Female journalists face violent abuse online. Journalism and democracy are losing out

The New Federalist attended the World Forum for Democracy 2019, which took place at the Council of Europe in Strasbourg 6th-8th November. The following article was inspired by the session “Violence and Bias: Gender Inequalities in Journalism”.

, by Madelaine Pitt

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Female journalists face violent abuse online. Journalism and democracy are losing out
The World Forum for Democracy is annual event with brings together journalists, politicians, researchers, students and citizens to debate issues related to democracy. Image credit: the author

Twenty years ago, a discontented recipient of a news story might have cursed at the TV or written a cross letter to the editor. Nowadays, they reach for their smartphone. It’s instant, easy and practically anonymous. And it has helped magnify the exisiting issue of gender inequality in journalism.

Consuming and complaining in the digital age

Information technology has teamed up with social media to tighten the relationship and heighten the proximity between the media and consumers, creating conversations and fostering debate. Yet the possibility for readers and viewers to make their complaints known to the world in 140 characters while shielded safely behind a screen is a trapdoor to less pleasant areas of the Internet in which not all users limit themselves to constructive commentary.

It is crucial to acknowledge that male and female journalists are targets of online abuse in very different ways.

Speaking at the World Forum for Democracy, Barbara Trionfi, Executive Director of the International Press Institute (IPI), presented the organisation’s latest research on this topic. The final report, which was published in June 2019, involved over 100 editors and journalists working across 45 newsrooms in 5 EU countries.

Although the aim had initially been to make recommendations to media organisations and governments with regard to tackling online abuse received by journalists, the difference in quantity and nature of the abuse according to the gender of the journalist was so great that it became the central finding of the study.

When male journalists receive abuse, it mostly criticises their professional capacities. Female journalists are not only targeted much more often, but the abuse is often more vicious, more personal and frequently sexual in nature. Trionfi emphasised that this is a reflection of existing prejudices in society, which are not only amplified but reinforced by social media.

When the virtual becomes physical

Online harassment is not taken seriously enough. Firstly, the legal processes available are slow and unwieldy, and unlikely to result in action. Secondly, online attacks are an indication of a potential physical threat. The Guardian’s Owen Jones has long suffered huge amounts of hatred online and was then assaulted in London of August of this year. The Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, who was murdered while investigating government corruption, was attacked online for months before she was killed. Thirdly, the type and quantity of abuse risks worsening the already imbalanced ratio of men to women in the newsroom, disproportionately discouraging women.

Editors are inclined to see men as tougher and more capable of withstanding online harassment – not necessarily understanding that women on average receive much worse abuse than their male colleagues. If editors do become aware of this disparity, they are still more likely to hire male journalists as a means of reducing the amount of abuse received by their staff.

A vicious circle is triggered. Female journalists express more interest in covering gender issues, LGBTQ+ issues and migration issues than male journalists, and these subjects are more likely to result in attacks irrespective of the gender of the journalist. The combination of these factors ultimately leads to a less balanced workforce of journalists covering a less balanced range of issues in a less balanced manner.

Implications for democracy

Where female reporters are squeezed out of journalism through the virtual or physical attacks which make them less likely to be hired, the quality of journalism suffers. Not only does the industry lose skills and talent, but this loss makes it less capable of holding the government to account – particularly on issues of minority rights that female journalists are more apt to cover.

Is there an antidote? The IPI’s report recommends that training and support systems be put in placing for dealing with abuse, as well as risk assessments of physical threats and psychological impact (which are not necessarily correlated). However, this is treating the symptoms and not the cause. The Internet is only a magnifying glass for underlying sexism in society, and sexism in journalism masks incentives to maintain an unequal status quo.

Attacking any journalist in a way that reflects their personal characteristics rather than the quality of their work, using violent rhetoric intended to silence rather than critique, is an attack on journalism. Trionfi rightly emphasised that attacking a female journalist is an attack on journalism. Daphne Caruana Galizia was not murdered because she was a woman. She was murdered because she mattered, because she used her journalistic skills to try to fight corruption and achieve justice. Female journalists do not receive online abuse because they are women, but because they represent and advocate change.

Fighting violence, bias and gender inequality in the media is fundamental for journalism, for democracy and for equality. We will all lose out if we don’t.

You can follow Barbara Trionfi on Twitter @barbara_trionfi and read more about the International Press Institute here.

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