Tackling Online Harassment of Women Journalists

A three-voice interview

10 December 2015

Marianne Bouchart

Everyone, regardless of their gender, should be able to work without the fear of getting insulted, threatened or bullied. And yet, for many women journalists today, receiving abusive comments online has become commonplace. There has been reports in the news of female correspondents getting physically abused while reporting on the ground. But what about the threats that crawl the internet?

The Australian website SheSaid published the story of Clementine Ford this week, carrying the striking headline “Stupid Slut”: The Rise Of Online Abuse Of Female Journalists.  However shocking Ford’s ordeal may seem, it unfortunately resonates with many women journalists who went through a similar experience over the past few years.  

The great conundrum in this debate is that technology advancement can be described as both the cause and the cure. How do media organisations deal with this issue? How can we create a safe online space for women journalists and hold perpetrators accountable?

This interview gathers the opinions of three women working in the journalism industry, or supporting those who do, in an attempt to bring valuable insights and share personal experiences on this issue.

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Our interviewees

Sidsel Wold is an award-winning journalist at the Norwegian National Broadcasting Company NRK.  She is mainly known for her coverage of events in the Middle-East, including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Having suffered abuse online for many years, Wold shared with GEN her personal experience.

Elisa Lees Munoz is the Executive Director of the International Women’s Media Foundation (IWMF) based in Washington. Named Executive Director in 2013, Muñoz has over 20 years of experience in human rights, freedom of the press, and gender equality issues. 

Helen Lewis is the Deputy Editor of the New Statesman, a British weekly political magazine. She is also the Deputy Chair of Women in Journalism (WIJ), which is a campaigning and networking organisation for women in journalism. 


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Sidsel Wold. Photograph by Anne Liv Ekroll, NRK


How do you relate to the issue of online harassment targeting women journalists? How important do you think this subject is today?

Sidsel Wold: In Norway, where gender equality is very visual --we have a female prime minister, a female defence minister, a female finance minister and a woman head of the secret service-- I think that some men feel that they are set back.

I think it’s easy to attack women because they are almost like a “soft target”. [Abusers] hide behind the screen because it is easy to sit at home and write whatever you want when there are no consequences.

Some of these women [who get abused] are disappearing from the debate. White female journalists who write columns and are visible in the public arena, especially women journalists who are commenting football on TV, get so much harassment [in my country].

Most of the harassment I get is because I cover the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and people get very upset about that, but my male colleagues don’t get the same level or the same kind of abuse.

I have never had to have a bodyguard and I have never received death threats, but other journalists from different countries had.

Helen Lewis: I think it's an important [issue] to talk about because we do know if you put a female picture or a female byline on an article then you will end up getting more hostile comments and more comments referring to the author's gender. So there are assumptions that people make when they see a female byline. The suggestion is that they take an article less seriously, they pick more holes in it, they are more skeptical of it.

We also know that behaviours vary by what we see around us so if other people are seeing that, they are getting the message that women are being demeaned and dismissed and they will be likely to take on those attitudes themselves. [...] Today, [we are getting to a point where] people don't want to write controversial pieces because they know that the abuse will be so great.



Elisa Lees Munoz. Photograph from the IWMF website 

Elisa Lees Munoz: Part of our mission [at IWMF]  is to highlight the dangers journalists face in ensuring an open society, and to offer training and other programs to enable women journalists to succeed. In the course of this work, we have witnessed a new and disturbing pattern of online harassment. The threats are often sexual and violent in nature with the objective to silence the journalist. And the trend we have witnessed is confirmed by our own empirical research.

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 Khadija IsmayilovaPhotograph by Aziz Karimov, from Eurasianet.org 

According to data collected by Demos.co.uk, female journalists experience roughly three times as many abusive comments as their male counterparts on Twitter. Some people think it is because technology has created an easily accessible platform for misogynists. Do you agree?

HL: I agree with the idea that technology has made it easier. I think that there is an opportunity cost. If you wanted to write an abusive letter, in the old days, you would have had to pay for a stamp for a start, you would have needed to sit down and actually write it. There was a level of effort involved in it which is not there anymore. Now it is also much easier to leave comments or tweet semi-anonymously, that again reduces the cost because your own persona is not associated with it. So I think it has definitely become easier to be casually misogynist to women.

ELM: In 2013, the IWMF conducted an online survey to document attacks against women journalists. The report, “Violence and Harassment Against Women in the News Media” describes the types of violence and threats female journalists encounter and considers how these incidents affect their ability to conduct their work.

Almost two-thirds of the 149 women journalists polled have experienced intimidation, threats or abuse in relation to their work. More than 25 percent of “verbal, written and/or physical intimidation including threats to family or friends” took place online. Digital harassment and threats directed at women differ than those experienced by men: they are misogynistic.

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Helen Lewis. Photograph from the BBC website

How can a woman journalist possibly deal with abuse online?

SW: For several weeks, I just stopped using Twitter and I’m now less active on Facebook. In most media [organisations], our bosses want us to be active on social media but how do we navigate this? I was getting 80 to 100 questions every day when I was reporting on the Gaza war last year. It just exploded on social media. Until then, all the harassment had been coming to my email inbox and only I could see it, so I didn’t do so much about it, but on social media you have to respond in some way. If you don’t respond, you’re seen as arrogant. But when is the right time to do it? In my free time? At work?

Sometimes, I post the harassment I receive on Facebook and ask, “why do people write things like this at 4am?” My response is to try and deal with it and post it online and ask “why do people write these things?” This way, I feel like I am actively doing something to address the problem, rather than passively receiving the messages. It’s important for the self-esteem.

HL: Because the WIJ provides a forum for women to get together I think one thing that is most helpful in dealing with this on a personal level is knowing that it happens to everybody. It's not happening to you because you're a bad journalist or you've written something awful or you're a terrible person. It's just part and parcel of what it is to write online and I think that in itself it is quite powerful.

How do media organisations deal with this issue? Do you think they are taking online harassment against women journalists seriously or is it something that they are slowly waking up to?

SW: My bosses have so many other things to think about. They don’t deal much with the harassment. It’s more like: “This is part of your job.” And colleagues will say: “Just don’t think about it; you’re doing a good job.” So last summer, when it was really bad for me during the Gaza war, I wrote a note to my bosses, saying that I had faced a heated public debate all alone and that next time this happens, they should defend me publicly. This also came up at a conference in Vienna a few weeks ago. A lot of the women journalists there said that their bosses just didn’t care.

I think that media organisations don’t really know what to do. My boss, who is a very good guy, said that when it comes to social media “this is a new landscape that we don’t know yet and there’s a lot to learn here”.

I had to fight back against the abusive criticism, campaigns and criticism in the media all alone. I just felt awful. In a big media organisation like NRK, that shouldn’t happen. I was told that next time something like this happens, I should contact the information department and they will take care of it. But the information department is not equipped to deal with this problem.

HL: There is a health and safety issue, as we call it in Britain. Most workplaces now have very strong policies around harassment. If you work in an access and emergency department for example, or if you work on a transport system on the train, those are environments where people deal with either angry people or abusive people. There are strong procedures in place to deal with that, because it's recognised that people shouldn't have to deal with people being violent, abusive, aggressively hostile to them in the course of their work. I think the same thing applies to journalism. There are limits to what people should be expected to endure.

In [controversies] like Gamergate, in which several women from the videogame industry were harassed, you see harassment starts online at first and then it progresses to offline ones as well. And that is an employment protection issue really. How are you protecting your employees from that? How are you helping them do their job to the best of their abilities without having to face greater hurdles because of their gender?

There has been a feeling for so long that everything should have comments open on it, that comments should be a complete free floor and that if you don't let everybody post whatever they want on your site then that's censorship. But that's not really true. It's about creating the kind of conversation that you want to have.

News organisations are starting to finally get to grasps with the idea that if you're going to have comments on your site, on your Facebook page, you're going to encourage journalists to take part in Twitter chats, those kind of things, that you would need to have some kind of filtering system.

An other thing that people have looked at are things like having Facebook comments on their site. So for example Vice doesn't allow anonymous comments, you have to use your Facebook profile. So yes, people may still be abusive but they have to do it linked to, mostly, their real name and identity. It's about making people take ownership of what they say. You can say something abusive if you want but everyone will know that it's you, that [the comment] is linked to your identity and who you are.

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In the 2015 UNESCO report “Building Digital Safety for Journalists”, online abuse of female journalists was pointed out as one of the main challenges in building digital safety. How can media organisations help create a safe digital space for female journalists? And how should we deal with this issue in terms of holding perpetrators into account?

HL: My personal position is that the more tools there is to help people manage what they see the better. Whether it is muting users on Twitter, being able to block people on other social media platforms so they can't contact you, or being able to block people in your inbox so they are not able to send you emails. The more control women can have over who gets to contact them, the better. You have a right to say something, you don't necessarily have the right to be listened to.

I also think there needs to be more training for the police. They are some specialists out there, if you are lucky. Paladin in Britain, the national stalking advocacy service, works with police on really severe cases. But if you walk in your average police station to try and report this then the chances are the person you will be talking to won't really know what they are talking about. I have had reports of people saying, "I had to come in and explain to the police officer what Twitter was". So there is more that can be done about getting people referred to specialists who understand these things.

One of the things we can [also do] is have more women journalists, having more women writing news, having more women on the comment pages. And actually, as we normalise women participation in public life then I think it will hopefully ameliorate the situation because people will get used to women having opinion. They will find it less challenging and threatening and scary, and less likely to make them feel defensive and abusive.

ELM: Awareness of the issue can and must be increased. All journalists need to be united in their efforts to highlight and expose trolling, and robustly defend victims.  The IWMF is working with organisations and individual journalists to work to establish journalistic peer support networks. Law enforcement needs to catch up to the crime, and trolls and perpetrators of online harassment must be exposed and held accountable.

SW: I think it’s important that we share experiences and ask what can be done about this issue. Harassment will not go away, so we have to learn how to deal with it.

Some female journalists have closed down their social media accounts because of the threats and abuse they were receiving online. Some say it is the right thing to do, some don’t. What do you think about this?  

ELM: While there is a lot of camaraderie and collaboration around the threats faced by journalists, as there should be, it can be a very lonely experience to be the recipient of an attack. How an individual chooses to respond to harassment is entirely up to them and unique to each situation, there isn’t just one correct course of action.

HL: I wouldn't never recommend leaving social media platforms for two reasons: one is that a lot of journalists need access to social media to do their job, [...] to see what people are saying, to pick up story ideas, perhaps to contact people. So you're taking a hit in career terms to drop out of visibility like that.

Secondly, I fundamentally object to the way that we respond to violence against women, whether it's a threat of violence or actual violence, by taking women out of public space. That's the argument that says, if you don't want to get raped, don't walk home alone at night. I don't like those preventative campaigns because it sort of imply that if you don't take all those preventative measures, which are often a huge detriment to your career, then it's your fault that these things are happening to you.

The other big problem that we need to tackle is the international jurisdiction of this. Different laws in different countries applies. So there does need to be some level of international cooperation about this.

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What resources or platform would you recommend for women journalists suffering abuse online?

HL: Paladin, is the Britain’s stalking advocacy service. You should reach them if someone is persistently abusing you and harassing you. Also, Zoe Quinn, who was one of the targets of Gamergate, has launched a site that has resources for victims of online attacks. It is called Crash Override.

ELM: Michelle Ferrier and a team of media-savvy professionals recently created a positive and innovative solution to online harassment. Ferrier is a dean with the Scripps College of Communication at Ohio University.  While working as a journalist, she faced an intense trolling attack that forced her to quit her job and move her family.

Ferrier participated in an IWMF-Ford Foundation sponsored Cracking the Code Hackathon in January 2015 to develop innovative apps tackling the obstacles women face in the digital news startup industry. She and her team won $3,000 provided by Google for their app TrollBusters; a service that addresses cyber-bullying and cyber-harassment for women journalists, publishers, and women thought leaders.

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TrollBusters’ mission is to counter hate with love by sending positive, affirming messaging to the target of harassment or attack, providing a hedge of protection around the individual, and helping to provide emotional support and reputation management during cyber crises. TrollBusters documents incident reports and archives them for use in possible legal cases. Incident documentation may be reported by targets or witnesses here.