March 12, 2021

The harassment and hate directed at national news outlets in the “fake news” hasn’t trickled down to smaller markets.

It’s always been there.

Virginian-Pilot reporters know when the abusive emails and virulent voicemails are coming.

If a story touches on race or other disparities, the abuse is sure to come. And they know who will be targeted the most: Black sources and subjects, reporters of color, women.

Racial slurs, made-up insults. Wishing harm on reporters. The hate stops journalists in their tracks. They wonder about the person who sent it and if there is more out there. They wonder if words will lead to action.

“It has actual ramifications, not just for journalists, but for democracy,” said Gina Masullo, an associate professor and associate director at the Center for Media and Engagement at the University of Texas at Austin. “If journalists can’t do their job effectively because they’re being attacked so much, that isn’t good for democracy because their job is to hold power accountable.”

Take, for example, the harassment of Saleen Martin, who covered a Confederate monument protest on June 10 in Portsmouth, Virginia.

Martin, who is Black and a native of the area, watched as the crowds grew. She took videos of the scene, interviewed protesters and tweeted about it.

A breaking news reporter for The Pilot, she’d been there for six hours when the heads of the Confederates statues were pounded off with a sledgehammer.

“One of the statues came down and hit a man in the head,” Martin tweeted at 9:13 p.m. “People are calling for doctors and medics. I am not posting the video of it hitting this man. Everyone is taking a knee.” The video she did post — of the moments just before the statue came down — had more than 34,000 views.

After the statue fell, the Twitter hate flowed.

“I’m glad someone got hurt. This is bs what you are doing. Irresponsible. Disgusting,” replied one woman on Twitter with more than 8,000 followers. Her description of herself included the hashtags MAGA and TRUMPTRAIN. (We’re not identifying the Twitter handle and other sources of harassment because doing so would draw attention to them, something researchers say encourages more harassment.)

Others called Martin names, made fun of her appearance and implied she was both a part of the protest movement and happy someone was hurt.

“What?? You’re not going to stick around and lick up the blood and brain matter of the guy that had his head split open?” one account posted after Martin said she was heading home.

There were voicemails and emails, too. Some of the messages came from afar, but much of it was from local sources, including a woman who routinely leaves reporters racist messages.

At first, Martin tried to shrug it off, thinking she could just block people on Twitter and ignore it. But the next day, at her little sister’s graduation, the weight of all the hatred came down on her. She texted her therapist, who soon called. Surrounded by her family, she sat down and cried.

Her grandmother, who has since died of COVID-19, started praying over her.

“I feel terrible, because I feel like I’m ruining my sister’s day,” Martin said. “And I’ll never forget, my family … they were like, ‘No, you have every right to feel the way you do. It was difficult. It was traumatic and people were being really nasty and unfair.’”

When covering hate inspires hate

What’s happening to Pilot journalists is happening all over the world, from the largest to the smallest news organizations. A study of 75 female journalists from Germany, India, Taiwan, the United Kingdom and the United States found that most experienced “audience feedback” that went beyond critiques of their work and harassed them for their gender or sexuality. Journalists in the U.S. often believe they have no choice but to engage with the public online and thus face the harassment.

When reporters write about race, the gloves come off, Masullo said. The use of hateful and intolerant speech is disproportionately directed at women, specifically women of color, she said.

“They get attacked more because people feel like they can attack those groups more, because society devalues those groups,” she said. “It’s almost a double-whammy. If there’s a woman of color covering an issue that has to do with race, it’s like she has both forces coming against her in terms of being attacked.”

Many of the most hateful commenters suggest that by writing about racial disparities that have existed for centuries, reporters are reinforcing them or taking sides. It leaves reporters in a no-win situation: Either write about important subjects and face hate, or ignore them and leave crucial subjects unexplored.

Indeed, even writing a story like this one runs the risk of incurring more hate. Pilot editors and reporters debated whether the value of shedding light on the problem was worth the hate this article is likely to inspire.

Ultimately the decision was made to seek this story’s publication in Poynter rather than in The Pilot. The consensus among several editors and the reporter was that to run it in our paper, with its descriptions of the effects the harassment has on reporters, would be giving the trolls ammunition to further harass them.

“We worried that opening up about this issue to our readers might invite more harassment and take the focus off our good work in the community,” said Kris Worrell, editor-in-chief of The Virginian-Pilot and Daily Press. “Sharing this story in a journalism publication with others who have likely experienced the same treatment seemed like a better option. … As a woman who has worked in this business for more than 30 years, I’m familiar with the way some people target us in the media — an issue that has intensified in recent years. But I also don’t want the trolls to silence us or make our journalists second-guess themselves or the important stories they cover.”

Ana Ley, who covers state government for The Pilot but until recently was the Portsmouth city hall reporter, was born in Mexico. She became a citizen in 2018. As long as she’s been a reporter, through stints at newspapers in Texas, Las Vegas and now Virginia, she says she’s dealt with racism and aggression because she’s a journalist of color and a woman.

Sometimes it takes the form of microaggressions — older white men asking “where you from” then telling her how much they love hot sauce or Mexico. Other times, it’s emails or phone calls claiming her stories are biased and responding to articles about racial disparities by saying people of color are lazy, ignorant and want to live in poverty.

For Ley, it’s all exhausting. The hostility has gotten progressively worse in her time at The Pilot, she said.

“I know there are a lot of readers that appreciate the work that I’m doing and that we are doing as an institution because they’ve told me,” she said. “But I think people tend to react more when they’re upset with something than when they are happy about it, and I don’t think that’s going to change.”

Being the recipient of hate and racism is traumatic and there’s a difference between criticizing the content of a story and directing hateful and racist comments to its subjects or writer, said Elana Newman, the McFarlin Professor of Psychology at the University of Tulsa and research director of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma.

“If a story is wrong, a story is wrong. I don’t at all want to stop that conversation. I think journalists should be held accountable,” she said. “But it’s the manner in which it is done.”

Denise Watson, who is Black, has worked at The Pilot for 30 years. She’s gotten hateful messages time and again, usually when she’s written about issues dealing with race. She’s in the features department and her stories are often about history.

In October 2008, she published a series on the 50th anniversary of the start of school desegregation in Norfolk. Readers posted messages on Facebook spouting hate and claiming the whole thing was part of a plot to elect Barack Obama to the presidency.

“They had to make it into a racist commentary,” she said.

The comments, which were posted anonymously on Facebook at the time, were so bad that then-editorial page writer, Donald Luzzatto, wrote about them days later and criticized The Pilot’s policies on commenting:

“Upright people take responsibility for what they say and do. PilotOnline shouldn’t allow anonymous comments, or ones obscured by a pseudonym. But The Pilot’s online people couldn’t care about the concerns of dead-tree guys like me. We just don’t get new media. Then again, since new media is apparently where people with lousy impulse control write things they’d never say out loud or in public, I figure not ‘getting’ them is fine.”

Facebook comments are no longer anonymous, and the senders of most emails and phone calls can be identified, but that hasn’t stopped the hate. Photos of Pilot reporters usually run at the bottom of their stories. Watson no longer reads the comments. She knows some of the voices who leave phone messages and many of the email addresses. She deletes the emails automatically, not just from her inbox but permanently. She doesn’t want them to show up if she’s searching through her deleted emails.

You can think of the stress hateful responses put on reporters as building over time, Newman said. It’s easier to dismiss or ignore if you’re a straight white man because not much is directed at you. If you’re gay, transgender, a woman or a reporter of color — or any combination of those — you get such messages more, and they become harder to ignore.

“Journalists who represent a minority, whatever group that is — an underrepresented group — are going to have it worse in terms of feedback, and there needs to be a strategy in the newsroom to deal with that,” Newman said. “The person needs their own coping strategies but what is it that the newsroom is going to do? What is it that allies are going to do?”

At The Pilot, there’s been some recent diversity training and “anti-doxing” training to teach reporters how to limit their online profiles so that people can’t find their personal information and harass them.

Worrell said she believed that the company has done a good job of providing training and support for staff who’ve faced harassment.

“My main concern is ensuring the safety of our staff while also working to protect their credibility so they can continue to be effective in the field,” she said.

Trauma can cause reporters to censor themselves — to avoid writing about difficult issues, particularly those dealing with race and inequity, Newman said.

Watson has not shied from writing about issues of race, but she did pass up the opportunity to become a columnist at The Pilot earlier in her career.

She was afraid racists might see her in public and was concerned what might happen next.

“That’s the No. 1 reason I didn’t want to do it,” she said. “Because my face would be in the paper and I did not want people stopping me and being hateful to me when I had my children at the grocery store.”

Ley said she’s seeing a therapist because journalism is a big part of her identity, and the trauma of doing the work is something that stays with her.

“I’m trying to be proactive,” she said. “I recognize this stuff takes a serious toll on us. … I lose a lot of sleep over the stories that I write.”

She is tired of dealing with the hate but doesn’t let it stop her from writing a story that directly and honestly portrays events.

“I’m not gonna hold my punches or hold back on what I perceive to be the truth,” she said. “And I know sometimes that can carry consequences.”

A reaction to shifting power structures

Reporters at The Pilot — no matter their sex or race — have gotten at least a few hateful messages in their time here. Much of it, especially when sent to white men, is because they’ve been writing about race and inequality.

The hate is a reaction to shifting power structures, said Masullo, and reporters’ reaction to it differs depending on their place in those structures.

White men have always had a grip on power in the country. That’s changing, at least somewhat, both because of shifting demographics — the Census projects white Americans will fall below half the population in 2044 — and because of efforts to make the country more equitable for people of color. It scares some white people, Masullo said.

“They feel like they are losing power that they should have, that’s not earned,” she said.

Equality is a lessening of power for white people and that causes some to lash out in hate, she said.

All of the instances of hate examined for this story were directed at people of color. Most of the people who sent the messages could be identified as white. For a few, no determination could be made. None could be identified as people of color.

Alissa Skelton, the city reporter in Virginia Beach, Virginia, said she has friends who work at other publications who get it much worse, with threats of physical violence or exposing their personal information. Still, she said, calls and emails affect her.

“I feel like I’m just kind of like a sponge absorbing all of these hateful and sexist things that people say,” she said. “It feels like harassment.”

Ley believes another reason for the hate is that she has, like many reporters across the country, taken to writing with more authority, especially when it is clear to her that one side’s argument is disingenuous.

She points to her reporting on the charges brought on state Sen. Louise Lucas over the Portsmouth Confederate monument, which caused a stream of hate mail.

Ley said there was a vocal minority of white people who believe Lucas tried to start a riot that day. But Ley was there and she says that’s simply not what happened. She and her editors believed it would have been unfair to Lucas to put in her stories that “some say Lucas tried to start a riot” because that wasn’t the truth. Instead, it was decided to label the claim as “false” in her story.

“I think it would be irresponsible and dangerous to characterize what (Lucas) did as that when that is a flat-out lie. And people don’t like that,” Ley said.

At the time, she and I wrote about how charges have frequently been brought on Portsmouth’s elected Black leaders. It infuriated some, and we both got emails filled with hate. A group online circulated our photos and information about us.

I know when I write about race or police, there’s a good chance someone is going to call me fat on the internet. It doesn’t bother me too much. Usually I joke that it’s nice to be hated by all the right people.

But I’m a white man, and I think my ability to brush it off is a form of white privilege.

I was a little concerned about the photos, but not like Ana.

“That’s when things started getting kind of scary for me,” she said.

Martin said when the hate comes her way, she doesn’t back down. She makes sure whoever sent the message knows she saw it and that what they sent was racist.

“Call me naive, but I do think that me taking that small step can help matters,” she said. “I’m thinking about people coming after me”

She asks herself, what happens if she ignores it? What happens to the Black intern who has to deal with something similar next time?

“What am I doing to help them if I’m just letting this crap fly? No, you’re going to learn today.”

This story was reported and written with help from the Brechner Reporting Fellowship from the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information at the University of Florida.

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Gary Harki is an investigative reporter at The Virginian-Pilot. He spent a year on fellowship at Marquette University investigating the jailing of people with mental…
Gary Harki

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