Women journalists confront harassment, sexism when using social media

As journalists venture into a brave new world of social media, some find they have to be braver than others.

Women journalists face new forms of harassment, sexist comments, or worse, from social networkers. The abuse is unfortunate, both for its personal toll and its hindrance to the noble goal of engaging the broader public in their reporting.

We all — men and women — share struggles against name calling, personal attacks and general trollishness in any online forum. But women too often face an additional layer of spite, insult and objectification.

“We’re more accessible to people than ever, which is both a good thing and a bad thing,” Politico reporter Juana Summers told me. “I’ve covered cops and courts, protests, and now state and national government, but some of the most seedy and inappropriate stuff that’s been said to me, mostly race or gender-based, has been said on my social networks.”

How bad does this problem get, and what can be done?

Opinions not welcome

The social environment seems particularly charged for women covering issues where men feel superior (sports) or emotions run high (politics).

Albany Times Union columnist Jennifer Gish recounted some of the awful sexual harassment and name calling she suffered after writing a piece critical of Buffalo Bills fans. “F*** yourself ya stupid C***,” and “YOU SUCK DONKEY D***!” were among the dozens of degrading missives.

Laurie Penny, columnist for The Independent newspaper in London, recently wrote that for women, having an opinion is the “short skirt” of the Internet. “Having one and flaunting it is somehow asking an amorphous mass of almost-entirely male keyboard-bashers to tell you how they’d like to rape, kill and urinate on you.” She writes:

“You come to expect it, as a woman writer, particularly if you’re political. You come to expect the vitriol, the insults, the death threats. After a while, the emails and tweets and comments containing graphic fantasies of how and where and with what kitchen implements certain pseudonymous people would like to rape you cease to be shocking, and become merely a daily or weekly annoyance, something to phone your girlfriends about, seeking safety in hollow laughter.

…Most mornings, when I go to check my email, Twitter and Facebook accounts, I have to sift through threats of violence, public speculations about my sexual preference and the odour and capacity of my genitals, and attempts to write off challenging ideas with the declaration that, since I and my friends are so very unattractive, anything we have to say must be irrelevant.”

These recently published tales of harassment are driving a larger discussion within groups like the Journalism & Women Symposium, said immediate past president Megan Kamerick. “It’s been going on for a long time, and maybe not talked about as much.”

Judged for style, not substance

It’s not all slurs and death threats, of course. A more common experience among women journalists is the subtle sting of sexism — comments that focus on physical appearance rather than professional accomplishment.

New York Times social media editor Liz Heron was among the early journalists to enable Facebook’s new “subscribe” feature, which lets anyone sign up to see the public posts on her personal profile.

Already she has almost 150,000 subscribers and often gets hundreds of comments and likes on her posts. That’s been great, but not without challenges. Her profile photo now attracts undue attention and comments from some of those followers, and she tells other Times reporters in training sessions to be prepared for this.

“I frequently go in and delete comments on my own Facebook profile photo that, while they’re essentially harmless, are about my appearance rather than my journalism,” Heron told me.

I counted 31 photo comments in 10 days since Heron last deleted them, almost all some variant of “sexy : )” or “nice smile.” In other cases commenters aren’t so nice. When Lauren McCullough opened her Facebook profile to subscribers and encouraged feedback on what she should share, the first comment was a petty criticism of her standard headshot photo: “Change your Profile Pic First! It Isnt as good as you thought!”

“My initial reaction was that this is just one person being weird online. But it’s hard to imagine this man writing the same comment on one of my male colleagues’ pages,” said McCullough, senior editor of Breaking News and the former social media manager for The Associated Press. “And it did make me feel slightly self-conscious about having parts of my otherwise-private Facebook profile open like that. Some friends and family members were disturbed by it, too.”

She tried to deflect the comment with some sarcasm, and replied that she hoped he would talk about the content of her posts as well.

Mandy Jenkins has decided on a different approach: “When I encounter it, I try not to engage people at all. I’ve learned it doesn’t help, because it’s tough to get anyone on your side. I just block the creep and move on.”

Jenkins, social news editor for the Huffington Post (also a friend and former co-worker), has received “virtual catcalling and general harassment” periodically on Facebook.

“I have to wonder if it’s a similar wariness that drives many of the female journalists I subscribe to on Facebook and Twitter to keep everything strictly professional,” Jenkins told me. “I’ve heard from many female reporters and editors over the years that they are afraid to open up on social media because of the threat of harassment or stalking.”

Online posts lead to offline fears

That was the case for Summers. During the past year she has worked for Politico, a man in one of the early presidential primary states started following her on Twitter. She told me:

At first he was engaging and seemed genuinely interested in my content and frequently interacted with me, so I followed him back. …After a while, he started responding to personal stuff. Like, one day I said I was going to dinner with my boyfriend, and he tweeted that I’d broken his heart because he didn’t know I was taken.

I thought the guy had a bit of an unhealthy interest in my coming and going and activities, but it takes a lot for me to get rattled or take action against anyone. Unfortunately, this guy crossed that line — he leaped across it.

One day, I tweeted about snagging the perfect pair of heels at an outlet store in a city I was visiting for work. The guy — and not to get too graphic here — DMed me to say he’d like to see me in nothing but. I responded to him, something to the effect of “um, that’s kind of inappropriate,” and he kept going.

After that experience, I blocked him. It rattled me enough that I locked down my Foursquare account and began to seriously look at how open I am online.

Prevention and response

Short of retreating entirely from public view, there’s no way for women journalists to stop all acts of harassment. But they can take steps to avoid some problems and put themselves firmly in control of how to respond.

Summers now has ground rules: She doesn’t tweet about hotels she stays in. She waits until after leaving a place to post a review online or check in on Foursquare (unless it’s for a work event). And overall she keeps personal information to a minimum.

Jenkins said she, too, is “extra vigilant” about what she posts publicly, and she shared some tips on her blog about “how to maintain a safe, positive and public Facebook life.” They include: think carefully about what you share with whom, delete inappropriate comments and don’t hesitate to block offensive users.

When Jennifer Gaie Hellum helps college students or colleagues establish online identities, she talks about playing both “offense” and “defense.” Hellum was an AZcentral.com producer for mobile, search and social until last week, and she blogs about personal branding for journalists.

Playing offense includes proactive steps to deter trolls — choosing avatars, bio information and usernames that reflect how seriously you expect to be taken by followers.

Defense is how you respond to the bad things that will happen anyway. “On defense,” Hellum said, “documentation is key.” Copy transcripts or capture screenshots of harassing content when it happens, before you delete it.

Some journalists are using that documentation publicly, to shame their harassers. Think Progress reporter Alyssa Rosenberg began tweeting the full names and institutional affiliations of her harassers under the #ThreatoftheDay hashtag. “Threaten me,” Rosenberg wrote, “and I will cheerfully do my part to make sure that when employers, potential dates, and your family Google you, they will find you expressing your desire to see a celebrity assault a blogger.”

Feminist blogger Sady Doyle used the hashtag #mencallmethings to document “the slurs, the rape fantasies, the hate mail.” She also wrote a post called “The Girl’s Guide to Staying Safe Online,” which is not so much a guide as a lament that there really is nothing a woman can do that will stop harassment.

The key, it seems, is for women journalists to take control — not to absorb more abuse than they can tolerate, nor to let fear drive withdrawal.

“I think this is the reality for female journalists, especially those who are building their brands in the digital space. It’s easier than ever for comment trollers to cut women down in superficial ways,” McCullough said. “Ultimately, each woman has to decide what her boundaries are — what’s OK, what’s not OK, and how she’s going to handle it.”

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  • http://aconservatives.blogspot.com/ Benedict White

    OK. “Albany Times Union columnist Jennifer Gish recounted some of the awful sexual harassment and name calling she suffered after writing a piece critical of Buffalo Bills fans. “F*** yourself ya stupid C***,” and “YOU SUCK DONKEY D***!” were among the dozens of degrading missives.”

    Yep, had that, (or similar) written by men to me a middle aged white man. I have had death threats… all sorts. Comment about my appearance, relationships, how I am ugly…. the list goes on. The insults say far more about the insulter than the insulted.

    Just block trolls, or on facebook report them for abuse. If you are a public figure you will get abuse. Get a thick, but sensible skin. 

    As for profile pics, people will compliment you on a new one, or suggest a new one. Sorry. Some people are either supportive, trying to be helpful or perhaps just shallow.

    As for sharing non professional life on a profile you use for professional life that has to be a no no, because you have all these trolls etc about. Keep them separate. 

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for writing this, Jeff.  It is helpful to call attention to this problem and help women develop strategies for coping.  Now what are you going to say to the men who have created this problem?  I’m serious! 

    In the final analysis, men are the only ones who can stop this kind of harassment.  Rather than accept this behavior as somehow sadly inevitable and always put the burden on women to manage it and monitor themselves and change their behavior to try to avoid being stalked and threatened, I’d like to see men call out other men and hold them accountable.  Can that ever be the internet culture?  Or our culture generally? 

  • Clayton Burns

    There should be a central site where documented troubled posters could be monitored in a kind way.

    If a poster persistently tracks you and you are being “groomed” for harassment, it may seem to outsiders as if not much is happening. 

    Women are being victimized to a degree that it just atrocious. The systems to deal with it are far too weak. 

    Actual criminal harassment should be treated as such. It should be an aggravating factor that women just trying to go about their media business are being treated in such a vicious way. 

    CJR has its own obsessive and troubled reader comment poster called “padikiller.” 

    This person really crosses the line into virtual stalking and online libel. 

  • Clayton Burns

    There should be a central site where documented troubled posters could be monitored in a kind way.

    If a poster persistently tracks you and you are being “groomed” for harassment, it may seem to outsiders as if not much is happening. 

    Women are being victimized to a degree that it just atrocious. The systems to deal with it are far too weak. 

    Actual criminal harassment should be treated as such. It should be an aggravating factor that women just trying to go about their media business are being treated in such a vicious way. 

    CJR has its own obsessive and troubled reader comment poster called “padikiller.” 

    This person really crosses the line into virtual stalking and online libel. 

  • Anonymous

    I wonder why someone doesn’t launch a screening service for vulnerable public figures, to screen and dump the obvious crap and pass along what’s wanted to a private email address. Maybe an auto-reply could be used:
    “This is Bruno, at WackosBeDamned Screening Service. Ms. X never sees an email of the type you sent, and has asked me to tell you to go fuck yourself (as if you weren’t already). 

  • http://twitter.com/marc_cooper marc_cooper

    Since when are folks so fearful of empty words on a page? And journalists, no less.

  • Anonymous

    Great article. My experience is largely with gaming, science fiction and comic sites.  These fields are the holy triumvirate to a certain type of man-boy, but also followed greatly by normal people, a great many of whom are women.  What seems to counter the language is better (valid) marketing stats that don’t just use the ill-formed stereotypes and qualitative ideas, but actually use readily available data.  Being able to tell harassing commenters that, no, men do not play PC or first-person shooter games more; but, women play a smaller distribution of video games titles, helps to tone down the language of rage filled expression that PAX conference goers feel upon finding out there are no ‘booth babes’ this year.  If that doesn’t work, you can always explain that being good at ‘Battlefield’ doesn’t make you a killer. 

    And Lauren Penny, I love you for using the term ‘pseudonymous’, and Poynter, I love you for letting me comment without the FB social plug-in. #Nym Wars

  • Leslie Parrilla

    I couldn’t disagree more with Chris Grey’s comment about harassing comments soley being a form of bait to trigger a reaction. In some cases yes. But in many, many others not. It’s the same harassing imprisonment women receive when walking on the street, standing in the grocery store line or simply driving on the freeway being leered at, yelled at, whistled at. They’re not interested in provocation, they’re simply being perverts. Online, in person, any where, how, way they can, they will.
    What disturbs me more are the suggestions in the article about strategies of “defense.” Instead of holding these morons responsible for their actions and words, we women clean up, cover up, and shut up, minimizing our presence online because the poor men can’t control themselves instead of holding them responsible. It’s like wearing a longer skirt because someone whistles at you instead of walking up to them and laying it on the line, insiting they act like a decent human being.
    I for one, don’t have plans to “cover up” online just to baby infantile male behavior.
    Are we really still in that mindset in this day and age???

  • Nate Whilk

    You didn’t mention any conservative columnists. Michelle Malkin gets the rawest racism from apparently liberal folks. And of course, you didn’t mention the real vitriol (not just criticism) that Sarah Palin got. I guess conservative women really are just asking for rape “jokes”.

  • Chris Grey

    Your talking about internet trolls here. They don’t like what you say and want to get a reaction. So they go below the belt, where they think they are likely to get a reaction. They perceive a woman to be more concerned about their looks so attack that. Comments about the size of genitalia and questioning the sexual preferences of a person happens to men as well as women. I’ve found this and I just write on a few small forums.

    By writing pieces like this you are simply Troll Baiting. The comments you receive are made to get a reaction and you give them one by responding on Twitter or Google or writing articles like this. All that means is that those who like to Troll will keep on going and going at the things that get the most reaction. Don’t believe me? Head on over to 4chan (NSFW) and see the pro trolls at work.

  • http://twitter.com/westseattleblog West Seattle Blog

    Excellent topic. Some of the haters who can’t attack us on our merits and can’t stand the fact we have succeeded, tried seizing on the fact I am a large, not-cute, middle-aged, female person and attempted to attack on any or all of those four fronts, via social media as well as in-person harassment. Meantime, just yesterday I had to deal with one commenter who tried to criticize an elected official as “menopausal” and implied it’s a bad thing that more women than men vote (if that’s even true). I am glad to be a site owner and able to make and enforce rules that have no tolerance for sexism, racism, sizism, and other -isms. It’s a nice way to spend the last few decades of a media career that began in a time when women like me were hired by broadcast stations as the “token woman” to begrudgingly satisfy a federal requirement (then, at least in my case, sexually harassed by those very hirers, as if that were part of the job description, and did I mention the station owner who gave flowers to all female employees on Secretaries’ Day?). Good times. – Tracy

  • http://twitter.com/lawyer_chella therealchella

    A powerful woman is a very scary thing, especially for all the poorly-raised, cowardly female-bashers who are hiding themselves on the internet.  Their mothers should be ashamed.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_OKGX3R4W4UMDHK74ACQKNKPHAY megan

    Thanks for writing this, Jeff, and thank you for reaching out to JAWS. At our annual conference in September, we focused heavily on how you build your brand, which obviously includes being adept in social media. That’s why these trends really concern our members because building your brand via social media is so incredibly important to succeeding in our industry now. These kinds of threats can endanger the very livelihoods of women journos, in addition to disrupting their sense of security and their self-confidence in using their voices in a world where the opinion pages and the blogosphere are still dominated by male writers.

    Megan Kamerick
    immediate past president of the Journalism & Women Symposium

  • Anonymous

    I really appreciate you writing about this Jeff and for shedding light on an issue that’s been brushed off. I have seen some less that pleasant comments on my page since I enabled subscribe. Ironically, I just posted this piece on Facebook and then got a few nasty comments from a guy. Deleted them and banned him.

    ~ @Niketa:twitter