News groups ‘need to do more’ to help women journalists facing online harassment for doing their jobs, study finds

News organisations “need to do more” to help female journalists who encounter online harassment as they do their jobs, a new study has found.

The Centre for Media Engagement in Texas interviewed 75 female journalists across the UK, US, Germany, India and Taiwan and found that “almost all” of them had experienced some form of targeted harassment, often because of their gender or sexuality, online.

Researchers did not specifically seek out women who had experienced harassment, but nevertheless found that online abuse had almost become a normal part of the job and a “prevalent problem” in the industry.

Thirty-two per cent of journalists interviewed said they had developed specific strategies for dealing with online harassment, like blocking words such as “sexy,” “hot,” or “boobs” from their professional Facebook pages.

The journalists, who were all kept anonymous, said the attacks were “most virulent” when they wrote about topics which are typically covered by men, such as cars or video games.

Divisive topics, such as immigration, race, feminism or politics also seemed to elicit greater abuse.

A British video producer described the intense harassment she received after producing a story about Halal certification.

She said: “They made some really horrible, racist comments that I should go join ISIS. I even received comments about the colour of my hair being blonde, so how can I be intelligent in any sort of way?”

A UK freelancer said it could “throw my whole weekend” if she writes something for a Sunday newspaper and then abusive comments begin appearing in her Twitter feed.

The difference between online comments received by men and women was pointed out by a female US online journalist.

“Women have to deal with the sexual comments that males never have to deal with,” she said.

“You’re viewed more often as a sexual object. I’ve been told I need to get laid. They’re rare, but they’re so much worse than what my male colleagues have to deal with.”

A US investigative journalist said lines had been blurred between reporters’ public and private lives.

“I think that at one time in our society it was very clear what our public and private personas are,” she said. “We had them, and they were very separate.

“The internet and social media have blurred those lines. There isn’t a public and private persona anymore. We have become an uncivilised society.”

Some of the women said they had changed their approach to reporting as a result of receiving abuse.

An online reporter in Taiwan said she focuses on positive news so she won’t get attacked. A US reporter is “extra-vigilant” over covering all possible sides of a story to minimise the chances of receiving abuse, and a TV journalist, also in the US, said she tries to avoid details in her stories that she knows will upset people.

However, most of the journalists sampled said they felt their news organisations offered little training to prepare for how to handle or prevent abuse, and worried that if they complained about harassment, they would be labelled as hypersensitive.

A UK video producer said online harassment is not talked about in her newsroom, adding: “We only really discuss it if it’s in a big scale or we’re not really prepared for it.”

The Centre for Media Engagement said news organisations should do more to help journalists, particularly women, by training them on how to handle abuse and backing them up after it happens.

The report said: “Our interviews suggest that online harassment is a prevalent problem across countries and that news organisations need to do more to help journalists – particularly female ones – as they encounter online harassment.

“Most of the journalists in our sample felt pressure to engage online, although that pressure was less for journalists at news organisations in Germany and Taiwan. But as they tried to engage, they felt emotionally spent or even felt physically threatened.

“Most of the women we interviewed reported that they felt their news organisations could do more to train them on how to handle abuse and to back them up after it happened.

“This pointed to a need for journalism schools and professional development courses to include training about how to handle online harassment.

“The women sometimes felt a lack of freedom to report abuse or that the news organisation saw it as their own personal problems.

“More stringent moderation of online comments and more oversight of professional social media pages were identified as possible solutions. Many of the journalists we spoke to wished that their supervisors saw it as part of their job to ensure a safer place to engage, free from online harassment.”

Picture: Reuters/Kacper Pempel/Illustration/File Photo