Interview with Nadine Hoffman, Deputy Executive Director at the International Women’s Media Foundation

Originally published: Safety of Journalists

Please tell us a bit about yourself, and how you first started working on the issue of journalists’ safety.

My name is Nadine Hoffman, and I’m the Deputy Executive Director at the International Women’s Media Foundation. I’ve been there for a little over 13 years now, and my background is in journalism. I worked as a journalist in the early 2000s, and I feel lucky to be in this role where I get to support journalists every day. At the IWMF, we have been focusing on journalists’ safety for more than a decade. That coincided with our work of running international reporting fellowships, which we were doing at the time in Africa and Latin America. We decided that if we were going to be offering this kind of programming, we really needed to make sure we had a very sustainable way of baking safety into all our work to make sure that we were preparing the journalists we were supporting to go report from the field with the skills that they would need to stay safe.

That work has really evolved and grown over the last decade. We have learned a lot, and also we have seen the landscape change quite a lot. Happily, there is a much more robust conversation happening around the safety of journalists, and particularly some of the unique challenges that women and non-binary journalists face now than there was a decade ago. But still clearly we need to do a lot more work to scale the safety training and resources that are available, and to make sure that we’re filling the gaps. We started out by running hostile environment trainings for journalists. Over the years, we’ve run those in various regions of the world. Currently, we are running them in the United States. The way that we’re focusing our training in the U.S. is around the unique challenges that the journalists are facing in smaller newsrooms in areas where there’s a more hostile climate towards journalists, with an emphasis on topics like civil unrest and online threats. Our training has always been focused on the range of threats be they physical threats or digital threats. Increasingly, also, we’ve included a bigger focus on mental health and resilience as well.

Around two years ago we started addressing one of the major gaps that we saw, which is a lack of enough women and journalists of colour leading in this space of safety training. We ran a pilot project called the Next Gen Safety Trainers Program, which was designed to prepare women and nonbinary folks who have a media background and special skills including medical, or expertise in an area that would make them a successful safety trainer. We developed a training of trainers programme and we prepared a dozen individuals in the US to become safety trainers, which has been a big success. A number of these trainers now work with us alongside our Director of Security when we’re running safety trainings, and they’ve also been supporting groups like ACOS, the New York Times, Pen America, and others. That is one gap we want to keep addressing, because the need is global. There is also a continued need to see more identity-centered training which involves having trainers who have that lived experience, who can speak directly to the needs of the journalists they were serving, and the journalists that we serve are primarily women and non-binary. We do sometimes also work with men. We are working with journalists of colour as well as reporters from different kinds of marginalized identities – religious identities, ethnic identities. The thing that we have honed in on is the need to look at identity-informed risk assessment, and then tie to that identity-informed risk mitigation strategies. What we don’t want to happen is for editors to deny assignments to their women journalists or their journalists of colour, because they think it’s just too dangerous for them, and we have seen that happen. But we want them to have real conversations about the risks. We want to empower people in newsrooms to be able to think through what it really means: What is your risk profile because of those layers of identity that you possess, that are part of who you are and how can you actually make a plan to stay safe that is informed by those layers of risk?

Increasingly, we work directly with newsrooms to ensure that safety policies are in place to better protect all of their people, including freelancers, from both physical and digital threats.

How do you define journalists’ safety?

We would take a very holistic look at what is under this umbrella of safety, and we also would approach it from a before, during and after frame. When we think about safety, we’re not just thinking about what’s happening when a journalist is being sent to a conflict zone, or when you’re covering a rally and there’s violence at the rally. It has to start from the beginning and the planning of the story so baking it into every phase of the work as a journalist. Then, in terms of what is included, it includes psychosocial and mental health and resilience because that is a key component of our ability to work safely. Obviously, the physical threats and addressing those as well as the digital threats and the online abuse that journalists, and particularly women journalists, are facing.

Which threats do you perceive to be the biggest ones that journalists face?

We are witnessing at this moment really dangerous situations for journalists, for example, covering the Israel-Hamas conflict. We’ve seen many journalists killed just in the last few weeks, mostly in Gaza. Ukraine has also been an extremely dangerous conflict for journalists covering it. We saw huge physical risk for journalists trying to get out of Afghanistan two years ago. Conflict and covering conflict is still one of the main threats that journalists face regardless of gender. The rising threat that specifically targets women, journalists of colour, LGBTQI journalists, and from other marginalized backgrounds has been online violence. It’s not a new phenomenon but we are now understanding how it is being used to silence women’s voices in public spaces across professions. It is not limited to journalism. For example, we run a programme with the National Democratic Institute. They work with women in politics. In this programme, we bring women in civil society and political offices together with journalists in different countries to prepare them how to mitigate and deal with online abuse because it’s so pervasive.

Our organization has been around for over 30 years. And in recent years, there has been a sense of rising misogyny as well as this global roll back of democratic values and norms, and also of women’s rights. That is tied directly to what we see with the rise of online abuse. We see that often authoritarian leaders, in the Philippines, Brazil, and elsewhere have used orchestrated trolling campaigns, which may seem like they’re organic or random, but really are very highly organized to force women off their public platforms. That is one piece of it. The other piece is the way that it can translate into physical violence. The research that UNESCO and ICFJ did recently showed that of about 20% of online abuse cases turning into physical threats. We see that too in our work. Specifically, one example I would give would be doxing, which can easily lead to a journalist facing physical violence. That is a tactic that’s being widely used in the US. Online violence is a huge problem because it is just as effective, if not more so, as physical violence, in its goal. That’s why people do it. It’s effective at silencing people. In our research with TrollBusters in 2018, we found that a third of the journalists we surveyed said that they had considered leaving the news profession because of the amount of online abuse that they received. That is obviously an issue in terms of gender equity in the news media. If we have so many people thinking about dropping out of the profession, leaving the pipeline, it makes it that much harder to reach equity.

What would you say is your greatest personal achievement in the area of journalists’ safety?

The Next Gen Safety Training Project that we developed and delivered a few years ago has been one of the most satisfying things that we’ve done just because within the field of safety training there is this perception of who’s qualified. There’s some sort of proprietary aspect, or like a secret sauce that only certain people can have access to. Often that profile is someone who’s a military veteran, or has a really specific line of getting into this work. Often those people are men so it was really gratifying to see that, in fact, we were able to successfully prepare people from a diverse range of backgrounds, some of whom had military experience, and some of whom had no military experience to be able to become really high quality safety trainers. That speaks to the fact that we could do a lot more of that and we do really need to think about how we can have people internationally to be able to deliver this kind of training and support – how do we prepare people in the places where it is needed the most to make sure that knowledge exists in those communities so it can be delivered at the local level.

Another achievement is creating and convening the Coalition against Online Violence, which is something we started working on in 2020 and now we have more than 80 members internationally. It started with the thought there are so many organizations trying to tackle this problem from different angles, and not even just from within press freedom but also other sectors like civic tech and human rights, and it would be much more effective if we could all talk together and collaborate, so that we’re not constantly working in our silos. That’s the other piece that we have done and that has been important – to serve the community and create the space where people can actually be strategizing together around approaches to address online abuse.

What is your biggest regret in the area of journalists’ safety?

I don’t know if regret is the right word, but it is that we haven’t been able, as a community, to effectively make the case to the philanthropic community to adequately resource this work. That extends not just to the safety piece of it, but also to the emergency assistance piece of it. And it is incredibly expensive to resource it at the scale needed. The other thing that we see is that resources come when there’s an emergency happening, so we’re still very much as a field very reactive. Okay, now we need to evacuate journalists, here is money to do that. What we need is to shift the conversation toward more of a proactive preventative approach and how can we scale what a lot of organizations are already doing to really meet the needs of the community of journalists that we’re serving.

Is there something more that could be done for journalists’ safety and by whom?

First, I’m going to call on newsrooms because a big part of the responsibility and the duty of care is with the news organizations that are employing these journalists. Often they are freelancers. The conversation is definitely changing, and there is more awareness within newsrooms that they need to be doing more to protect their journalists. But there’s still a major gap in terms of being aware of a problem and then actually not just going to a training, but also putting in place policies and best practices to serve their journalists for the long run. That’s something we’ve seen. We are currently running a New Safety Cohort currently with 16 newsrooms. These are newsroom leaders who come to us and said, “We really want to be more proactive about safety, but we don’t necessarily know what we need and what things to put in place.” There’s a big gap and a need for more support for small under resourced newsrooms, and that work should be done in consultation with people who are aware of the local context, and the ability customize that context to the threats and the main issues in that place. We need a lot more synergies with local organizations that are best placed to deliver that support.

Hostile environments training is expensive. During the pandemic there was a big shift towards virtual training, which people in the journalist safety community were historically resistant to before the pandemic, just because there are things you can’t do. You can’t run scenarios in a virtual training unless you have the VR set up as you would in person. The medical training is also hard to replicate in a virtual setting, but we have seen now that there’s a case for the use of virtual training, and it can be high impact and effective if it’s done well. It is a case of also making sure that there’s the ability for journalists to get refresher trainings because it’s not a once and done thing.

What could academia contribute to the process of improving journalists’ safety?

Certainly the research piece is key. Within our Coalition against Online Violence, we do have a research working group. Being able to make a case based on academic research that’s done with a sound methodology that’s not just anecdotal, which is often the way that we are working in the NGO world – evidence that we gather through what we hear from our community in the field to having that really rigorous academic data to be able to back up the needs and the scope of the threats, that’s an important contribution. Some of the challenges would be the same. Some of our partner organizations in academia are experiencing the issue of online abuse in academia. We can also share best approaches based on common challenges.

What is your evaluation of the implementation of the UN Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity? Do any changes need to be made to it?

Obviously, impunity hasn’t gone away so I don’t think that we’re making a huge amount of progress on that front. The conversation is much more front and centre, and there is an acknowledgement of this need for accountability, but we have not seen journalists’ security dramatically improve in the last decade.

Are you interested in collaborating with other people/organisations working in this area and if yes, on what specific issues?

Yes, we have always been interested in collaborating and we do collaborate actively with other Coalition members. We’re also an active part of ACOS. That is another community that we find valuable just in terms of understanding the landscape of this work. We are big proponents of collaboration. One example would be co-leading trainings together, which we’ve done with PEN America, among others. Some members of the Coalition would welcome the opportunity to support trainings by other organizations. One of the things that they’re working on right now within the Coalition’s Newsroom Working Group is pulling together resources that we developed to try to come up with a definitive newsroom checklist for safety policies. Different organisations have a unique knowledge or expertise and how can we then share that more broadly? If we’re going to work with the newsroom that’s covering elections we always make sure they have access to CPJ’s election resources kit, and RCFP’s legal hotline. Often people don’t realize how much is already out there and that’s one of the reasons we made the Online Violence Response Hub.
Is there anything else that you would like to share?

We’re part of a new consortium with IFEX, Media Defence and ACOS, and we have a small amount of seed funding that we’ll use to test out a better collaborative model of doing comprehensive safety support for journalists. We’re excited to test this consortium model and see how it can help us to actually scale our collective safety efforts.

For me, the biggest thing we have failed to do is not figured out how to get the resources to scale bigger safety initiatives that could make a huge change in the way we approach journalists’ safety. Coalition building is helpful also because it builds trust among different organizations that might otherwise not work together. It also helps us to move on a shared agenda that we can all agree is important and transcends our individual work.

Do you have any other recommendations for champions of safety?

The team at Media Defence plays a unique role in the press freedom community in terms of training lawyers to support journalists. It’s an area that is very specialized and important to the journalist safety ecosystem.