Women journalists feel the brunt of online harassment

It’s a fact proven by numerous studies worldwide: women and nonbinary people are more affected by online harassment than men, especially if they are also people of color. When it happens in the context of journalism, it sends an especially damning message that women and minorities have no right to a public voice. Threats of sexual violence and other intimidation tactics threaten the diversity of voices in the media and healthy online dialogue.

Women have long been outnumbered in journalism worldwide. Now, in addition to discriminatory hiring practices and other barriers, personal attacks in online comments, social media posts, emails and more, represent a serious threat to diversity. Because of online harassment, several studies show that women journalists experience depression and anxiety, avoid engaging with readers, reporting on certain topics, or say they consider leaving journalism altogether.

Nearly two-thirds of female journalists surveyed by TrollBusters and the International Women’s Media Foundation in 2018 said they had experienced online harassment. Though media contexts differ, there are many similarities to how harassment is experienced worldwide. True everywhere, is that attackers are rarely held accountable – whether they are individuals acting alone or as part of orchestrated attacks by governments or groups who weaponize social media. What is worse, people in positions of authority often encourage an escalation of attacks.

A 2018 report by Reporters without Borders on the online harassment of journalists worldwide, documents many such cases, including that of Maria Ressa, the founder and executive editor of the news website Rappler in the Philippines. In the context of government attacks on Rappler’s reporting, Ressa says she regularly receives online threats of rape, murder and arrest in social media. She has made a point of publicly exposing attackers and refusing to be silenced.

Even in countries that are relatively safe for journalists or where free speech is protected, receiving hateful comments is the norm for many female journalists, whether they cover sports, fashion or politics. An analysis of 70 million reader comments on The Guardian newspaper from 2006-2016 shows that articles written by female journalists saw a higher proportion of comments rejected by moderators, especially in news sections with a high concentration of male writers, like “Sport” or “Technology”.

Hostility to women in online news comments on The Guardian (2006-2016)

As the methods of online harassment differ, so must the responses. News organizations can help set standards for meaningful and positive dialogue on their own websites and social media channels, and display zero tolerance to discrimination and harassment in comments. They should also offer support to journalists and freelancers before and after harassment happens.

Social media amplifies the volume and intensity of attacks on journalists, not least when platforms become vehicles for state-sponsored attacks. Large platforms have a responsibility to help curb harassment globally, but companies and governments who aim to get to grips with online hate speech can also overreach and undermine free speech. Solutions to online harassment should be developed with care, in dialogue with organizations who represent affected people, as well as with researchers who understand the nuances of the problems.

What can help stop online attacks on journalists?

  1. Anonymous

    Gender neutral ... only way to go. Therefore, your right to not be offended will be at ease. We are required to be tolerant and open minded on everything, otherwise ... be silenced under public opinion.

  2. Antoon van Maris

    We should enlarge the understanding of the fact, that progress, any progress, will only be made by, meaningful feedback, Whistleblowers
    for example are not, just annoying asses that cost money, they are an integrated part of a healthy organisation, that will ultimately, make it more effective, healthy, profitable and benefit progress in general.
    Offcourse being criticized, will feel, at first, as a personal attack and a person can easily think, it is done because they made a mistake.
    This is why people have such problems with feedback and why feedback should always be promoted as, benefitial to progress in general and not in any way, shape or form, as attacks on people .

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