The Perils of Reporting While Female
Trolls, death threats, and constant harassment — the risky business of being a woman journalist in the social media era
“Feminist cunts should die.”
This was the subject of an email I received a year and a half ago. Wary but curious, I opened the message and confirmed that the feminist cunt in question was me.
I didn’t delete the message. Instead, I printed it out and brought it to my local police station, where they added it to a growing file that had started some months earlier, after I published an article in Politico correlating toxic masculinity and mass shootings. In response to the article, a man I had never met sent me a picture of a mutilated woman accompanied by an incoherent message.
The graphic nature of the image unsettled me in a way his words alone would not have, and persuaded me to file my first police report. Some fellow female journalists encouraged me to do this, in case the threat — and others like it I’d been receiving — escalated to something more serious.
At the time, I was no stranger to cyberbullying. When I wrote about climate change, the gender wage gap, and racial health inequities for the Street, the comments sections of my articles were often filled with hundreds of posts attacking my intelligence, my attractiveness, and my intentions. But I had never before been on the receiving end of a death wish, especially one delivered directly to my personal email account.
People are rarely surprised when I tell them that I have been targeted by online harassers; anyone who is active on the internet can probably attest to its dark side. Its impersonal and often anonymous nature enables us all to hurl insults with near-impunity. And journalists are especially susceptible to this kind of treatment. But while most of us have dealt with online abuse at some point on the internet, some demographics are more likely to be victims and are more vulnerable to its negative effects.
The pieces written by women attracted the vast bulk of the comments that were later removed by moderators.
For instance, an 11-year analysis revealed that nearly three-quarters of the victims of online harassment are women. Race, sexual orientation, and gender identity also seem to play prominent roles in who gets targeted by trolling. According to a 2017 study by the Pew Research Center, 59% of African Americans and 48% of Hispanic Americans have experienced online harassment, compared to only 41% of white Americans. And a survey conducted by vpnMentor discovered that 73% of the LGBTQ+ respondents they polled had been personally attacked on the internet. The survey found trans women tend to feel the least safe in online spaces and were doxxed more than other demographics. Additionally, a recent study released by the U.K.-based disability charity Leonard Cheshire found that “online hate crimes” against disabled people increased by 33% between 2017 and 2018.
The situation is often particularly dire for marginalized journalists, who work in a field that is still largely dominated by cis white men.
In 2017, the Guardian inventoried 70 million posts that had accrued in its comments sections over a decade to examine which articles and reporters were targeted by abusive language. The pieces written by women attracted the vast bulk of the comments that were later removed by moderators. The study also noted that authors of color received “disproportionate levels of blocked comments.” An altogether different study of online harassment on Twitter from 2014 found that women reporters and writers were among the most targeted demographic on the social network. And a worldwide survey released last year by the International Women’s Media Foundation and TrollBusters, an organization that offers free assistance to women writers who experience online harassment, revealed that two-thirds of female journalists had experienced online harassment. Of these, more than half (52%) were freelance writers.
Michelle Ferrier, the founder of TrollBusters and the dean of the School of Journalism & Graphic Communication at Florida A&M University, says there is a definite connection between the intensity and severity of online harassment someone receives and the topics they cover. “Beat matters,” she says. “Anything that pushes against any established status quo or criticizes power structures tends to garner more online harassment, especially when it comes to challenging racism and misogyny.”
Ferrier says that even though white male journalists can and do often become targets of online harassment, reporters who identify as female — particularly Black women and Black queer women — tend to experience more persistent, and more intimate, harassment. It is much more likely, she says, that the insults directed against them will be sexual or sexually violent in nature.
Ferrier’s findings resonate with Maisha Johnson, a 32-year-old freelance writer from California. “Every time I write about social and political issues like race, gender-based violence, or sexuality, I get a whole bunch of negative messages for several weeks, or sometimes several months, after the piece is published,” Johnson says. “I’ve gotten death threats, rape threats… and they use slurs to insult me as a woman, especially a Black woman.”
Considering that women and people with marginalized identities have a harder time getting through the gates of media-oriented professions, Ferrier’s research suggests online harassment can pose yet another obstacle for us to overcome even after we get a foot in the door. In particular, 29% of the women in the TrollBusters poll admitted that they’d considered leaving the profession because of the online harassment they’d experienced as a result of their work. Nearly a quarter (24%) noted that the harassment had adversely affected their ability to advance in their careers. Ferrier says that these percentages are even higher for younger women between the ages of 18 and 39.
“After the overall accumulation of comments and threats, including one legitimate death threat, I just couldn’t do it.”
“I’ve definitely considered taking breaks from writing or quitting altogether,” Johnson says. “Dealing with annoying trolls is one thing, but when I actually feel threatened, it makes me wonder if it’s all worth it.”
Another journalist, an African American woman who covers gender- and race-related issues, told me that she’d struggled with the same dilemma. The woman, whom I’ll call Sandra, eventually took a two-year hiatus from her work. She made this decision following a spate of harassment that included Facebook threats by white supremacists and a Ku Klux Klan leader, her house being pelted with bottles, and a home break-in that resulted in the theft of her notebooks and work laptop.
“After the overall accumulation of comments and threats, including one legitimate death threat, I just couldn’t do it,” says Sandra, who has only recently returned to freelancing.
Sandra was fortunate to have a husband in a stable and well-paying job whom she could depend on during her hiatus, but she notes many women and women of color who are journalists don’t have that kind of safety net.
While Sandra temporarily stopped working altogether, others may switch beats or even genres to escape overwhelming online harassment.
“I had a pretty successful run publishing personal autobiographical essays,” Allison Washington, a 62-year-old writer, told me recently. But, she says, “it got increasingly difficult to write these as the online harassment increased with exposure.”
Washington, who mostly wrote about her experience as a trans woman, stopped publishing anything that contained autobiographical information. She even sidelined a memoir project.
“I published my last personal essay in December 2017, then moved on to work in journalism, where I feel less exposed,” she says.
Even marginalized writers covering what could be considered relatively lighter topics can find themselves threatened online. A 30-year-old nonbinary and disabled journalist whom I’ll call Max told me that after publishing a piece on pop culture for a mainstream news site, they were doxxed and inundated with death threats on social media.
“It took months to recover from the initial backlash and I never felt safe in public during that time,” Max says. “I also decided that I wouldn’t write about pop culture again.”
Becky Gardiner, the lead researcher and author of the Guardian study and a former comments editor for the site, says that closing comments on some articles is one way that the Guardian has reduced online harassment. “Abuse is not tolerated and discussion threads are closed if the conversation becomes abusive,” she told me.
It is crucial that editors partner more closely with their writers to ensure they feel supported both online and off-line.
But online bullies and stalkers can still find their targets on Twitter and Facebook — two social media platforms that have poor reputations when it comes to enforcing their own community standards and rules.
For this reason, it is crucial that editors partner more closely with their writers to ensure they feel supported both online and off-line. This is especially true for freelancers, who often lack significant economic and legal support when they experience backlash over something they published. Dealing with the stress or fear of online harassment can eat into precious time and mental bandwidth that writers should be investing in their work.
Recently, I wrote a feature article that was critical of a decision by my town’s leadership to retain a police officer who’d published several columns that contained racist speech and advocated violence against vulnerable populations.
While the content of the harassing emails and Facebook posts I received this time around didn’t include death threats, they unnerved me in a different way: The people messaging me were now my neighbors, not anonymous trolls.
The editor in chief who’d commissioned my article worked closely with me to monitor the situation, advising me to take screenshots of any threats. We also had a plan in place if things escalated. This stands in stark contrast to my previous experiences, when editors offered no advice or insight about how to deal with harassment.
Ferrier told me that the services her group offers to journalists include monitoring their social media accounts and the accounts of their harassers. The group has compiled an infographic that outlines steps journalists can take when they feel threatened by others online, as well as a list of resources that are helpful for journalists and non-journalists alike.
Johnson says she’s put personal protocols in place to deal with online harassment and threats.
“I’ll unplug a bit when a piece of mine is first published and take intentional blocks of time to check my emails and messages,” Johnson told me.
She explains that it’s also helpful to have a community of other marginalized writers who can relate and offer emotional support.
“None of us are alone in this,” Johnson says. “If anything, the harassment reminds me of the reasons why I do what I do to try to make a difference for those who need it.”