The difficult truth about the unjust treatment and experience of women journalists
Casual sexism. Not-so-casual sexism. Online abuse. Harassment and violence. Even in 2020, women in journalism face these struggles on almost a daily basis.
In October this year, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) and International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) released a report on online violence against women journalists. With responses from 714 women journalists across 113 countries, it is the most comprehensive and geographically diverse study ever undertaken on the subject of online violence. The report confirmed what is already the lived reality for many women: sexism in journalism is very much alive and kicking.
A staggering 73% of women who undertook the survey said they had experienced online violence, with 48% of them reporting harassment in the form of unwanted private messages. The difference in experience between male and female journalists is increasingly difficult to ignore. However, it most definitely is being ignored by those who have the power to change it. You might be thinking, ‘why are they receiving threats in the first place?’, and the answer is clearer than you think. In true patriarchal style, women are attacked for pretty much anything and everything — and having a public voice only makes online trolls’ lives easier.
It’s clear that women are subject to this unjust harassment simply for being women. But, there are particular topics that people respond to more aggressively than others. The UNESCO and ICFJ report found that the story theme that triggered highest levels of online abuse was gender (47%), closely followed by politics and elections (44%) and human rights and social policy (31%). Shock. Not only do these women dare to have a public voice, but they then use them to cover systemic injustices that affect them directly. How very un-ladylike of them. Jokes aside, these figures are very telling of the sexist society that we still live in today. It isn’t just matters of social concern that women are attacked for, though. Speaking about her own experiences as a journalist, Anne Helen Peterson describes being told by another woman to “die a slow and painful death” for having written a blog post about Kristen Stewart. It seems that the unfair treatment of women in journalism also comes in the form of internalised misogyny.
Journalist and blogger Imani Gandy says, “I don’t know how any woman of colour can have their DMs open”, with minorities and members of the LGBTQ+ community facing harsher abuse than white, cis, straight women. Gandy goes onto state that one man had devoted 2 years to creating new Twitter accounts with the sole purpose of harassing her. There is no accurate discussion of feminism without acknowledgement of the deeply-rooted systemic racism that enables disproportionate discrimination against women of colour. Likewise, it is crucial to acknowledge that the field of journalism is no exception to this ruthless treatment of minority groups.
While harassment against women is rife in journalism, only 25% of survey respondents reported incidents to their employers. This is not unjustified when considering that 10% of those who did report them received no response, and 9% were told that they should “grow a thicker skin”, “toughen up”, and other such comments. These figures are further validated by journalist Hannah Storm’s first-hand experience. Suffering from PTSD as a result of sexual assault by another journalist, Storm says she became “another silent voice in the media”. Even in her first few years as a journalist, she recalls being exposed to behaviour that made her feel unsafe and ashamed. It appears that the issue lies not only in that women are experiencing violence, but also in that they are silenced by those with a duty of care towards them.
Many women admit that they protect themselves from online abuse by self-censoring, or closing DMs and limiting interactions with people they don’t follow on social media. However, it’s not possible (or fair) for women to solve an issue that they have not created. There needs to be increased protection of women vulnerable to harassment from both people within their field, and externally, online. Until those who hold the most power are willing to enforce real, systemic changes to the field of journalism, women will sadly continue to face challenges that aren’t faced nearly as much by their male counterparts.