In July 2018, Joan Meiners was only a few weeks into her first job in journalism, as an intern at The Times-Picayune in New Orleans, when she published an article that seemed straightforward enough. “Booming Feral Cat Populations Are a Disaster, Science Says. Here Are 15 Reasons Why,” outlined the havoc these felines can wreak on local biodiversity.
Meiners, who’s now an environment reporter for The Spectrum in Utah, was new to the ups and downs of reporting—and completely unprepared for the backlash that came within hours of the piece going live.
Messages flooded Meiners’ inbox, accusing her of demonizing cats, while an endless stream of threats and insults surged into her Twitter feed. The online version of her article was pummeled with hundreds of furious comments before her editor closed it to further submissions.
“Some of the attacks got really personal,” says Meiners, who was then a graduate student at the University of Florida. “I got emails from people who said they were assembling a committee of experts to discredit me and get me kicked out of my PhD program.”
The backlash sent Meiners into an emotional tailspin. She even began to feel a little afraid. “All these people hate me and know my name,” she recalls thinking. “Who knows how many hundreds of people in the city I’m in are mad at me?”
But the morning after her feral cat story went live, Meiners walked into her newsroom to thunderous applause. “People were congratulating me and welcoming me to journalism,” she says. “They said, ‘You’re not a real journalist until you’ve gotten backlash to one of your stories. That means you’re doing something important.’”
Meiners was determined not to let the emotional blowback to her piece, of which she remains proud, dissuade her from her work. In the two years since, she’s picked up tools to navigate the negative reactions that sometimes come her way when she reports—skills that are crucial for any journalist.
“The Essence of the Complaint”
When backlash happens, Brendan Maher, features editor at Nature News, recommends first taking a step back to assess the situation and “drill down into what is the essence of the complaint,” he says. If a correction is warranted, for instance, it should be made quickly. Even in the absence of a factual error, there may be something valuable to learn. Maybe the writer neglected to interview a source who would have enhanced the piece with a new perspective, or would have added much-needed diversity to the lineup, for example. Under some circumstances, tugging a nugget of truth out of a bad reaction can even “send you off on another story,” says Lauren Morello, a deputy health care editor at Politico.
Sometimes, though, “people are just jerks,” Morello says.
Whatever the nature of the backlash, it’s important to bring in your editor early. Part of the editor’s job is to support their writers from a piece’s conception onward—a relationship that doesn’t end when a story is published.
“I can get so in my head about this stuff,” says Maya Wei-Haas, a science writer at National Geographic. “But my editors are wonderful. They’re always willing to talk or just roll their eyes.”
Both Maher and Morello echo this sentiment. Although journalism can sometimes seem like a solo sport, “it’s collaborative,” Morello says. Freelancers, too, should always reach out if a concern has been brought up. The best editors will not discriminate between supporting writers on and off staff; any editor that dismisses such concerns isn’t worth working with again.
One of the most important decisions an editor can help a writer make is whether, how, and when to respond. “My first instinct is to advise the person not to engage until we have a handle on the volume of the response,” and what the nature of the issue is, Maher says. Taking a pause and assessing the situation can buy all parties time to gather their thoughts and compile a well-thought-out response appropriate for the situation at hand. It’s also an opportunity to cool off.
“Few people I know have ever regretted staying silent for just a few hours or a day or two more,” Maher says.
Exactly how a response manifests will vary from case to case, and from reporter to reporter, says Viktorya Vilk, the program director of digital safety and free expression at PEN America. “The standard party line is, don’t feed the trolls,” Vilk says. But “people have to decide what works for them.” Some writers will find silence more empowering, while others will benefit most from speaking up for themselves.
Caroline Chen, a health care reporter for ProPublica, often finds herself reporting on tough topics. Last October, she published a piece detailing how a heart transplant team at a New Jersey hospital kept one of its vegetative patients on life support, without adequately consulting the family, to boost the institution’s drooping survival rate.
If the backlash is directed at a single person, that individual doesn’t have to deal with it alone.
The story, which won a Livingston Award for local reporting earlier this year, sparked a series of investigations into the hospital’s wrongdoings. But it also created a great deal of heartache for patients who owed their lives to the transplant program, which had completed many successful treatments before the report emerged. Many of these people reached out to Chen. “They were very upset, and I get that,” she says. But she took their grievances—which were often centered around not wanting to demonize a place that had saved their lives—in stride. “I spent a lot of time on the phone with many of them.”
Chen says that experience was atypical; most of her work doesn’t saddle her with feedback quite that overwhelming. But she makes a habit of replying to readers whenever she can—even if their intentions aren’t always pure—because it can educate both her and the people she speaks with. “If they’re saying, ‘This is the first time I’ve ever emailed a reporter,’ I always hit reply,” she says. “I want them to have a positive response from a journalist.” Sometimes the inbound message is full of nothing but vitriol, she says. She’ll still shoot something quick back, “just to remind them that I’m human.”
Even brief responses can pacify indignant readers. “A lot of people who are complaining just want to be heard,” Maher says.
But replying should never come at the expense of your own mental health, Vilk says. And if the backlash is directed at a single person, that individual doesn’t have to deal with it alone. “Let people know what’s going on,” Vilk says. That can include colleagues in journalism, but also friends and family who have a welcome unfamiliarity with your work. “Abusers want to isolate you. Finding a way to not let that happen is vitally important.”
The Brunt of the Backlash
Both inside and outside the world of journalism, online abuse isn’t evenly distributed. Vilk points to a 2017 Pew study that found that women and people of color were more likely to experience harassment. The same, she adds, applies to people who identify as nonbinary and LGBT.
Meiners, of The Spectrum, says she’s wondered whether as many people would have taken issue with her feral cat story if she’d been a man. “People are just more likely to question the credentials of a female scientist or journalist,” she says.
Journalists should take extra precautions to forestall the possibility of a more serious invasion of privacy, or the chance that an angry reader might try to make good on a threat.
Riley Black, a freelance science journalist who specializes in paleontology, describes the sense of whiplash she experienced after she came out as a transgender woman. For years prior, Black had published under a different name and had been perceived as a cisgender white male. “I never felt threatened or in danger,” Black says. “But since I’ve come out, things are getting cast as, ‘This is just because you’re trans.’ It makes me more aware of the privilege that I carried.”
As a woman writing about paleontology—a heavily male-dominated field that has suffered from repetitive and often toxic patriarchal portrayals of lone, white men at the helm of a series of groundbreaking discoveries—she suddenly found herself in a stark minority.
Black has tackled these issues head-on in several pieces, including one she wrote for Slate in April of 2019 that sharply criticized the tired Indiana Jones trope that still blemishes many paleontology narratives. The piece, which published not long after Black had come out as transgender, stoked some blowback from readers who accused her of “hating cisgender men, or any men.” After spending years heavily immersed in a beat that she knew well, Black suddenly found her credibility questioned—and negatively linked to her identity.
Any criticism that gets personal can be extremely tough to take. But Emma Penrod, a freelance journalist based in Utah, says that thick skin isn’t a job requirement—nor should it be portrayed as such.
“Journalism is a difficult and emotionally taxing job,” Penrod says. When backlash happens, “pretending like you’re not bothered and burying your emotions” isn’t the solution. Instead, acknowledge that “I am a human being, and I am allowed to feel,” she says.
Brush Up on Cybersecurity
Usually, backlash is confined to social media platforms and harsh emails—assaults that can sting, but don’t typically pose physical danger. But journalists should take extra precautions to forestall the possibility of a more serious invasion of privacy, or the chance that an angry reader might try to make good on a threat.
If harassment alludes to violence, doxing, or hacking into your accounts, Vilk says it’s crucial to document everything. “Take screenshots, save direct links,” she says. “Create a record of the attacks you’re coming under.” Editors should hear about these incidents as soon as possible. In extreme circumstances, law enforcement might need to get involved.
It helps to secure your accounts before a backlash arrives. If you’re facing an intense reader response, taking preemptive measures could make it easier to unplug, rather than having to frantically contain the damage as it’s happening. Vilk recommends maintaining good password hygiene: Keep them long, and mix them up between websites, she says. (Password managers like LastPass can come in handy here.) Two-factor authentication, where available, can also be a huge boost to security.
Reporters have varying levels of comfort with the amount of contact information they put out into the world. Many journalists are wary of releasing things like cellphone numbers and home addresses; others don’t even want emails out in the ether. It’s simple enough to keep those off a Twitter profile—but you might also benefit from Googling yourself to see what’s out there. There may be old resumes or documents, perhaps uploaded through a university platform, that you have long forgotten about, but an angry reader could find. You might ask website managers to remove any documents with personal information.
Wei-Haas, of National Geographic, says she’s comfortable having her work email on her Twitter profile, in part because it’s a way for sources to reach her with tips. She also maintains a submission form on her website, which pings her personal email whenever someone writes in. Plenty of good comes in through these channels, she says. Occasionally, some bad does, too. “I only go and look at those when I’m in a good mental place,” Wei-Haas says. “That can be a scary place to dig into.”
These portals of communication are also all easily removable, if need be. And many social media platforms have at least a few protections built in. When freelance writer Wudan Yan notices someone repeatedly trolling her on Twitter, for instance, she will block them. “If they’re always going after me, and not self-aware enough to see I’m never engaging, I don’t need this energy in my life,” she says.
When Chen, of ProPublica, is going through a rough spot, she tries to put her career in focus and remind herself of the bigger picture. “I am not doing journalism for me,” she says. “I am doing it for the people I am writing for.”
Most of the time, she adds, that means penning a piece that amplifies the voice of a population that’s been silenced or suppressed, or holding power to account. The motivating factors behind her stories, she says, “makes it worth it, when someone is screaming at me.”
It’s also worth keeping in mind, Chen adds, that not all feedback is terrible. Critics might be more vocal. But there’s immense reward, she says, in slowing down and taking in the positive feedback, too.
She brings up one example of a text a source sent her after she published a story about a family member of theirs who had died under frustratingly opaque circumstances. Chen’s reporting uncovered the actions of a health authority who had played a hand in that person’s death.
“The answers you discovered helped bring me a closure I previously expected I would never get,” the message read. Chen was so moved that she screenshotted the text. “I hadn’t realized how much it meant to that family member,” she says. “I keep that in my photos as a reminder sometimes, of why I’m doing this.”
Katherine J. Wu is a science journalist and Story Collider senior producer who has written for Smithsonian, National Geographic, Popular Science, Undark, and more. She is a TON early-career fellow sponsored by the Burroughs Wellcome Fund and is currently a reporting fellow at The New York Times’ science desk. She holds a PhD in microbiology from Harvard University. Follow her on Twitter @KatherineJWu.