‘Women were trained not to complain about harassment’: Exploring the Gendered Abuse of Women in Journalism

Female journalists often face gendered abuse online in response to their work. But how have changing cultural norms pushed female journalists to engage with their audiences online, and how does this harassment affect their jobs?

By Becky Gelder

The public nature of journalism has always exposed those working in the industry to criticism and judgement. Many believe the pandemic has only worsened matters, but even before COVID-19 it was clear that certain members of the public felt entitled to gross criticism of journalists whose work did not align with their own political beliefs.

What distinguishes this particular abuse though, is the use of gendered and often sexual language directed towards female journalists online. Prevailing misogyny undermines any attempt at legitimate criticism of the work, but leaves the targeted journalists in a very vulnerable and uncomfortable position. Examples of this abuse are easy to find, and many female journalists are now trying to shed light on this issue themselves by sharing examples of the harassment across their platforms.

So is this gendered abuse a new phenomenon? Speaking to MDI, Dr Gina Masullo, Associate Professor in the School of Journalism and Associate Director of the Center for Media Engagement in the Moody College of Communication at UT Austin, asserts that this is by no means a recent trend. Rather, she believes that this has ‘gone on for decades’ and that previously ‘women didn’t bring attention to it because they knew they would be labelled as troublemakers’. She explains further:

‘It’s because there’s inequity in society, right? We live in a society that values different people based on different attributes about them: their gender, their race, their sexual orientation, their nationality, their income, their class, all these things, and women are not at the top of that hierarchy in value. Women have a what’s called the social location, where they have less privileged than men and it’s the same way that people of colour also have less privileged than white men.

‘So, the reason it happens more to women, is because, as a society we’re comfortable with putting women down and harassing women and treating them in ways that we would never think of treating men.’

While male journalists are also exposed to criticism online, Dr Masullo notes that the harassment directed towards men tends to be more focused on their work and other factors, rather than their gender or appearance.

On top of this societal prejudice against women, the digital revolution and the rise of social media have enabled and accelerated the rate of gendered abuse received by female journalists. The ease and anonymity offered by social media means it is a popular choice for trolls and abusers. Social media giants such as Facebook (now rebranded as Meta) have recently come under fire for their use of algorithms promoting misinformation and harmful content, as well as their failure to quickly and consistently remove abuse from their platforms. The response of companies such as Facebook to online abuse does not just fall short for harassment of female journalists. In October, the BBC reported that a Facebook whistleblower deemed the platform’s response to child abuse material on its site ‘inadequate’, and that moderators are ‘not sufficiently trained and are ill prepared’. There has been discussion in the past of the ‘duty of care’ owed by these platforms to their users, although debate continues about the extent to which this can be implemented.

BBC disinformation reporter Marianna Spring produced a report in October detailing the abuse she received online and exploring the ways this abuse was facilitated by social media organisations. Talking in the report about the messages she has received, Spring notes that ‘most [of the messages she receives] are too offensive to share unedited’; she mentions messages with references to rape, beheadings, and multiple conspiracy theories. Of particular interest is Spring’s investigation into the social media algorithms support the creation of misogynistic echo chambers, with anti-women content being pushed by the social media sites into the path of the dummy troll account she set up.

Spring’s experience of abuse is not an isolated incident; across the journalism sector, women are reporting gendered harassment in response to their work. In particular, it appears that women working in stereotypically ‘male’ fields in journalism such as technology, automobiles, politics or sport are exposed to abuse based on the fact that they do not fit with the audience’s preconceived notions of what reporters covering these topics should be.

It is also clear that this abuse has a negative impact on the journalists’ approach to their jobs. As part of her research, Dr Masullo explored how the women in her study had adapted their routines to cope with the abuse. Responses varied, with some reporting that they blocked certain accounts or words from their profiles, while others said they may leave details out of a story if they thought it would trigger an attack. Some even went as far as to refuse certain stories all together if they believed it would make them a target for online abuse.

But where do we start in tackling the onslaught of abuse faced by women in journalism? Dr Masullo believes that employers should be doing more to recognise the negative experiences of their female employees, and should offer more support to those facing harassment because of their jobs. She said: ‘what we really heard from the women [in the study] is that they felt alone, you know, they didn’t feel the support they felt they should have from their news organizations. They often changed how they covered the story or what stories they covered so that they could head off this abuse, and they really didn’t feel that they got support that they wish they get from their news organisations.

She also drew attention to the role of government in some countries: ‘for example in Germany, it does play a role now. The way we found some of the women to interview was because they had filed complaints with the government, harassment complaints.

‘But because of the nature of the fact that you know, this is a problem that’s worldwide and different governments have different policies, they don’t know that government can always play the role.’

Turning to the role of newsrooms in the protection of their staff, Dr Masullo explains: ‘What I really think should happen is that newsrooms need to set up a system for how these complaints and these situations are handled, and I would compare this to the way they set up situations on a construction site.

‘If you’re on a construction site and you fall off scaffolding and get injured, there is a procedure that the company must follow to document it, to provide you care and support or hospitalization or whatever needs to be done because of that situation, and you have to document all of that and there is like a chain of command or someone whose job it is who is knowledgeable about how these kind of cases are handled I think that’s what newsrooms need for harassment.’

Instead, newsrooms are trapped in a state of trivialisation and scepticism, where female journalists are more often than not afraid of not being believed, or being told to get a ‘thicker skin’.

Dr Masullo is correct when she asserts ‘until we change that attitude, we won’t solve this problem’. The solution to the harassment of female journalists is one of societal change: education, workplace support, and swift and decisive action to remove such abuse rather than promoting it through negatively skewed algorithms.

Photo Credits: Tero Vesalainen / Shutterstock