This piece is part of API’s Research Review series, which highlights academic research that could be relevant and useful to the news industry. We also hope that this series will spark ideas among academics with an interest in researching the news.
Harassment of female television journalists – both online and offline – happens frequently, often daily. Most harassment is perpetuated by strangers. And journalists have had to come up with strategies for the emotional toll the abuse takes.
That’s the assessment of two University of Oregon journalism researchers who interviewed 19 female broadcast journalists working at local TV news stations. The journalists range in age from 23 to 34 with one to 12 years of experience. They are reporters, multimedia journalists, anchors, hosts, or meteorologists.
Doctoral candidate Kaitlin Miller and Associate Professor Seth Lewis, the Shirley Papé Chair in Emerging Media, identified four main types of harassment that women journalists face in public-facing roles and five strategies these journalists use to deal with this problem.
The four types of harassment women journalists face, according to the study, are:
- Online harassment as unwanted sexual advances: The women interviewed report this happens daily and is almost always from men, coming mainly through Facebook comments or direct online messages. It involves repeated requests for sex or dates, images of male genitalia, and comments about a woman’s body.
- Disruptive in-person harassment: This frequent type of harassment includes “whistling, catcalls, shouting phrases such as ‘fake news,’ and making obscene gestures toward journalists,” the authors note.
- Online harassment as threats and criticism: This involves critiques of journalists physically, such as criticism of their hair color or the sound of their voice, as well as threats to their safety. It happens frequently on Facebook or Twitter, according to the women interviewed.
- Physical and abrasive in-person harassment: The harassment involves journalists getting slapped or kicked at live shots, being touched, or having objects are thrown at them. Instances of this type of harassment were less frequent than other types.
Miller and Lewis identified five strategies that the women journalists who were interviewed use to mitigate the emotions they feel after such attacks.
- Remove self from the situation: Particularly when facing in-person harassment, the women’s strategy was to walk away or ask a coworker to accompany them in advance to protect themselves and manage their emotions.
- Feel what they feel: Women let the “frustration and anger at being harassed to be felt and subsequently visible,” the authors write. However, journalists interviewed acknowledged they felt pressure from their supervisors not to make a big deal of the harassment because it’s just “part of ‘being a woman in a man’s world,’” as one woman noted.
- Perspective-taking: For this strategy, the women reframe the situation to give offenders the benefit of the doubt about why they may have acted inappropriately, as a way to diminish their own strong emotional reactions. For example, the women might tell themselves the harasser is an unhappy person or just trying to be funny.
- Boundary-setting: The women journalists report they manage their emotions by establishing boundaries, or rules, to keep emotional distance from offenders. This involves not reading comments or blocking communication from offenders.
- Suppressing emotions: This involves ignoring the harasser and not reacting. The women who employ this strategy report that they felt that if they respond or display their emotions, it might prolong the attack or result in a reprimand from their supervisor.
For women journalists, this study reflects the sobering reality that they are not alone if they encounter harassment. It also shows that this harassment not only changes the way women journalists do their jobs but also has an emotional toll and offers some potential ways that women can deal with the abuse.
A Center for Media Engagement study offers some further suggestions for women journalists on how to deal with these types of harassment, based on interviews with 75 women:
- Use technological tools to lessen the potential for harassment: For example, use Facebook’s word-blocker function to prevent words, such as “sexy,” “hot,” or “boobs,” from being posted on your page by users.
- Vigilant reporting: Be extra careful to portray multiple sides of a story and to quote a range of voices to prevent complaints that may escalate into abuse.
- Prepare yourself emotionally: Prepare yourself after a story that might elicit abuse is published. Try distancing yourself from the aversive comments or waiting to read them until you’re calm.
- Get support from others: Talk to trusted colleagues about the abuse and report it to supervisors. Supervisors should take complaints seriously and report situations to authorities when necessary.
Miller, K.C., & Lewis, S.C. Journalists, harassment, and emotional labor: The case of women in on-air roles at US local television stations. Journalism.