Journalists' reputations are under attack in Latin America and around the world. The study “Not just words: How reputational attacks harm journalists and undermine press freedom” found that the majority of journalists surveyed suffered reputational damage at least once a month, with politicians and public officials being the most common sources of this damage.
The study was conducted by the Global Reporting Centre at the University of British Columbia, in collaboration with the Committee to Protect Journalists, the Disinformation Project at Simon Fraser University, and PEN Canada. Its findings are based on a global survey of 645 journalists and interviews with 54 media professionals.
Of the 645 journalists who completed the survey, 156 were from Latin America. And of the 54 journalists interviewed, 17 were from Latin America.
"More and more we see leaders in supposedly democratic countries denigrating the media, casting journalists as “enemies of the people,” as untrustworthy. It is hardly surprising that the corrupt, the abusers of power, would seed such a narrative," wrote Jodie Ginsberg, chair of the Committee to Protect Journalists, in the report. "Sadly, however, such a narrative is seeping increasingly into the general population, who increasingly grow to distrust all journalists. That undermines the credibility of journalism, and contributes to an increasing lack of safety for journalists worldwide."
Researchers of the report said it would be helpful to have better evidence about when and how attacks on the reputations of journalists can cause harm.
“We also wanted to figure out how reputational attacks on journalists may differ around the world, and for journalists with different genders who belong to marginalized groups,” said Christopher Tenove, researcher at the Global Reporting Centre and the acting director of the Centre for the Study of Democratic Institutions, both at University of British Columbia, told LatAm Journalism Review (LJR).
“Our survey did not have a large and random population. But we feel pretty confident that our survey and interviews demonstrate that journalists facing reputational attacks do experience higher levels of violence, legal repression, mental health challenges, and other issues,” he added.
The main finding of the research shows that 63% of respondents claimed to suffer personal attacks on their reputation at least once a month, and 19% claimed to suffer them on a daily basis. The percentages were higher when referring to attacks on the reputation of media outlets or the journalism profession in general.
The most common sources of these reputational attacks were politicians and public officials (according to 72% of respondents). This is particularly the case in countries with a low level of press freedom.
"This is a significant distinction because those who control the government have greater access to resources and influence with agencies (like the police) that can be deployed in tandem with reputational attacks," the report explained.
According to the research, the most common forms of attacks on personal reputation are false or misleading accusations of political bias (54% of respondents), followed by incompetence (43%) or unethical conduct (42%).
On the other hand, journalists who received attacks on their reputation were much more likely to suffer physical assaults or threats of violence. They were also more likely to have suffered damage to their mental health, to have seriously considered leaving journalism, and to have moved to another city or country to avoid or mitigate threats.
Forty percent of respondents said they had changed or reduced their coverage of certain topics to avoid being discredited or harassed.
Another finding was that journalists who belong to marginalized racial, ethnic or religious groups in their countries reported suffering reputational attacks more frequently. In addition, respondents who identified as women were more likely to be attacked because of their gender or sexual orientation, and more likely than their male colleagues to experience sexual harassment and threats of sexual violence.
The report presents some case studies involving two Latin American countries: Brazil and Colombia.
In the case of Brazil, where attacks on the reputations of journalists are constant, the most commonly identified source was the national ruling party and its politicians (59%), which at the time of the survey was still president Bolsonaro and his Liberal Party.
Meanwhile, the second most common source was opposition parties and politicians (identified by 57% of respondents), which at the time included the Workers' Party of current President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.
In Brazil, civil society groups are also an important source of reputational attacks. Religious organizations and labor unions stand out among them.
Fifty-nine percent of respondents in Brazil said that attacks affect their mental health. The report mentions the case of a Brazilian journalist who, while fact-checking a local partisan news site, suffered attacks by the website owner.
"He started to slander me, saying that I was not a competent journalist, that I was paid by the government here or the city government...my life turned to hell," she told the report's interviewers.
Moreover, in Colombia, in addition to political parties, another major source of reputational attacks are criminals, especially when journalists have to report on militias and criminal organizations involved in drug trafficking.
“Our survey respondents from countries with low levels of press freedom were also more likely to say that criminal organizations and militias were sources of reputational attacks against journalists. Colombia is a good example here, since almost half of our survey respondents (46%) said a criminal organization had attacked their reputation”, said Tenove.
In addition, many journalists they interviewed from Latin America also explained that their reputations were being attacked through judicial harassment or the misuse of legal processes. It can be very expensive and difficult for journalists to try to fight these accusations in the courts.
The report makes clear that when journalism and the media are attacked, society also suffers the consequences.
“Journalism is essential for holding the powerful to account, for exposing abuses of our human rights, and for ensuring we all have access to the information to which we are entitled,” Ginsberg said.