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Confronting Journalism’s Misogynistic Trolls

Female journalists are more likely than their male counterparts to be subject to social media harassment and digital abuse. But despite real efforts to improve gender equality in the industry, one of the biggest threats women in the media face continues to be viewed as a secondary concern.

LONDON – Before the Internet revolutionized how news was gathered and shared, journalists rarely had to worry about the threat of virtual violence. The main risks they faced were in the field: the physical and psychological safety concerns of reporting on disaster and conflict. But today’s media battlefields are increasingly online, and more than ever, it is women who are coming under fire.

According to Demos, a UK-based think tank, female journalists are three times more likely than their male counterparts to be targeted by abusive comments on Twitter, with perpetrators frequently using sexualized language (such as “slut” and “whore”) against their targets. In 2016, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe published research showing that women working in the media were internationally and disproportionately targeted by gendered threats, noting that the abuse had “a direct impact on their safety and future online activities.”

The threats of violence against women working in the media often extend to family members, and the intimate nature of the attacks, received as they are on personal devices outside the professional parameters of the newsroom, also heightens the impact. Here we see the blurring of virtual, physical, and psychological frontlines of safety.

While this digital vitriol is not new, the misogynistic tenor is clearly deepening. Unless media executives begin to take these trends seriously, the voices of women journalists could be silenced.

Another way in which women journalists are frequently targeted online is through the undermining of their work or reputation. Already there is evidence that women are self-censoring and drawing back from writing about certain issues, specifically rights-based issues and those affecting marginalized communities. But, by doing this, the voices of the vulnerable are also silenced.

To be sure, some women are fighting back against the violence and refusing to let the trolls win. Alexandra Pascalidou, a Swedish-Greek journalist who has experienced threats online and offline for her work covering human-rights issues, has spoken openly about her experiences and has even publicly forgiven one of the neo-Nazis who ran a campaign of abuse against her. Speaking at the News Xchange media conference late last year, Pascalidou described it as her “duty” to bring attention to the abuse she and other female journalists regularly endure. “What we need is more people like us,” she said. “As soon as we are few, it is easier for them to scare us.”

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Maria Ressa, a former CNN war correspondent, is equally outspoken. The founder and CEO of Rappler.com, an online news organization in the Philippines, she has been the target of a campaign of sexualized harassment since 2016. Ressa has lost count of the number of death threats she has received and says none of her previous experiences covering physical conflict could have prepared her for the scale of the violence directed toward her and her Rappler colleagues.

But she is fighting back with a strategy that could well serve as a blueprint for media leaders who recognize the severity of online harassment. Among the tactics she has used are investigative journalism to identify her abusers, and she has publicly called on social media platforms to do more to counter abuse and acknowledge the psychological impact it has on victims.

Unfortunately, most female journalists bullied online are less willing to challenge their accusers. For many, fear of reputational or even physical harm has created a culture of shame that discourages a strong, dignified response.

This reticence is understandable; after all, there is some truth to the argument that engaging trolls only feeds the fires of online hate. But by staying silent, targets and their supporters are essentially victimized twice – first by their attacker’s words and actions, and second by the powerlessness to respond. It’s an old-fashioned form of gendered power dynamics updated for the digital age.

Most female journalists I know admit to self-censoring their online engagement. Many more have abandoned social-media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram altogether, despite pressure from bosses to remain “connected” to audiences. For already-established female journalists, this digital distancing may not be such a big deal. But for female journalists at the start of their careers, the decision to renounce social media carries professional and reputational risks. Simply put, online abusers are forcing women in the media to make impossible choices.

Despite evidence that some media executives are moving toward improving gender equality, many are not giving online harassment the attention it deserves. When I discussed this issue with several senior, predominantly male industry leaders, most were shocked to hear that their female colleagues felt so threatened in the digital space. Worse, the executives lacked adequate answers about how to address the problem.

The lack of awareness is partly due to the way women minimize their online experiences; many worry that speaking out will somehow negatively affect their job status. For example, one female colleague told me that she didn’t want to make a fuss about a harassing post she had received, because it was “only” a threat of rape – not a death threat like the one a friend had received. Another colleague did not think her experience of digital violence would be taken seriously, because it had not happened in the “real world.”

We cannot blame women for feeling this way, but we can demand more from the executives responsible for their journalists’ safety and security. At the moment, most media organizations are failing to tackle the problem, and if that results in more women leaving the industry altogether, journalism will become more skewed toward male perspectives than it already is.

Traditionally hostile news environments – like war zones – have, for obvious reasons, drawn the bulk of sympathies from the public and media executives; raising the alarm about online harassment is not meant to diminish the dangers that journalists in these circumstances face. And yet, as any female journalist knows, digital combat leaves scars, too. If women are to navigate the industry’s virtual frontlines without injury, they must not be expected to go into battle alone.

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