A recent study found that online harassment of women journalists often comes in the form of sexist bullying: threats of rape, sexual intimidation, and vulgar references to physical appearance.
An example from India: After a reporter did a story on women being sexually molested, she was tormented by trolls posting offensive comments including that “I should be raped and thrown to the dogs.”
The study, conducted by the Center for Media Engagement (CME) at the University of Texas, Austin, was an outgrowth of earlier research. The findings add to the body of work on the menacing problem of women journalists being targeted by cyber stalkers.
During the first project, both male and female media professionals were interviewed about disrespectful, hateful, or demeaning comments posted on social media about them and their work. Researchers noticed a trend.
“During interviews, we kept hearing these compelling and awful stories from women journalists about the sexual nature of the harassment. This differed from what we were hearing from men,” said assistant CME director Gina Masullo Chen, who led the study. “We decided we had to do a separate study.”
These “vitriolic sexist attacks” have a significant impact on women reporters and their journalism.
“There is no doubt [the harassment] takes a real emotional toll and makes it difficult for them to do their jobs,” said Chen. “It can make it painful for them to go to work or even to look at comments on social media posts. It cuts down on job satisfaction, which might deter some of them from continuing in the profession.” said Chen.
She sees self-censorship as another issue.
“These reporters might leave certain details out of a story that they know might aggravate people or escalate the attacks. They might avoid certain topics. It could influence how they tell stories, which is very troubling for journalism,” said Chen, who also wrote the book “Online Incivility and Public Debate: Nasty Talk,” published in 2017.
According to a CME posting, the project “sought to understand how professional journalists at print broadcast and web-only publications deal with this harassment and what influence it has on their ability to do their jobs, which increasingly require engagement with the public.”
The sample included 75 professional women journalists from Germany, India, Taiwan, the United Kingdom and United States, both new to the profession and veterans.
The study focused on two main questions:
To what extent — if any — does online harassment influence how women journalists do their jobs?
What strategies do women journalists use to prevent this harassment or deal with it when it has occurred?
Among results listed in a CME report on the study:
Almost all the journalists reported experiencing some form of cyber harassment that focused on their person, gender or sexuality. An online editor for a German news organization said the bullying she experienced was not aimed at her work, but on “the destruction of my person.”
Respondents noted that the harassment differed from that of their male counterparts. They viewed it as more sexist, including threats of sexual attack.
A majority of respondents felt their news organizations did little to help them cope with cyberattacks. They worried if they made an issue of the harassment, they’d be labeled “hypersensitive.”
Of the 75 women interviewed, 24 described strategies they had developed for dealing with online abuse. Following is a sampling of approaches:
“An American television journalist uses Facebook’s word-blocker function on her professional page to prevent words like “sexy,” “hot,” or “boobs” from being posted by users.
Another U.S. TV journalist said she deletes words that seem like come-ons from her professional Facebook page for fear that leaving them up will attract more of the same.
A Latina newspaper reporter in the U.S faced “extreme harassment” when she started her job five years ago. She now is “extra vigilant” about showing multiple sides of a story to prevent complaints that may escalate to abuse.
A freelancer in the U.K. talked about ignoring social media after a story runs to avoid the abuse. “If I write for the Sunday newspaper, those comments will appear on my Twitter feed and . . . it’s thrown my whole weekend,” she said.
The German respondents felt it was important to have colleagues to talk to about harassment they experienced and to help moderate the comments.
According to the study, “Most of the women we interviewed reported that they felt news organizations could do more to train them on how to handle abuse and to back them up after it happened. This pointed to a need for journalism schools and professional development courses to include training about how to handle online harassment.
“Most of the journalists we spoke to wished that their supervisors saw it as part of their job to ensure a safer place to engage, free from online harassment.”