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March 8, 2021updated 30 Sep 2022 10:05am

Female journalists face ‘twice the danger’ of male colleagues

By Charlotte Tobitt

Women journalists endure “twice the danger” of their male colleagues because of the risk of sexist violence both in the field and in their own newsrooms.

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has produced a report on sexism in journalism, defined as all forms of sexist and sexual violence (including verbal and physical threats) to mark International Women’s Day on 8 March.

Some 112 journalists – RSF’s own correspondents and journalists who write about gender issues – in 120 countries filled in a survey about the trends they are seeing.

The group found that all women journalists are concerned and vulnerable –  whether they are on a permanent staff contract, fixed-term or freelance –  although “the more precarious her employment status the less likely she will be able to make her voice heard and defend herself”.

More than two-thirds (71%) were aware of discrimination towards women journalists because of their gender and 73% said most of this behaviour occurs online, making the internet more dangerous than the streets.

Last year 73% of women journalists who participated in a UNESCO and International Center for Journalists survey said they had experienced online violence in the course of their work.

Canadian video games journalist Mary Gushie wrote last month that receiving an extreme amount of harassment had become “the norm” for women journalists and that over her ten-year career she has received “countless death threats, harassment and hurtful comments.

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“At times it was an occasional trolling comment; other times it was dozens of comments ranging from sexism to outright toxicity and hatred,” she wrote. “It appears that when I tailor my content to highlight issues of female representation in the games industry, I receive more hate.”

More than half (58%) told RSF discrimination happens in the newsroom and more than a third (36%) said it happens in the street.

In England, in the past year, two men have been jailed for threatening regional journalist Amy Fenton on Facebook while two female journalists in Belfast, Patricia Devlin and Allison Morris, have been the subject of threats both online and in graffiti form.

Devlin told the BBC: “Male journalists who do the same job as me, who have written closer to the bone about paramilitaries, do not get the same level of abuse. I suppose these people think that these women are an easier target.”

Half told RSF superiors and authorities – including state, police and ruling politicians – were among the perpetrators. Women covering politics, sport and gender issues were identified as some of those most likely to be in the firing line.

Being a member of a minority compounds the risk to female journalists, with 36% of respondents saying racist comments were an additional issue and 36% pointed to lesbophobia. Being a mother also makes women more vulnerable to sexism both within their news organisations and online, the survey found.

[Read more: ‘The same nonsense I was dealing with in 1995’ – Women journalists warn of Covid-19 equality setback]

The most common consequence of sexism and sexual violence is stress, with 79% of survey respondents pinpointing this, followed by anxiety (65%), fear of losing one’s job (54%), and loss of self-esteem (50%) and fear of being killed (49%).

French journalist Julie Hainaut, who has been targeted by far-right activists for three years, said: “The cyber harassment is itself traumatic but what accompanies it is also at least as shocking –the deafness on the part of the state and judicial system, the lack of support and silence on the part of your editors and the people around you, who blame you for being a victim.

“I am disturbed by the suggestions that you should just turn off your computer or that ‘it’s just insults and threats’.”

Professionally, self-censorship appeared to be the most prevalent consequence according to 48% of the RSF respondents.

Also, more than a third (38%) said women lose motivation to work and 22% pointed to women closing their social media accounts and/or leaving professional networks.

Speaking at the TUC Women’s Conference last week, National Union of Journalists national executive member Natasha Hirst said that when women journalists are forced to withdraw from online platforms their voice is being silenced, meaning all our rights and freedoms are compromised.

“Online abuse of journalists is highly gendered and is a form of discrimination and violence against women,” she said. “It’s intersectional too, with black women journalists being especially targeted.”

An emergency NUJ motion passed at the conference said: “Such attacks not only harm the individuals concerned but also normalise and legitimise the harassment of journalists at work which is highly damaging to the critical role that journalism plays in our democracy.”

The RSF survey found an unsatisfactory internal response to reported incidents, with 61% of people saying there had not been any specific response from the relevant news organisation. Some 9% said a good conduct charter or code had been established.

[Read more: Guidance to protect journalists from online abuse calls for ‘culture of safety’ in newsroom]

The campaign group made a number of recommendations for news organisations included developing mechanisms, such as a monitoring unit and naming an internal point person, to support and protect women journalists who have been victims of any harassment or sexist or sexual violence.

They should also create an emergency internal mechanism to respond to
threats and sexist attacks online, whether by means of online content moderation or by providing psychological or legal support to the woman being targeted.

Picture: Shutterstock

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