May 4, 2021

A UNESCO-commissioned global study of online violence against female journalists draws on more than 900 responses from journalists in 125 countries and shows what too many of you have experienced: an increasing number and intensity of social media attacks on female journalists.

Nearly three-quarters (73%) of the survey respondents identifying as women said they had experienced online violence.

This study is truly worth your time. Do not think for a moment it is limited to journalists working on conflict zones. Based on the conversations that my wife (a therapist) and I have had while doing stress and trauma work with journalists in markets big and small and on all media platforms, I suspect you will find similar results in almost any newsroom.

Some of the other findings include:

Threats of physical violence (identified by 25% of survey respondents) including death threats, and sexual violence (identified by 18%) also plagued the women journalists we interviewed. And these threats radiated: 13% of survey respondents and many interviewees said they had received threats of violence against those close to them, including children and infants.

One-fifth (20%) of survey respondents identifying as women said they had been attacked or abused offline in connection with online violence they had experienced. A similar proportion of our interviewees also experienced offline abuse associated with online attacks, including the subjects of both of our big data case studies.

Racism, religious bigotry, sectarianism, ableism, homophobia and transphobia intersect with misogyny and sexism to produce significantly heightened exposure and deeper impacts for women experiencing multiple forms of discrimination concurrently, as evidenced by our survey respondents and interviewees, and detailed in our big data case study on Maria Ressa.

Employment and productivity impacts reported by the women survey respondents included missing work to recover from online violence (11%), making themselves less visible (38%), quitting their jobs (4%), and even abandoning journalism altogether (2%). Linked to this was the professional discreditation of online violence targets.

Black, Indigenous, Jewish, Arab and lesbian women journalists participating in our survey and interviews experienced both the highest rates and most severe impacts of online violence.

Physical threats associated with online violence caused 13% of women survey respondents to increase their physical security; 4% said that they had missed work due to particular concerns about the attacks moving offline and resulting in physical violence.

A number of our interviewees were suffering from PTSD connected to online violence, and many were in therapy as a result. The mental health impacts were also the most frequently identified (26%) consequence of online attacks among survey respondents. 12% of respondents said they had sought medical or psychological help due to the effects of online violence.

When asked “How does the level of online violence you experience affect your journalism practice and your interaction with sources/audiences?”, 30% of the women journalists surveyed answered that they self-censored on social media. 20% described how they withdrew from all online interaction. Self-censorship was also a response noted by many interviewees.

The women interviewed said Facebook was the platform used most often by their attackers and 41% said it appeared the attacks against them were the product of an organized effort. Fewer than one in 10 victims even bothered to try to get police involved, showing a huge lack of confidence that they would be taken seriously. And no wonder. The survey found:

Despite progress made by many employers over the past five years, only 25% of the women survey respondents said they had reported online violence incidents to their employers, and the top responses they said they received when they did were: no response (10%) and advice like “grow a thicker skin” or “toughen up” (9%), while 2% said they were asked what they did to provoke the attack.

This graphic gives you an idea of the range of attacks our colleagues around the globe have been subjected to:


This article originally appeared in Covering COVID-19, a daily Poynter briefing of story ideas about the coronavirus and other timely topics for journalists. Sign up here to have it delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.

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Al Tompkins is one of America's most requested broadcast journalism and multimedia teachers and coaches. After nearly 30 years working as a reporter, photojournalist, producer,…
Al Tompkins

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