A recently released report titled “Social Media and Online Hostility,” following a research report by Dr Dawn Wheatley, highlights the distressing online abuse encountered by women in journalism. The report is based on interviews of 36 national-level female journalists and 40 student journalists, revealing social media as an indispensable tool for gathering news and gauging public opinion. According to the study, female journalists in Ireland face up to 15 types of harassment, including online and stalking on the streets.
The report also highlighted that although both male and female journalists can experience abuse, the gendered aspect of the hostility creates more of an issue for women in the newsroom.
Aggressive or sexually violent language or images, filming or photographing on-street incidents, and ridiculing online, accusations of bias or purporting “fake news”, and “pile-ons” were among the hostility experienced by Irish female journalists. Most reported gendered insults and threats related to their appearance attempts to discredit their professionalism, or comments that included outright sexual undertones. The report outlined 15 types of encounters that include unwanted sexual or romantic propositions, comments on appearance, violent language, threats to journalists’ safety, and general anti-journalist sentiment or targeting based on the nature of the story written.
Certain subjects such as stories about Traveller issues, immigration, sport and politics typically result in negative engagement. Online abuse can come in “waves” depending on what is being discussed or the news cycle. Some respondents noted the COVID-19 pandemic was a turning point, while others highlighted the abortion referendum. The negative experiences of journalists ranged from minor critiques to sexualized comments, outright threats, and concerns for their physical safety when online harassment crossed into “real life.” Despite the negative experiences, the journalists remained broadly committed to their chosen career. Ultimately, female journalists’ negative experiences could have a chilling effect on women in the field.
The report recommends that employers be proactive and ensure staff are prepped for online negativity and that clear support is given especially in newsrooms. The report’s interviewees came from various publications, including RTÉ, Virgin Media, BBC Northern Ireland, and several Irish publications.