Ask any female journalist about harassment or safety while on assignment and they’ll likely have a story to tell.
When I surveyed female and gender non-conforming journalists in the U.S. and Canada earlier this year about their views and experiences, the respondents recalled unwanted sexual advances, explicit voicemails threatening rape or violence, and how threats from an angry reader exposed a newsroom’s lack of emergency planning. Respondents also spoke of the toll to mental health from dealing with such attacks.
The survey—part of my research as CPJ’s James W. Foley Fellow—aimed to highlight the main issues and inform new guidance as part of CPJ’s Emergencies Department’s safety kit of resources for journalists out in the field.
Based on the survey’s findings, CPJ has released additional safety guidance on how to better protect yourself online, including ways to remove personal information from the internet to help prevent being doxed: the public release of personal information such as phone numbers or addresses that makes it easier to identify and harass someone; information for journalists who work alone; and advice on how to protect your mental health in the event of an online attack.
The survey found:
- 85% of respondents believed journalists had become less safe in past five years
- Less than half (44%) had received safety training
- Online harassment was cited as the biggest threat by 90% of respondents in the U.S. and 71% in Canada
- More than 70 percent said they had experienced safety issues/threats in the U.S. or Canada, with verbal harassment, followed by online harassment the most common types
- Journalists across a range of beats received threats, but the harassment was more severe and sustained for those covering local or national politics, or extremism
The responses back up findings by CPJ and other press freedom organizations about how female journalists face the brunt of harassment. They also shine a light on risks for reporters in two countries not traditionally viewed as hostile to the press, and how many journalists feel their newsrooms are ill-equipped to help plan for and deal with threats.
Many respondents said they wanted their colleagues and managers to understand the impact of the harassment. One online reporter responded to the survey, saying, “The threats follow us home.” Another simply wanted her colleagues to know “that it is happening.”
The survey was distributed widely over five weeks via email, CPJ’s newsletter, The Torch, partner organizations, and social media. In total, 115 journalists—with experience ranging from six months to 37 years in journalism—responded. Fifty percent were in staff positions and 33 percent were freelance. The rest were a mix of contractors, journalism professors and academics, or student journalists. Around half were online reporters, but photographers, producers, editors, broadcast reporters, social media editors, publishers, and news directors also responded.
The findings can be explored in-depth in this infographic.
Extracts from survey responses and follow up interviews with some of the journalists on Digital, Physical, and Psychological safety are included below. Some names are withheld to protect the respondents from further harassment.
"I wish my male coworkers knew how prevalent this issue is—that just being a woman on the internet makes you a target."
Survey response: Wisconsin-based online reporter
Online harassment was identified as the biggest issue for journalists, with threats of violence or harm coming from trolls, the public, and readers, listeners and viewers. The harassment ranged from unsolicited sexual messages on social media platforms to threats of violence, rape, and death.
“Sources would contact me through social media to ask me out on dates, on top of the usual harassment through Facebook comments,” Lauren, an online and print reporter based in New England, told me. She asked to be identified by her first name only to protect her privacy. “It’s hard for women to deal with harassment in any setting because we’re socialized to be ‘nice'. There’s also the threat of losing a source if you call them out on their behavior. We have to suck it up a lot of the time.”
Like many of the respondents, Lauren, who covers local government, education, and business, said she has stopped using social media. She removed herself from Facebook, personally and professionally, to distance herself from the “animosity I faced when I would post stories and videos.”
The survey’s findings on online harassment reflect research by other non-profit groups. A December 2018 study by Amnesty International and Element AI, a global artificial intelligence software company, found that female journalists are targeted because of their gender and face the brunt of anonymous, sexualized violence. Similarly, a 2018 report from the International Women’s Media Foundation found that online attacks against journalists have “become more visible and coordinated in the past five years.”
CPJ’s survey found that the online threats often accompanied or implied plans to attack a journalist in real-life. A New York City-based reporter, who covers the extreme right and technology, said in the survey that a man listed as attending a far-right march attempted to enter her workplace. In a separate incident, men speaking on a radio show associated with a large white supremacist forum broadcast threats to murder her, saying if she attended an upcoming rally she would leave in a “body bag,” she told me.
Another survey respondent said that “digital security threats are the scariest part of being a woman in journalism right now.” An online and broadcast general assignment reporter, also based in New York, said in the survey that she was terrified of being doxed after covering a story about an American conspiracy theory known as "QAnon." (The FBI recently said conspiracy theories like QAnon constituent a domestic terrorist threat.) The reporter said that she turned to other journalists rather than her newsroom for advice on how to protect herself online. The survey found that journalists want their employers to take online threats seriously and to offer more frequent digital safety training. While the reporters acknowledged not much could be done about online harassment, some said it should be recognized as an occupational hazard.
“It's scary being a journalist these days. I am legitimately scared sometimes going out in public or having to identify myself as a member of the media.”
Survey response: New York-based journalist
Part of the risk to journalists in the U.S. comes from a shrinking news industry. CNN reported that about 1,000 journalists were laid off at the start of this year, and the Pew Research Center found in July 2018 that newsroom jobs had shrunk by 23 percent in the past 10 years. The result is that news organizations are doing more with less resources. That’s on top of the existing threat to reporters’ physical safety from the public, sources, or colleagues.
In response to questions about threatening situations the journalists had found themselves in, and gaps in protection for the press, several respondents said that President Donald Trump’s repeated anti-press rhetoric and use of phrases such as “enemy of the people” and “fake news” makes them feel like there’s a target on their back. Suzy Pietras-Smith, who has worked as a reporter and photographer for 20 years, said in the survey that the biggest gap in her safety is “the Trump administration making it OK to harass us.” This is compounded by the threats that come from being a female journalist often reporting alone in public. Hannah Gaber, a photographer and producer based in Washington, D.C., recalled covering a Trump rally in Phoenix, Arizona, during his presidential run. She said then-candidate Trump pointed at the media in the back and repeatedly told the crowd “to ‘remember our faces,’ and that we deserve terrible things to happen to us because of our being journalists.”
“Just before it ended, he turned the crowd around to us one more time, told them once again to take a very good look at us, said how great it was that everyone there loved the Second Amendment, and then ended the rally, at which point those journalists then had to wade into the crowd, many having to then ask for interviews,” Gaber said.
Inflammatory political rhetoric combined with a declining public trust in journalism—a 2018 Knight Foundation poll found that 69 percent of the public said their trust in the press has fallen—adds to their sense of threat. “Trust has eroded in journalism so extremely that the view that once protected journalists of ‘you're telling our story’ no longer exists, and instead they are targets,” a Washington, D.C.-based multimedia journalist said in the survey.
The respondents said they worried about a perceived lack of concern in newsrooms around the risk of attack, particularly after the June 2018 shooting in the Capital Gazette newsroom in Annapolis, Maryland. A Los Angeles-based reporter, who covers religious issues, said in the survey that a major gap in her physical safety comes from “editors who do not… have a plan of action about a violent person showing up to our newsroom, or how to deal with harassment when on assignment.”
A Connecticut-based breaking news reporter, said, “Our company doesn’t have any way to escape if someone came to shoot up our newsroom—which was a very serious threat we had one day. No back entrance. Nowhere to hide. No windows we can even open.” She added: “I’m still scared when I leave the newsroom at the end of my shift at around 10 p.m. or 11 p.m. that [the man who threatened the newsroom] will just be outside one day.”
While some newsrooms do provide U.S.-based training, less than half of the respondents said they had received safety or security training. While physical, digital, and psychological safety training was generally well-received and considered helpful, those who were able to access or afford it in the U.S. and Canada said the focus was on hostile environments or conflict settings. The threat of journalists being attacked in their home countries was perceived as unlikely.
Yasmine El-Sabawi, a broadcast producer based in Washington, D.C. said in the survey that the safety training she received wasn’t practical “because nobody thought you could be that threatened in this country… [journalist safety] wasn't even perceived to be a problem in America.”
Respondents said they were often reluctant to tell anyone they had been sexually harassed or singled out at a political rally, for fear of being thought of as weak, sensitive, or unable to handle their job. The loss of desirable future assignments, where the same thing might happen, was another reason that respondents stated for staying silent.
“It made me anxious, nervous, mad, scared to do my job. It made me think I was bad at my job. I didn't seek emotional care resources.”
Survey response: New York City-based legal reporter
Many journalists discussed the toll of trying to work amid a climate of frequent online harassment and attacks or abuse while on assignment. Nearly one-third said they have dealt with psychological threats. Many described feelings of anxiety, nervousness, paranoia, and fear either after an attack, or while anticipating one.
While some reporters and photographers said they were able to brush off threats as part of their job, others said they were more deeply affected. Several journalists said risks to their safety, including being threatened over the phone and sexual harassment, led them to seek professional care. However, many noted the prohibitive cost of accessing that help. Freelancers in particular said they were unable to access adequate mental health care.
One reporter said in the survey that she was targeted online and doxed after covering a city council meeting following the officer-involved-death of a black teenager. Her information and that of her family were published online. At the time she was a student journalist. The journalist said she was called a “protester” and a “liar” for sharing quotes and photos from the meeting.
“It stuck with me for a long time. I was nervous about posting anything online, I was nervous to continue reporting. I couldn't sleep well and couldn't function in my classes,” she said. “As a student newspaper, we didn't have access to any additional mental health resources other than what the university offered, which wasn't much.”
A U.S.-based reporter, who said she regularly deals with threats and abuse, recalled the impact of having to listen to abusive comments. “I had to spend most of the day in bed after listening to a five-minute conversation about how unpleasant but necessary a task raping me would be,” she said in the survey. The reporter said that as part of her research while reporting on the extreme right, she has to listen to neo-Nazi and extreme right-wing podcasts, and has heard multiple descriptions and conversations about sexually assaulting and murdering her.
In one of the more extreme examples cited in the survey, a writer said that she and her husband not only had to change their daily routines to avoid an attack, but moved house after being doxed.
As with the digital and physical threats, many journalists said they felt their psychological concerns were not taken seriously. Instead, they were often interpreted by colleagues and bosses as a badge of honor.
“There’s a poisonous bravado in too many newsrooms where, in response to stories of harassment, you get a pat on the back for having experienced something,” Anna Hiatt, a journalist who covers trauma and the military, said in the survey. “I’d rather take my concerns to a group of people or a mental health professional whom I trust to work through those instances of harassment and abuse with care and sensitivity.”