Expert Commentary

Study shows female journalists face ‘rampant’ online harassment

In-depth interviews with dozens of female journalists from across the globe reveal that women in news face various forms of online harassment, from sexist remarks to threats of rape, a study finds.

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In-depth interviews with dozens of female journalists from across the globe reveal that women in news face various forms of online harassment, from sexist remarks and inappropriate requests to threats of rape, a study published in the journal Journalism finds.

Researchers also learned that the strategies women use to deal with such abuse can disrupt their newsroom routines, even prompting some to change the way they report the news. They described the harassment as “rampant.”

“Consistently, the journalists we interviewed saw online gendered harassment as hampering their efforts to report the news, engage with the communities they cover, or have a voice in the digital sphere,” writes the research team, led by Gina Masullo Chen, an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Texas at Austin.

The study contains vivid descriptions of the abuses women said they faced, described in their own words. Some examples:

  • An online editor from Germany said: “The feedback [on this article] was not criticism, it was threats, it was death threats, it was calls for rape.”
  • A veteran newspaper journalist in the U.S. said she received hundreds of messages after writing about Donald Trump from the perspective of a Muslim woman. “I was shocked by the dehumanization and demonization that exploded on Twitter and Facebook as well as direct email to the point to where I thought I should get security cameras,” she said.
  • A broadcast journalist in the U.S. explained that people leave misogynistic comments on her professional Facebook page so often that she blocks certain words. “I have moderation on my page for the words ‘sexy,’ ‘hot’ or ‘boobs,'” she said.
  • A video producer in the United Kingdom said: “Now and then I’ll get comments thrown at me, purely just about my hair color. I will get comments about being [a] blonde and not being intelligent enough because of my hair.”

Reporters often are encouraged — and, sometimes, required — to promote their work and interact with audiences online. But audience engagement can have ugly consequences as some people use Twitter, Facebook and other online platforms to attack members of the press.

Of the 75 female journalists interviewed for the study, 73 said they had experienced gendered harassment online, or harassment that focuses specifically on their gender or sexuality. TV journalists reported experiencing harassment most often.

The journalists interviewed work or have worked in the United States, Germany, India, Taiwan and the United Kingdom. Chen and her colleagues sought out women of different ages, races and experience levels, representing a variety of media outlets and newsroom types. While the small sample of 75 people isn’t representative of female journalists as a whole, the researchers write that their goal was to “find meaning through the female journalists’ words, not make generalizable inferences.”

“The main takeaway for journalists and news organizations is that harassment of female journalists is a serious problem that needs to be addressed,” Chen told Journalist’s Resource. “The women in our study really wanted more support from the editors and supervisors. They wanted to be believed. They wanted their news organizations to take action — from deleting comments quickly to training journalists on how to deal with the abuse. Many of the women we interviewed felt unsupported or even afraid to complain about the problems to their supervisors. That suggests that newsroom leaders need to change the culture at their organizations to deal with this issue.”

Chen and her co-authors did not interview male journalists for the study, titled “‘You Really Have to Have a Thick Skin’: A Cross-Cultural Perspective on How Online Harassment Influences Female Journalists.” They sought female journalists because previous research has found that women are more likely than men to experience online harassment, they explain. However, during the interviews, some female journalists spoke about how their experiences differ from their male peers. For example, the researchers quote a journalist from India, who said that when people don’t like her reporting, they send her tweets containing obscene pictures. “My men colleagues get trolled, but they don’t often get pictures of breasts or penises like we do,” she said.

The researchers note that the women share similar experiences, despite being from different countries and working for different types of media organizations. Some female journalists noted they have changed how they cover certain issues to try to prevent harassment. A TV journalist in the U.S., for instance, said she is careful to avoid reporting details that might upset people. A freelance reporter from the United Kingdom told researchers she censors her comments online to prevent attacks, which distract her from her work.

Based on the interviews, Chen and her colleagues make several recommendations:

  • Journalism schools should help prepare students to handle the kinds of work-related harassment they may encounter online. Student journalists “should be taught how to deflect what they may face online, so it does not hamper their ability to engage online.”
  • Newsroom leaders should help journalists deter harassment and offer support when they face abuse. “Journalists must have the ability to report harassment to upper management confident that they will be heard and action will be taken because women in our sample reported not feeling that freedom.”
  • Comment moderators should take a more active role, “not merely deleting offensive comments but also asking commenters to civilize their tone and explaining to them why a particular comment was removed. This should help foster a norm of more civility.”
  • Future research should try to gauge whether newsroom managers are aware of the harassment female journalists experience. “Furthermore, social media managers and content moderators should be probed about how they do their jobs and what criteria they use in making decisions about what to do with an offensive comment.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: Chen created a white paper to explain the study’s findings, written for a general audience. You can find it on the University of Texas at Austin’s Center for Media Engagement website.


Want more research on women in news or harassment? Check out our collection of studies on women as newsroom leaders and how women are represented in news coverage. We’ve also pulled together research articles that examine online harassment among women in general.


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