July 10, 2023
Also available to subscribers of The Fuller Project newsletter, as seen here.
While a man might be attacked online for his reporting as an “idiot” or “hack,” a woman journalist is more likely to find her face photoshopped onto a sexually explicit image topped off with threats to rape and murder her children, explains Viktorya Vilk, the director of digital safety at PEN America, a group that advocates for free expression.
Journalists who write on controversial themes have long fallen prey to those who want to silence them. Yet experts such as Vilk who study the phenomenon in its online and offline forms say not only are women journalists the dominant targets of these attacks, but they experience them in their most atrocious forms.
Just last month, in the United States, the reporter Lauren Chooljian took the precaution of leaving the state with her family as New Hampshire Public Radio released “The 13th Step,” a podcast series of her extensive investigation into sexual misconduct in the state’s addiction recovery community. Already, vandals had hurled a brick through the window of her home and spray-painted the words “JUST THE BEGINNING” on the exterior wall underneath it. On the doors of the homes of her parents and her editor, the spray-painted message was the c-word.
In Iran, Niloofar Hamedi and Elahel Mohammadi went to trial after eight months in prison on charges they conspired with foreign intelligence agencies to undermine national security. The two Iranian journalists had reported on the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini. Iran’s morality police had detained Amini for violating the country’s dress code.
The websites of PEN America, the Committee to Protect Journalists, the Coalition For Women In Journalism, the Women’s Media Center, The Fuller Project, the Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma and the International Women’s Media Foundation have compiled links to detailed reports about these attacks and to the protective advice and instruction they provide. They describe the reporting that triggers online smear campaigns and their offline extensions, how sexualized these campaigns can be when they involve women, the heavy-handed actions governments take against women reporters, and the bone-chilling impact this can have on a journalist’s ability to work.
Vilk noted the additional burden such attacks can place on women who identify in more than one way – for example, a Black woman journalist who is bombarded online with racist and misogynist abuse and sexually violent threats, while offline she endures the racism and sexism she may encounter in the workplace, in the field, and in her daily life.
The questions left open are why: Why target women journalists particularly when plenty of men do similar work, and why at this particular moment?
The experts point first and foremost to the global resurgence of authoritarian and anti-democratic actors and the misogyny they spawn. Authoritarian waves in Latin America, Europe, and the United States have encouraged attacks on “outsiders,” meaning women, people of color, and the LBGTQ+ – those who do not fit a patriarchal view of who should be doing the talking.
“We see leaders using their bully-pulpits as opportunities to go after women journalists, women of color and other under-represented groups,” said Elisa Lees Muñoz, the executive director of the International Women’s Media Foundation.
The attacks unleash fringe groups who gratuitously jump on the bandwagon – although this leads to a perception of randomness, as if it were the result of mob activity on the internet, it is not. Lees Muñoz mentioned current and former national leaders such as former president Donald Trump, Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, Brazil’s former president Rodrigo Bolsonaro, Mexico’s Andrés Manuel López Obrador and Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India, who have encouraged the targeting of women journalists to discredit and undermine their reporting.
Kiran Nazish of the Coalition For Women In Journalism spoke of how the perception of women as vulnerable widens the avenue for attacks against them. This comes both from outside the industry—the public, politicians and governments—and from inside, when newsrooms are uncooperative or parsimonious with the resources needed to combat targeting when it occurs.
Nazish cited the way that political or economic turmoil in a given country correlates with an increase in attacks on women, which, one government official told her, are effective in creating momentum when governments want to censure the media.
Given the timing of such attacks going back before 2019, I wondered if backlash from the #MeToo movement was a factor in the rise. “This has so many layers,” Nazish said, “everything is interlinked.” She thinks men, the majority of those who troll, have started to panic and feel the need to hold onto their armor.
Beyond a generalized history of struggle for womankind, the difficulties women have experienced as working journalists go back to the beginning of mass media some 180 years ago. They include 130 years of treacly descriptors in print, confinement to the women’s pages for all but the few, denial of opportunity or training for harder, more prestigious assignments, severely limited paths to advancement, and centuries of deeply ingrained beliefs on the part of men that women, because they were women, had limited capabilities, as if the fact of their womanhood was a congenital defect.
The half-life of such attitudes is boundless, as are the hideous places to which that thinking has led and continues to lead.