Before the internet revolutionised how news was gathered and shared, journalists didn’t have to worry about virtual violence. The main risks they faced were in the field: their physical and psychological safety when reporting on disasters and conflict. But today’s media battlefields are increasingly online and it is women who are coming under fire.
According to Demos, a British-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 sexualised language such as “slut” and “whore”. In 2016, the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe published research showing that women in the media were disproportionately targeted by gendered threats, noting that the abuse affected their “safety and future online activities”.
The threats of violence often extend to family members, and the intimate nature of the attacks, received on personal devices outside the professional parameters of the newsroom, also heightens the effect. Here we see the blurring of virtual, physical, and psychological frontlines of safety.
This digital vitriol is not new but the misogynistic tenor is deepening.
The online attacks against women journalists undermines their work or reputation. Already there is evidence that women are self-censoring and drawing back from writing about rights-based issues and those affecting marginalised groups. By doing this, the voices of the vulnerable are also silenced.
Some women are 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 about her experiences. Speaking at the News Xchange media conference late last year, she described it as her duty to bring attention to the abuse she and other women journalists 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.”
Maria Ressa, a former CNN war correspondent, is equally outspoken. The founder and chief executive of Rappler.com, an online news organisation in the Philippines, she has been the target of a campaign of sexualised 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.
She is fighting back with a strategy that could well serve as a blueprint for media leaders; using investigative journalism to identify her abusers and has publicly calling on social media platforms to do more to counter abuse and acknowledge the psychological effect it has.
Most women journalists bullied online are less willing to challenge their accusers. The fear of reputational or even physical harm has created a culture of shame that discourages a strong response.
This reticence is understandable; there is truth to the argument that responding to trolls feeds the fires of online hate. But by staying silent, targets and their supporters are victimised twice — by their attacker’s words and actions and by the powerlessness to respond. It’s an old-fashioned form of gendered power dynamics updated for the digital age.
Most women journalists I know admit to self-censoring online. Many more have abandoned social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, despite pressure from bosses to remain “connected” to audiences. Simply put, online abusers are forcing women in the media to make impossible choices.
When I discussed this issue with senior, predominantly male industry leaders, most were shocked to hear that their female colleagues felt so threatened in the digital space.
This is partly because women minimise their online experiences; many worry that speaking out will negatively affect their job status. For example, one colleague told me that she didn’t want to make a fuss about a harassing post because it was “only” a threat of rape — not a death threat like the one a friend had received. Another did not think her experience of digital violence would be taken seriously, because it had not happened in the “real world”.
Most media organisations aren’t tackling the problem. If that results in more women leaving the industry, journalism will become more skewed toward male perspectives.
Hostile news environments such as war zones draw sympathy from the public and media executives yet digital combat leaves scars, too. If women are to navigate the virtual frontlines without injury, they cannot be expected to go into battle alone. — © Project Syndicate
Hannah Storm is director of the International News Safety Institute