Women in public-facing journalism jobs are exhausted by harassment

The Cohort is a Poynter newsletter about women kicking ass in digital media.

When Megan Greenwell started as Deadspin’s editor in chief in February, she knew some things would change as she took on the inherently more public role. The first place she saw the difference was that her Twitter mentions were much more hostile. 

Any female journalist can validate that she’s not alone. A think tank in the United Kingdom found that female journalists received three times as much abuse on Twitter as their male colleagues.

The war against the press led by President Trump may be amplifying the issue. The harassment extends from individual women to their family and friends, and it has the potential to drive female journalists to spend less time engaging with audiences or into different careers. Some newsrooms have been making an effort to better protect women online, but there’s still work to be done in taking this daily hassle for many female journalists seriously.

The frustrating aspect of this abuse for many female journalists is that the negative feedback is not usually about their work. Recent research from University of Texas Center for Media Engagement found this abuse is more likely to be based on their gender or sexuality. 

Liz Plank, a senior producer, correspondent and host at Vox and past guest writer of this newsletter, said the attacks are mostly personal. 

“Men get attacked for their opinions, and women get attacked because they have opinions,” Plank said, noting these attacks are worse for women of color and LGBTQ journalists. “I love being criticized for my arguments. I welcome that and love to be challenged, but most of the negative comments have nothing to do with the argument that I’m making.” 

Plank’s work as a video host on Divided States of Women means her work often includes her opinions and voice as she digs into controversial issues that affect women, aiming to disrupt the notion that there is a singular female stance. But these personal attacks are also leveled against unbiased reporting. Taylor Lorenz, a staff writer at The Atlantic, often felt like a scapegoat while covering politics. 

“I don’t ever talk about my political beliefs. I worked for The Hill, which is a very neutral publication. I don’t get into fights. I don’t block people,” Lorenz said. “And even then, I get these people attacking me constantly, and attacking me over dumb stuff. People pile on and criticize me.” 

Lorenz said she was locked out of her Instagram account for 24 hours last summer because people were reporting everything she posted as spam. 

It’s not uncommon for the harassment to extend to family and friends. When Lorenz tweeted a photo of her best friends and tagged them, they also got tagged in the replies where men’s rights activists criticized them for being an all-female group on New Year’s Eve. And when she was reporting the Pamela Geller story, people posted her parents’ address, harassed her relatives and created a website critiquing her. 

“They threatened to show up at the hospital my aunt worked at, but as far as I know, no one actually showed up,” she said. 

Greenwell’s mom found the harassment in a less direct way. 

“My mother got a Google alert for a story that was literally just about how ugly I am,” she said, referring to a post published by Barstool Sports’ founder. 

Tanzina Vega, host of WNYC’s The Takeaway, said we can’t discount the current political climate that is so hostile toward journalism. 

While stepping away for a few hours or days can be helpful for mental health, simply quitting social media is not an option for most journalists for many reasons.  

One of those reasons, Vega said, is that Trump is tweeting all the time. Last fall, the Columbia Journalism Review interviewed journalists who felt tied to Twitter because of Trump administration updates and insights into the president’s thinking. It’s also a top place for networking and personal brand building.

The conflicting truth is that many journalists actually want to engage with their audiences. Lorenz said that she’s eager for feedback on her work, but she doesn’t get many constructive comments. 

“Most of the hate I get is very sexist,” she said. “There’s no way to really respond to it. That’s just a problem with being a woman online — or a woman in life.” 

Engaging with audiences is layered. Are they there to learn or to yell? How much back and forth are you willing to do? How long will this explanation take? 

“You have to be efficient with your time and your energy,” Vega said. “You are also a person… We need time off, we need to eat well and take time to exercise and do the things that human beings need to do in order to stay functioning.” 

Lynn Walsh, the project manager for the Trusting News project, said it’s important to distinguish between comments that are frustrating or annoying versus credible threats. 

“If someone is leaving you threatening messages, whether that’s in person, in a letter, in a voicemail or online, alert your editors and your managers immediately,” said Walsh, who has a decade of experience as an investigative journalist on television.  

Female journalists commonly censor private details shared on social media as a tool to minimize trolling and protect their personal safety.  

A few years ago, ABC News correspondent Janai Norman posted a photo of her and her dog at the beach on her work Facebook page. A man saw that photo and found them on the beach. That experience, she said, made her realize that she needed to be more careful about what she posted so she didn’t end up in a dangerous situation. It also led her to carefully construct her online rules for her growing family. 

“You will not find a picture of our son on social media, not on my page, not on my husband’s, not at all. That is 100 percent intentional,” she said of her almost seven month old. “I know some local news anchors who are very open about posting about their kids, their faces, their names, and having seen that, it always made me uncomfortable. You have such high visibility in a specific market. Someone could literally spot your kid at the store, know their name and come up to them.” 

Plank, who has more than 100,000 Twitter followers, agrees. 

“I think twice about posting private things about my life that I didn’t use to think twice about,” Plank said. “It’s made me very self-aware and self-censor myself in ways that I think aren’t always positive. I am aware that I could say the wrong thing or post the wrong thing and there could be bigger consequences than there used to be.” 

Norman said she has previously worked in newsrooms with quotas for engaging with audiences on social media, and she’s grateful she no longer has those expectations now that she has a son. 

“I don’t know how I would handle it at this point if that were the case,” she said. 

Walsh said newsrooms are getting better at supporting journalists dealing with online harassment, but it’s a slow cultural shift.

“Sometimes we have maybe not recognized that the issue is as serious as it is… If your safety is being threatened, if they are threatening you or your family, if they are threatening you personally or saying derogatory things, I think that should be taken very seriously,” Walsh said.

A deterrent women face from reporting the abuse, Walsh said, is they fear their male bosses won’t understand since research shows that men and women receive different kinds of online harassment. Given that the 2017 ASNE diversity report showed that women make up less than 40 percent of newsroom leaders, this poses a large problem. She encourages female journalists to document everything, take screenshots and find allies in their newsrooms to report the harassment to. 


More from Poynter: ASNE's latest diversity survey shows some progress, but newsrooms are still mostly white and male


Most newsrooms Walsh has worked with have procedures for dealing with online harassment, and sometimes that means bringing in private investigators or the police. Police rarely take action on reports about online abuse, partly because what is deemed a credible threat is subjective, so it’s even more important for employers to keep women safe. 

Newsroom leaders are often dealing with their own abuse while trying to manage the harassment their staff receives. 

“I think the most important role of an editor in chief in general is to advocate for and stand up for your people,” Greenwell said. “To me, that doesn’t mean fighting back at every Twitter egg who says something uncomfortable, but it does mean that when there are more prominent people with bigger followings saying things that are harassing or incorrect, I don’t feel like I can let that stand.” 

One way that Lorenz is trying to minimize the harassment is by auto-deleting her tweets. She said that before she started auto-deleting her tweets a few years ago, she received a lot of replies to older tweets. 

“It shortens the lifespan of harassment,” she said. 

Lorenz said she receives some backlash for deleting tweets after two weeks, but she thinks this is the direction social media is headed. 

“I think there used to be this notion that to delete something, you were ashamed of it or ashamed of it on record. I think that’s completely changed,” she said. “I think there’s a huge move to ephemeral media, obviously Snapchat led the way and now with Instagram Stories. All of this stuff auto-deletes. People recognize this natural atrophy that should happen with content. It shouldn’t necessarily be permanent. It’s not because you are ashamed of it, but it’s because the context is lost.” 

Vega encourages both reporters and audiences to remember they don’t have to respond right away. 

“I think there’s a lot of room for reflection, both for journalists and media consumers. Maybe you don’t have to jump on that thing right that second. You can think about what it is that you want to say and be more thoughtful in your response,” she said.  

Some women said this harassment made them question if they should leave media, and in some cases, it led to other jobs. Lorenz covered politics for two years, and after she was assaulted while covering the Charlottesville protest, she started applying to technology reporting jobs. 

“The audiences are radically different,” Lorenz said. “I still get a lot of harassment, but it’s hugely different. People aren’t making burner accounts to tell me that I’m wrong about an Instagram feature or make a burner account because they didn’t like something that I wrote about a small tech thing. …  I am really happy with my beat now, just in the sense that I see a lot less harassment. Day to day, I’m not getting people attacking me.”

For most, though, it just means less time online. 

“I definitely miss when Twitter was a place that I was primarily finding interesting articles to read and bantering with people I respect,” Greenwell said. “It does not feel that way to me anymore, and as a result, I spend a lot less time on Twitter. I now dip in and out when I have something to say, but I really don’t spend much time on there on weekends or evenings anymore. It feels exhausting in a way that it didn’t before.” 

Women's perspectives and contributions to online conversations have led to massive changes in culture, activism and politics. #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo are only two of the most famous examples. When women are forced to leave online spaces, their voices are lost.


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