“Having people calling me a ‘b*tch’ shouldn’t be part of my work”: The Harms of Online Violence Against Women Journalists

On Hollaback’s anti-online harassment platform Heartmob, people can share their stories of online abuse, access resources and get help in the form of supportive messages or by asking to report and document abusive behavior.

CW: Threats of sexual assault, strong language

Throughout her time as a journalist, 28-years old news editor Kelly Bauer has been harassed online because of her work. Over 2020, a period marked by pandemic, presidential elections and social unrest, the amount of abuse she got increased drastically. She received daily abuse on social media, including sexist and misogynist insults and rape and death threats. The harassment has also been directed at her family. When Bauer covered protests against police brutality, people targeted her and bombarded her with racialized hate. “The most violent [message] I ever got was when someone tweeted at me saying, ‘I was [a] race traitor, and they hoped a Black man raped me’.

Similarly, Hayley Sperling, a 25-year old journalist and communications strategist, was especially targeted for covering protests against police brutality. Her most significant incident happened at the age of 19 when she was an editor at a student newspaper and covered Tony Robinson’s death, a black young man killed by a white police officer in 2015. Sperling was doxxed just for doing her job. Her harasser created a blog post listing her personal information, including her home address, parents’ address, photos, and criminal record. 

These are just two stories that show how women journalists’ work is constantly mediated by threat and hostility both against them and the communities they are reporting on. The abuse women journalists experience often feels rooted in sexist stereotypes, misogyny, vitriol hatred, and disapproval of women. “They use words like ‘bitch’ or ‘cunt’ and they talk about how they hope I would be raped. These are all things that are focused on the fact that I am a woman”, Bauer commented. Grounded in the work of Foucault (1995), researchers such as Cole (2015) explain how rape is used as “disciplinary rhetoric” in which women are punished just for being vocal virtually (as cited in Moloney 2018, 4). According to Sperling, there is an expectation that harassment is the price that women have to pay for being online, especially in their roles as journalists. 

The repercussions of online violence are profound and damaging.The online harassment episode Sperling faced led her to suffer from depression for a year and a half. “It logged me off for a long time, it really affected me at school, I could not focus, it kept me up at night”, she said. 

Online harassment also affects women’s journalists’ sense of safety in physical spaces. For instance, a former journalist who preferred to keep her name confidential and who we will call Yana Williams in this piece, received threats that included mentions of the physical spaces where she frequently went. Media workers need to learn to assess the threats to determine if they are in real danger in physical spaces. Given the anonymity that the Internet offers, women feel more unsafe as it is more difficult to identify the likelihood of their threats becoming a reality. Online harassment morphs from online threats to a much more significant danger that includes fears of being physically violated. 

Being harassed online also impacts journalist’s interactions with their audiences. While Sperling had to take a long break from Twitter in the immediate aftermath, Bauer retracted herself from providing support to her audiences and became more hesitant to reply to people who wanted to connect with her. 

Another big concern is that many journalists received a response that harassment is something they have to deal with as part of their professions. But as Bauer put it: “…part of being a journalist is to engage with your community so that you can get feedback and stories, but being abused is not part of being a journalist, having people calling me a bitch does not in any way relate to my job, and so people need to stop trying to say ‘this is on you.’”

A Societal Problem

As research has shown, the fact that journalists are subject to harassment when covering racial tensions deteriorates discourses of struggles over social justice issues such as oppression and racism. There is pressure and coercion on the right to report and speak out freely about such vital issues. For instance, Williams, who was also targeted as a woman of color, recounted that she restricted herself to talk about these issues to avoid harassment.  “Many women are fearful of the extremely toxic response they’ll get when covering police shooting people of color. That means they might be less likely to cover those issues or to delve deep into them. The end result: Fewer journalists on those topics means we have less information coming out and fewer wrongdoers being held accountable,” said Bauer.

A great deal of previous research has shown how in general women restrict more from participating in public discussions. Of course, one of the most considerable consequences of online harassment is that it leads to women quitting journalism altogether. In the case of Williams, the abuse she experienced completely drove her away from her career. The fact that women like her are opting out of journalism undoubtedly limits the formation of a diverse, open, and equitable discourse. It means that valuable visions and perspectives are not being taken into account. 

Continued and deep efforts are needed to stop the belief that being harassed is part of a journalist’s work. People should be aware that the information they get from the media can be mediated by threats and toxicity. We need collective actions to dismantle the culture of online abuse and misogyny. “It needs to start with holding each other accountable at every level, so whether Trump is saying it or whether your brother is saying it, you need to call it out and respond, “that is wrong.” Women journalists should not have to deal with this problem alone. Hollaback offers an option to empower allies through its Heartmob platform. People experiencing online harassment can share their stories and ask a community of vetted bystanders to support them in different ways: sending supportive messages, reporting abuse to the platforms, and documenting. In 2020, Hollaback partnered with IWMF to understand how women journalists’ experiences can be supported by HeartMob. The organization has rolled out a series of updates so that journalists can share their testimonials, find each other’s stories and receive support. They can also access the IWMF Online Resources Hub directly from Heartmob. 

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