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Soto: Student journalists should have better support for harassment

Isabella Soto, Assistant Opinion Editor

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When I decided I wanted to go into journalism, I knew full well that this was a pursuit in which I wouldn’t be able to shy away from the comments people had about my work. My passions lie in discussing reproductive justice, social justice and my identity as a Latina woman, each provoking its particular set of issues and conversations that at times lead me to write about difficult things that evoke differing reactions.

Recently, however, among growing cries about the supposed free-speech crackdown on college campuses and intolerance for differing opinions, harassment and threats from those very same critics have found their way into the inboxes of students journalists across the country and on our own campus, including myself. The handful of racist comments that fellow student journalists and writers have received have more often than not been signed with various iterations of Donald Trump’s ubiquitous campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again.” Given Trump’s skepticism of journalists and the general truth in administration thus far, I’m far from surprised that those sending these e-mails ascribe to those beliefs.

At a school with a prestigious journalism program, and as the climate for even the most esteemed journalists grows increasingly hostile and aggressively partisan, what role does Northwestern as an institution have in providing training or advising when its student journalists are harassed? When these comments begin to affect students mental health and their opportunities, what happens then?

There are tangible consequences to the kind of harassment student journalists receive. It takes a toll on one’s mental health to know that for every desire they have to speak their mind, there exists someone with the desire to threaten them. It affects daily life and school work, and it is an anxiety-provoking endeavor to await these messages, regardless if you’ve blocked the sender or sent all the messages to spam. One peer at another publication was even harassed to the extent of receiving threats of sexual assault and was subsequently relieved of their contributing writer position on account of the organization not being able to guarantee their safety. When there’s no specific counseling established within Medill to deal with this particular form of harassment, it creates a gap that leaves students wondering whether it’s best to bring it up with their adviser in Medill or to take it up with Counseling and Psychological Services.

Receiving comments after writing or publishing something is nothing new to journalists. It’s no question that people will agree, disagree and feel strongly about the subjects we choose to discuss and bring to light. It’s one thing to hold differing political beliefs and completely another to send crude and racist correspondences, and there is no conflation of constructive disagreement and toxic commentary here. But no matter what I or any others write, we do not invite racist, bigoted comments or threats of assault. At what point do we stop dismissing these people as discrete, haphazard trolls and begin to recognize a larger phenomenon of writers, and particularly writers who hold marginalized identities, being harassed and threatened by vitriolic, anonymous commenters?

As the majority of young reporters enter into the world of professional journalism, it’s essential that we understand the fundamental role of criticism and the potential it has to improve our writing. But it’s also essential for us to recognize where criticism leaves and harassment enters, and ensure that student journalists are equipped with the resources to handle incidents of this kind in a safe and healthy way.

Isabella Soto is a Medill sophomore. She can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.

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