Online harassment is ugly and routine for women in journalism

By Alex Gangitano and Julia Manchester | Originally published: The Hill

Female journalists are speaking out against harassment as it becomes more and more clear just how much more abuse they receive on social media and in direct communications from the public than their male counterparts.

It’s difficult to find a female reporter who hasn’t been the target of online hate mail for doing their job, from comments that their reporting is fake news to rape and death threats.

“When I share some of the notes that I get in my DMs and inboxes with my male colleagues, they are stunned because they cannot imagine somebody going there, somebody attacking you for the way you look or for the vile thoughts they might have about you or for your roles as a wife and as a mother,” said CBS White House correspondent Weijia Jiang.

Jiang said when an online campaign is seemingly attacking her, “I’m scared to look at the messages because they can be so hateful and so personal. It’s no longer about disagreeing with your coverage, it’s about not liking who you are as a person.”

Female reporters who spoke to The Hill say that being called a c— is not an uncommon insult. Messages calling women other sexist slurs like whore and slut, remarks about their appearances and emails from men making sexual remarks are harassments that border on the routine.

A reporter who covered the White House under former President Trump, who chose to remain anonymous, said she would often get the most “nasty emails” in stories where she shared bylines with two male colleagues, even when she was the third byline on the story.

“People were making comments on my appearance, emails relating to people wanting to have sex with me or the people I was writing about not wanting to have sex with me. Everything was really sexualized,” she said.

Female reporters describe online harassment as a “troll network” and something you “just get numb to.”

“I received an email from a guy saying I hope you get a UTI [urinary tract infection],” said Rachel Greenspan, the digital culture reporter at Insider. “That’s sexual harassment. In the capacity of my job, I received an email wishing an illness that affects my urinary tract upon me.”

The mental toll can be a huge burden, especially for journalists who need to stay on social media throughout the day to do their jobs.

“There have been studies that show that women who are under this kind of attack suffer from the same kinds of symptoms as people who get PTSD from physical attacks,” said Elisa Lees Muñoz, executive director at the International Women in Media Foundation (IWMF).

“There are real trauma implications that you feel when you open your computer every day and read this kind of harassment,” Muñoz said.

When women speak out about the abuse, it can lead to a further backlash.

New York Times reporter Taylor Lorenz in March said a “harassment and smear campaign” over the past year has “destroyed” her life. She called on her followers to support women enduring online harassment to recognize International Women’s Day.

The tweet led to criticism from others that Lorenz was exaggerating the abuse she endured by linking it to International Women’s Day. Fox News host Tucker Carlson mocked Lorenz on his show.

It all led to more abuse for Lorenz, even after the Times defended her in a statement and criticized Carlson for unleashing “a wave of harassment and vitriol at his intended target.” Fox News released a statement defending Carlson, saying “no public figure or journalist is immune to legitimate criticism of their reporting, claims or journalistic tactics.”

Eighty-five percent of female and gender nonconforming journalists in the U.S. and Canada say they believe that journalists have become less safe over the past five years, according to a 2019 survey conducted by the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Experts report seeing an uptick in 2014 after “Gamergate,” an online harassment campaign targeting women in the video game industry.

Online harassment of female journalists often resembles pack attacks. In many instances, a woman will receive the same email, direct message or tweet from hundreds of accounts.

Verbal and online attacks on journalists stemmed from the highest levels of the government during the Trump administration, with the former president launching insults at news organizations and individual reporters.

“In the couple of instances where Trump had gone after a story that I had written specifically, that definitely escalated the rhetoric and the volume of emails you were getting,” the reporter who covered Trump said.

Something similar happened to Lorenz when the Carlson segment further heightened the attacks on her. Lorenz said on Twitter that Carlson’s segment was “an attempt to mobilize an army of followers to memorize my name and instigate harassment” and shared tweets of people repeatedly posting her name.

For some women, the online harassment has been so intimidating that they go to law enforcement. Laura Bassett, a freelance reporter and co-founder of the Save Journalism Project, recalls calling the FBI once because someone posted her address in the comment section of a Fox News story.

“I’ve slept at friends’ houses before because I was afraid someone was going to greet me at my door certain nights,” she recalled. “My dad and brother called me worried and said we got a voicemail … and this guy says he’s going to kill you.”

Female journalists in local news markets have reported facing harassment from members of their own communities.

Ciara Lucas, a reporter at ABC 6 and FOX 28 in Columbus, Ohio, recalled one instance where she posted a picture at a local coffee shop, only to have one of her unknown followers show up uninvited.

“I really kind of gave more of a reflection of like, ‘OK, think about what you’re posting and if you’re going to identify where you are because you just want to make sure that you’re safe,’” Lucas told The Hill.

Female journalists of color can be targeted for both their gender and their race.

“If you’re a woman and another identity … the intersectionality is a whole other dimension to all of that,” said Courtney Radsch, advocacy director at the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

Black journalists have been accused of advocating for Black Lives Matter protests, while Asian journalists have reported facing online abuse for criticizing Trump over calling the coronavirus the “China virus.”

Female reporters agreed that news organizations should protect their journalists and that high-profile male reporters could speak out more about how this behavior is unacceptable.

Only 44 percent of female and gender nonconforming journalists said they received safety training from their place of work, according to the CPJ.

“There’s this narrative that becoming a public figure, becoming a journalist, speaking out on Twitter, you should just expect some level of this. That narrative should absolutely not be acceptable anywhere because that just encourages trolls to think, ‘Oh that’s just a normal part of their job,’ ” Bassett said.

Advocates say newsrooms and media companies have the ability to help protect women through investing in safety precautions like digital security training, hiring companies that scrub private information from online and helping journalists handle their social media when they are under attack.

Additionally, the IWMF and the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) are set to launch an online hub for female journalists to access security resources and support.

“So many people had told me to just suck it up, just be tough and deal with it,” Jiang, of CBS, said. “But you don’t have to deal with it on your own, and I think that is something I would stress to younger journalists.”