‘You really have to have a thick skin’

It is frustrating, depressing reading and the subject is uncalled for. The results, if universally applied (or even worse!), are shameful and no doubt indicative of problems existing in other communities too. The issue? Online harassment and abuse metered out to female journalists who are doing their job.
Now, I for one do believe that sometimes the ‘harassment’ and ‘abuse’ cards can be too easily pulled out as a means to silence debate or activity. Equally, I appreciate that there is also a lot of unpleasant activities out there and, if nothing else, we should as a society stop giving oxygen to the ‘irrelevant’ claims so some of the nasty issues get sunlight and hopefully be addressed and removed.

This was an excellent piece of nuanced, relevant research that I cannot imagine was overly pleasant for the (female) researchers to conduct. Even as a reader, at the other end of the chain, it left an impact. I wish it didn’t, and I am not naïve enough to claim that this revelation came as a bolt from the blue. Far from it.

Seventy-five in-depth interviews were conducted with female journalists who have worked in Germany, India, UK, USA and Taiwan. The key findings were that many face or faced ‘rampant, online gendered harassment’ that influenced how they undertook their work. A lot of this harassment came through online engagement with readers, many of whom would comment on articles or via social media with unpleasant, misogynistic and sexually-laden comments. These issues were reported in all geographic areas.

Online engagement is an essential element of most journalists’ work today, and thus such barriers and issues can significantly impact on the ability of female journalists to conduct their craft equally. Attempts have been made to cope and deal with the abuse, necessitating in some cases a change to how they interact, engage and operate. In a just world, this should not be necessary. Reading the research, it did not appear that the journalists were attempting to deflect justified criticism, just the uncalled for abuse that was often personally focussed. Disagree with the message and articulate your concerns, by all means, but attacking the messenger and not the message is out-of-order. As an example, in this review, it would be correct to point out a possible interpretation or calculation error or even to disagree with a finding. To write ‘these women would be better spending their time cleaning the kitchen or prettying themselves up for their husbands, rather than doing complicated man’s research’ or even ‘fu—-g stupid b—h’ without the hyphens) would be entirely and unequivocally wrong.

This is the problem, and something on the whole male journalists do not face. Of course, male journalists do attract a particular type of venom and general abuse from some readers, but it is not of this form and level. Uncalled for abuse to a male reporter, such as ‘Republican shrill’ or ‘stupid liberal pr–k’ is one thing, and not to be admired, but still can be mild(er) than that received and endured by many female journalists. I write this as a middle-aged, white and small C conservative male too, who has a school-age daughter, and I would hate to think she could face this hostility in the future.

Anyway, this article provides a lot of great information, both in the traditional areas such as introduction and literature review, before moving on to a simple, but sufficient research methodology and process. The results and discussion are revealing, but equally, they don’t surprise this reader. ‘We have become an uncivilized society’ is the headline to one finding; this is hard to disagree with, even at a macro level. The details and experiences revealed are essential reading, but something that may (or should) generate anger and rising blood pressure. Some of the strategies deployed by the female reporters, as described, seem straight-forward, but again shouldn’t be necessary. Who the heck, after all, would want to comment about a female journalist’s breasts, and how beautiful they are, on a story about election campaign finance?

It emerged that some cultural differences inhibited, or protected partially, female journalists where there were pressures not to engage or interact with readers, but this is not a solution in itself but possibly just camouflaging a possible trouble source in the future. As the article noted ‘data strongly suggested that the gendered harassment that flourishes on online platforms also was frequent as female journalists attempt to engage in the emerging journalistic routine of reciprocity. Women journalists, for the most part, were expected as part of their jobs to engage with the public in a way that helps both the journalist and the audience. When female journalists did this, they often encountered hateful comments, attacks about how they look or challenges to their value as journalists because they are women.’

The issue goes beyond this though. It is claimed, and it seemed to be merited, that such matters also ‘ thwarted their ability to perform more traditional journalistic routines, such as investigative reporting or covering a topic associated with men, such as cars.’ That, to me, is more important and needs to be addressed, rather than some of the ‘scandals’ that are blowing up presently.

It would have been nice, but perhaps not so easily achieved, to have sought to identify the gender of the abuser. It is known that often female can be a lot ‘harder’ on other female, in some situations, so while a female reader may not comment on a female journalist’s ‘fried eggs’ (lack of breasts), they could equally be capable of damning, vitriol that far exceeds what a male could have considered. To be fair, the article does not focus blame on a specific gender or sub-group, but it could be an attractive area to consider too. Other limitations listed were valid and well-considered, but this does not, I feel, invalidate this research and make it a valuable contribution to the literature going forward. I hope that it can be used as a catalyst for change, some time.

Chen, G.M., Pain, P., Chen, V.Y., Mekelburg, M., Springer, N. and Troger, F., 2018. ‘You really have to have a thick skin’: A cross-cultural perspective on how online harassment influences female journalists. Journalism. doi:10.1177/1464884918768500

A post-publication review of this article that appears on Publons.