly63%
  • Weekly38%
  • Daily19%

What’s a reputational attack?

Reputational attacks are public messages that undermine a journalist’s credibility. They often take the form of false or misleading accusations, like claims of corruption or incompetence.

As an illustrative example, how’s the weather today?

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Reputational attacks and harassment can range from one-off messages to coordinated smear campaigns. They can appear online, in the courtroom, and in politicians’ speeches. They can come from anonymous strangers, bot farms, or the highest levels of government.

And there’s overlap between the two, as seen in our example. But throughout our research, we distinguish reputational attacks as those intended to harm journalists’ credibility in the public eye — even if they do other things as well.

By contrast, media criticism is oriented toward being constructive. It is not false or hostile. Ideally, it helps journalists do better journalism.

Why look at reputational attacks?

Given the overt hostility many journalists face, why did we focus on reputational attacks? Survey respondents who reported receiving frequent reputational attacks also reported more frequent serious harassment, including “doxxing” (publicly releasing someone’s personal details), legal repression, and violence. One respondent, an Iranian-American journalist, said:

“[A social media account] posted my address on Twitter and said, ‘Her family should not feel safe.’”

A billboard with a person's driver's license on it

Also, attacking the reputations of journalists, their organizations, and the industry, reduces the credibility of journalism in general. This can be a desired outcome for powerful people.

Lastly, respondents confirmed that reputational attacks are on the rise.

For this survey, we sought to determine where they’re coming from, how they’re carried out, and the impacts. Only with the data can we create solutions that will help protect journalists.

Please note: We cannot claim our survey’s results are representative of all journalists’ experiences. However, the results, in combination with our in-depth interviews, do suggest patterns that warrant further rigorous analysis. Furthermore, some questions were optional. The percentages in the data below are therefore calculated based on the number of respondents who answered that specific question — not on the number of respondents who reached the end of the survey. For more information on the methodology and limitations of the survey, see the full report.

1.0How often did journalists face reputational attacks?

Over 80% of respondents said they faced reputational attacks against them as individuals at least once a year — and nearly 20% said every day.
Hover or tap the bars to see more detail. You can also tap items in the legend (e.g. "Against me personally") to filter data.

1.1Did frequency of reputational attacks vary by press freedom level?

Respondents in low press freedom countries reported significantly higher rates of reputational attacks compared to those in medium and high. We defined high press freedom as the #1–60 countries in RSF’s 2022 rankings, medium as #61–120, and low as #121–180. 304 respondents were based in high press freedom countries, 132 in medium, and 206 in low.

“Just this week, we had the Iranian government designate our Persian language service as a supporter of international terrorism.”

Jeremy Bransten, Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty’s editor-in-chief.

(RFE/RL is a news organization that receives funding from the U.S. government to work in 23 countries with low press freedom. Government officials are prohibited from interfering in its editorial decisions.)

“There was a series of stories saying we were getting money from the CIA … It was a way of saying to the public, ‘These guys, you cannot trust them, because they have an agenda, an agenda to topple the government, to destabilize the country.’ … It was traumatizing.”

Botswana journalist/reporter
A person falling off a tower of collapsing blocks

2.0What did reputational attacks focus on?

Reputational attacks often took the form of false or misleading claims, focusing on things like perceived political bias, the quality or ethics of their work, and their personal identity. Below are the most common topics that reputational attacks focused on (encountered at least monthly).

3.0Where did reputational attacks come from?

Nearly three-quarters of respondents identified politicians and public officials as sources of reputational attacks. These include politicians in control of national (39.3%) or provincial/local (34.2%) governments, and those in opposition parties (44.6%).
The next most commonly reported sources of reputational attacks were hyper-partisan media (47.2%), which we define as publishing or broadcasting politicized, low-quality information.

“[I]t is more worrying when these attacks come from the state itself, because the state is supposed to guarantee the protection of the press.”

Investigative journalist in Bogotá, Colombia
A microphone with its cord cut and a lock around it

3.1Did press freedom level affect whether governments in power were identified as sources of reputational attacks?

Respondents in low and medium press freedom countries reported considerably more reputational attacks from politicians and political parties in power than those in high press freedom countries. But attacks from opposition politicians and parties were relatively consistent across all countries — regardless of press freedom level. This is a significant distinction, because those who control the government have more access to resources and influence with agencies (like the police) that can be deployed in tandem with reputational attacks.
Journalists in low (29.9%) and medium (26.2%) press freedom countries were also more likely to report military, security, and intelligence services as sources of reputational attacks than those in high press freedom countries (14.1%).

4.0What were the motives of reputational attacks?

When asked why their reputations were attacked, more than half of respondents said they thought it was due to the reputation of journalism in general. This aligns with findings from the latest annual Digital News Report from the Reuters Institute, which found a global trend of declining trust in journalism.

A Canadian health journalist said that when she published stories about COVID-19 vaccines, she faced hostile accusations on Twitter, including:

—“you are corrupt and in the pocket of Big Pharma”
—“you’re killing children”
—“if you have children, they should be taken from you.”

Social media posts on a factory conveyor belt

4.1How often were reputational attacks reported by members of marginalized racial, ethnic, and/or religious (RER) groups?

149 journalists identified as belonging to a marginalized racial, ethnic, and/or religious group in the country where they work. These respondents reported more frequent reputational attacks.

Furthermore, 38.1% of respondents identifying as belonging to a marginalized RER group reported monthly reputational attacks that specifically targeted their identities — compared to 9.3% of those who didn’t. These respondents were also more likely to change how they reported on issues, to consider quitting journalism, and to experience psychological harm — and more than twice as likely to report leaving the city, region, or country where they were reporting.
A Pakistan-born journalist who lives and works in Canada said that certain stories trigger attacks on her personal identity. For instance, she says, one newspaper story she wrote about racism provoked vitriolic comments:

“[On social media, people were] telling me and people who were part of my story to go back to where they came from and stuff like that, and all the typical racist stuff that people do say.”

4.2How did reputational attacks vary by gender?

266 respondents identified as female, and 364 as male. Six identified as neither, with the option to write in how they identified (not depicted in the chart below due to small sample size).
Overall, while the frequency of reputational attacks was marginally higher for men (weekly attacks at 39.3%) than women (35.3%), the nature of attacks varied widely. Women reported monthly reputational attacks related to their gender — and yearly attacks involving sexual messages/sexual threats — at higher rates than men.
Women were also more likely to report experiencing psychological harm than men (62.8% vs. 48.6%), but less likely to leave the city, region, or country that they were reporting from (7.7% vs. 19.4%).

In a traditional Muslim society like Azerbaijan, said a journalist there,

“The reputational damage to men versus women is very different. Not only is your professional credibility on the line, but also your position as a woman in society.”

5.0Were those facing frequent reputational attacks more likely to face in-person threats and violence?

We found that respondents who faced frequent (at least weekly) reputational attacks were more likely to report facing violence and threats in the past year than other respondents.
Please note: Our survey cannot reveal whether reputational attacks triggered, followed, or were in other ways related to violence, threats or legal repression. We discuss these relationships further in the full report, based on interviews with journalists.

“And it's made me look over my shoulder everywhere I go. I don't really feel safe going out anymore.”

Canadian journalist

5.1What about online threats and violence?

Respondents who faced frequent reputational attacks were also more likely to report online threats, or getting doxxed, in the past year.

“After the mayor … called me a foreign agent, the next day I started receiving death threats from, let’s say, ordinary people who supported him.”

Serbian journalist

6.0Which social media platforms did journalists report using most? How often did they experience attacks on those platforms?

Though social media networks have become critical tools, they are also where journalists most frequently encounter reputational attacks.

“Usually, an operation starts on Twitter and then spills into Instagram and Telegram. Twitter is more for elites, but it is highly weaponized, and [those attacking me] can make it go viral on Twitter.”

Iranian-American journalist
Security cameras beside a laptop computer with eyes over the keyboard.

Over half of respondents (53.4%) reported that they had faced some form of legal repression (including threats of legal repression) because of their work as a journalist. 28.1% of all respondents said they’d faced arrests or criminal charges (including being threatened with charges, charged, and/or convicted), and 40.7% had faced or been threatened with civil lawsuits.

Correction: Due to a calculation error, a previous version of this chart (published 04/30/23) listed Criminal charge, conviction, or arrest at 21.1% (for less frequent attacks) and 34.2% (frequent), and All types of legal repression at 47% (less frequent attacks) and 63.8% (frequent). The chart has since been updated — and now includes additional data on Civil lawsuits.

“Essentially, I have been criminalized … There is no judicial independence here and the system is being used [by officials] to intimidate, to punish, in order to maintain impunity.”

Argentinian journalist
A person in prison, along with large handcuffs, a lawsuit, and a gavel.

8.0What were some common impacts of reputational attacks on journalists?

Though a significant number of all respondents reported negative impacts, these were even more commonly reported by those who faced weekly reputational attacks.
Please note: Our survey is unable to distinguish the extent to which higher rates of negative consequences are due to reputational attacks or to the associated increase in exposure to violence, legal repression, and other hostile acts.

“The attacks make me very sick. I have depressive and anxiety disorders. I can say with great certainty that they intensified after each attack. It's horrible not to feel safe, either on the street or on social media.”

Journalist in Brazil
A person with negative thought bubbles on a tiny rock island.

8.1A chilling effect?

What is the so-called chilling effect? This refers to journalists who self-censor, primarily by not reporting or publishing on certain topics or perspectives that are more likely to spark harassment. Approximately 40% of all respondents said they’d avoided or changed reporting on issues to reduce reputational attacks and harassment, and over 10% said they’d moved from the city, region, or country they reported in. During our interviews, several journalists — especially freelancers — also said they feared reputational attacks would limit future employment.

“The picture of my wife was sent by an anonymous [social media] handle. And they would also send me personal messages attacking me for my stories, for my comments on social media. That is when I thought, okay, we've lost it. The end game is close. I’ve got to leave.”

Indian journalist now living in the United Kingdom
People protesting inside a sealed glass bottle while a newspaper burns in front.

About this project

Research for this project was primarily conducted in 2022 and 2023. It was led by the Global Reporting Centre at the University of British Columbia in partnership with the Committee to Protect Journalists, the Disinformation Project at Simon Fraser University, and PEN Canada.

The final research report and this online summary were co-published by the UBC School of Journalism, Writing, and Media.

We gratefully acknowledge that this project is supported in part by funding from the Government of Canada (Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council and Canadian Heritage’s Digital Citizen Contribution Program), the Mitacs Accelerate Program, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, PEN Canada, and the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Social Sciences and Humanities Research CouncilCommittee to Protect JournalistsSimon Fraser UniversityPEN CanadaJonathan Logan Family FoundationMitacs

For more information about this project, including detailed methodology, demographic breakdown of respondents, and a resource list, please see the full report, Not just words: how reputational attacks harm journalists and undermine press freedom.

Project credits

Research and reportThis online summary
  • AuthorChris Tenove
  • Digital production, data visualization, and additional writing/editingAndrew Munroe
  • IllustratorKathleen Fu
  • EditorsAndrea Crossan and Britney Dennison
  • Fact checkRithika Shenoy
Overall project support from the GRC
  • Project managementChristine Brandt and Andrew Munroe
  • Fundraising and developmentChristine Brandt and Andrea Zeelie-Varga
  • CommunicationsMichelle Meiklejohn and Emma Arkell
  • Additional project coordinationRithika Shenoy and Sharon Nadeem
  • Executive editorPeter Klein