Should journalists warn interview subjects of potential online blowback? One expert thinks so

Expert predicts that in the era of online trolls, the risks associated with speaking to the press will grow — especially for women and minorities.

Minorities and women more likely to self-censor to avoid harsh feedback, author says

Samantha Holvey, right, speaks at a news conference on Dec. 11 in New York to discuss her accusations of sexual misconduct against U.S. President Donald Trump. Holvey says she faced a backlash when she came forward with the allegations in 2016. An expert predicts that risks associated with speaking to news media will get worse. (Mark Lennihan/Associated Press)

Journalists are still trying to beat back the destabilizing impact of fake news, and now there's a prediction it's going to get tougher for them to convince people to go on the record at all.

The prediction is contained in an article by Ruth Palmer at Harvard University's Nieman Journalism Lab, who's also written the new book Becoming the News: How Ordinary People Respond To the Media Spotlight.

Palmer says after a decade of research, she's concluded social media has dramatically shifted the consequences for people who go public with a story.

"Both the pros and the cons really are magnified," she says. 

This week's episode of The Investigators airs Saturday at 9:30 p.m. ET and Sunday at 5:30 p.m. ET on CBC News Network.

Palmer says if a story or quote is picked up by other news outlets, it typically moves to the top of any Google search involving the person's name, "and in some cases, really completely reshape their search results. So they need to take that into account. And that's an important thing, as we continually Google people more."

Palmer also points to online backlash from identifiable and anonymous trolls, saying it can be overwhelming, particularly for those who previously had no significant public profile.

"Studies are finding that minorities and women in particular get very harsh cyber feedback when they speak out about things. And they're more likely to self-censor as a result of it."

Reporters can mitigate the risks

But she believes there is a remedy.  Palmer says if journalists discuss ahead of time the potential impact of the interview, rather than dissuade people from going on the record, it prepares them for what may come next.

She points to the women who've come forward in recent weeks to make public allegations of sexual assault and harassment against powerful men.

"If they're prepared for cyber blowback, they feel like they're more in control of the situation, and that's very helpful," she says.

Palmer says the imperative of exposing a wrong, usually experienced or deeply felt by the source of the story, will also be more persuasive than the often short-term backlash of speaking out.

"Journalists can emphasize to sources the public good of what they do when they come forward and tell stories about systematic patterns of abuse. I have found that that is an extremely convincing incentive for people, because it's true."

This week on The Investigators: Angus Scott of the St. Catharines Standard and media lawyer Phil Tunley talk about why the seizure of a reporter's computer and notes at a recent regional council meeting violated the journalist's rights.

About the Author

Diana Swain

Multi-award-winning journalist Diana Swain is the senior investigative correspondent for CBC News and host of The Investigators on CBC News Network.