MediaSeptember 6, 2017

‘Why do I have to put up with this shit?’ Women journalists in NZ share their stories of online abuse


As newsrooms push for their reporters and audiences to engage with each other on digital platforms, some women journalists say gendered harassment and abuse from media consumers has become an exhausting, and accepted, part of the job. Charlotte Graham investigates.

I have worked in broadcast journalism for more than a decade, including in on-air roles, and I didn’t know gendered harassment was the name for a particular sort of feedback I got. I just assumed, when I was 20 and starting out and sometimes got these vicious, awful emails and texts, that people found my voice disproportionately annoying and me disproportionately stupid. Upon reflection this made no sense, but it wasn’t until I started comparing notes with other women in broadcasting that I realised it wasn’t a coincidence. Emails like this one also removed some of the mystery.

Praise for the author.

Most of this sort of feedback doesn’t upset me anymore; in fact, I barely even notice it. Occasionally it’s funny. But the more I thought about it, the more it seemed unfair that coming under attack from listeners simply for being a woman, should be considered the cost of doing business. Even if you didn’t mind it, it was a tax on your time, energy and resources that men doing the job didn’t have to pay.

When undertaking my Master’s of Journalism this year, I decided to investigate the impact of harassment across digital platforms on high profile women in broadcast journalism. The first thing I had to prove was whether this was even a real problem. Doing so wasn’t hard; analysis showed very clearly that negative feedback about women broadcasters mentioned their gender far more often than negative feedback about men did. When gender was mentioned, it was often the only point of the message; those criticising men were more likely to take issue with the content of their journalism.

But what was of much more interest to me, and where I expended most of my research energy, was how the women felt about gendered harassment, and what newsrooms were doing about it. I had the chance to talk to some of New Zealand’s highest profile broadcast journalists, many of whom are friends or former colleagues, and not all of whom are named here. From many hours of material I gathered over several months, these are some of their stories.

Sitting at the presenter’s on-air desk at a radio station in 2017 is exciting; the cut and thrust of the morning, everything happening at once, before most people have even had their breakfast. Through their headphones, the show’s host can hear both the guest they’re interviewing and the studio producer giving them cues.

The next guest is late. We’re crossing to London after this.

On the screen in front of the host, news alerts from around the world roll in. Instant messages from producers next door in the newsroom keep them across the story as it changes. Increasingly often, they’re watching the listeners react in real time. Text messages, emails, and tweets auto-update on the screen. Often, it’s incredibly helpful, being able to take the pulse of the nation while an interview is still on air.

Other times, a host is midway through interviewing the prime minister and can see, in real time, that a listener has texted to tell them they’re a stupid bitch.

Susie Ferguson is a veteran journalist, former war correspondent, and co-host of Radio New Zealand’s Morning Report. She says a text comes in calling her a “silly girl” or a “stupid bitch” about once a week. More specific abusive feedback tends to come in clusters based on the story being discussed.

It surprised Ferguson, when she started reading the messages sent to Morning Report, how many took issue with her gender.

“Eventually I thought, why do I have to put up with this shit myself?” she said. “Why should I be the one going away at the end of the programme feeling like crap having all these bloody woman-haters on me all morning?”

A year ago, Ferguson tried an experiment, posting the contents of an abusive text message – with the sender’s identifying details removed – on her Twitter account. The response from her followers was overwhelming. People were shocked that this kind of feedback was standard, and they enjoyed mocking what the man had said.  

“It’s such a great way to take the heat and the angst and the hurt out of it, being funny about it,” Ferguson said. “Why should the people saying those things have any power over me?”

Ferguson now tweets examples of gendered feedback regularly. And while she has found a way to make it funny, experts say that globally, sexist abuse of women journalists on digital platforms is no laughing matter.

Elisa Lees Muñoz is the head of the International Women’s Media Federation, a Washington DC-based advocacy organisation for women journalists. She believes online harassment and abuse of female reporters online will soon be the biggest problem Western newsrooms face, if it isn’t already.

Lees Muñoz tells stories from around the world where online abuse has spilled into terrifying real-life encounters; in some countries, women are targeted just for working as journalists and their families vilified.

None of the women I spoke to for this story suggested their situations were similar to those Lees Muñoz described, although as I discovered, it is easy enough for the lines between on and offline to blur. But Susie Ferguson has been a war reporter; she’s literally been shot at. And she’s not saying that’s comparable to getting regular text messages calling her a bitch, but it’s completely understandable that she would prefer not to be attacked anywhere, at all, and that accumulated, it can have an effect.

Elisa Lees Munoz. Photo: Bryan Bedder – Getty Images

Elisa Lees Muñoz is clear that even when the abuse stays online, media employers need to take responsibility for protecting their reporters.

“Newsrooms should have the same responsibility for their journalists online as they would for journalists they’re sending into conflict zones,” she said. “They should get training, psychological support and legal support, to combat the effects of it,” she said.

While don’t read the comments is an adage for the digital age, for Radio New Zealand’s community engagement editor, Megan Whelan, and her deputy, Leilani Momoisea, reading the comments is in their job descriptions. The pair sees every post, tweet, email or text made to the public broadcaster’s programmes or pages.

Both are experienced journalists, with a couple of decades’ experience between them; Whelan is also a regular fill-in host on RNZ. She said that even more than stories addressing race, news about the gender pay gap is what draws the most negative feedback to RNZ’s page.

Whelan and Momoisea often give commenters a link to RNZ’s feedback policy if they are in breach of it. Whelan said all comments have to be manually checked and approved on stories about two particular female politicians – both National Party MPs – because abusive posts about the pair are so prevalent and so appalling that RNZ can’t risk allowing comments unfiltered.

Once a comment thread descends into sexist abuse, women stop leaving comments on that thread entirely, Whelan says. She wants the public discourse to be for everyone; she doesn’t want women to self-censor in the comments because they’re scared of getting attacked. That goal requires round the clock moderation; she regularly checks her phone late at night, or while out socialising.

Following RNZ’s 9th Floor interview series with former prime ministers earlier this year, Whelan conducted an analysis of the Facebook comments on each episode. One abusive comment was posted about each of Mike Moore, Jim Bolger, and Sir Geoffrey Palmer, calling them things like “boring” or “idiots.” But Dame Jenny Shipley’s interview led to more than 60 abusive messages, using words like bitch, vile hag, and patronising c**t.

Katie Bradford. Photo: supplied

A number of the women interviewed for this piece suggested Facebook comments on news stories were the source of most abusive or gendered remarks. TVNZ is now among the newsrooms choosing to broadcast some crosses straight onto social media using Facebook Live, where the journalist sitting in front of the computer, filing the live report, is able to watch comments appear on screen as they’re posted.

In a recent Facebook Live stream in which Katie Bradford – a journalist of 14 years experience – and her male colleague Corin Dann talked politics, viewers discussed amongst themselves how to “fix” Bradford’s hair. Almost 9,000 people watched the video. Bradford said she received frequent comments about her looks, both online and off.

I was eager to speak to Kristin Hall, the former Seven Sharp reporter who turned her final months into the show into a heroic crusade for cheaper tampons. I’d assumed her enthusiasm for taking GST off sanitary products would’ve made her a target for harassment, but she said that wasn’t how it worked. The tampon stuff went over fine, she said. The real issues came when promo pictures for relatively innocuous stories were posted on the show’s Facebook page. A picture of her in a bikini top doing a cross about Wellington’s terrible summer weather garnered an abusive Facebook comment about her body. She’s tough, but she has also recovered from an eating disorder and she said the remark stung.

Kristin Hall. Photo: supplied

A number of journalists interviewed were shocked by the level of vitriol on Facebook, particularly because commenters usually use their real name and profile picture, and others can see them making the comments.

Most journalists spoken to for this story were in no doubt that the phenomenon of gendered feedback is a real one. Both Megan Whelan, and Morning Report’s Susie Ferguson, recognised that programmes fronted by women, or featuring women interviewing other women, seemed to provoke the worst comments. In 2016, Ferguson co-hosted Morning Report for brief stints with fellow veteran broadcaster, Kim Hill. The show was praised in many quarters, but Ferguson says there was gendered criticism too.

“We do get ‘feminazis’ a lot, even more in the past year, really,” Ferguson said. “I just think in 2017 it’s such a weird idea, that having two women present a show is something that people would even comment on.”

Megan Whelan found the same effect recently when she filled in for a few days for fellow broadcaster Jim Mora on RNZ’s drive-time show, The Panel. Each day the show brings on two commentators to discuss the day’s news, and one day Whelan hosted the show with two female commentators.

It was believed to be the first all-female show in The Panel’s history and the listeners noticed. While some enjoyed the change, others took issue.

“A bloody teenage gigglefest,” texted one listener. “We don’t need a bunch of old girls chewing the fat and gossiping,” said another. “God you women can talk some f**ken bullshit,” Mike texted. None of those who took issue with the gender of those fronting the show mentioned any particular content or opinion that angered them – just who was doing the talking.    

For a number of the high-profile broadcast journalists interviewed for this story, blowing off steam to colleagues or partners at home was how they best coped with the messages they got, with a few taking to social media to share the worst of it. Most women agreed the comments they get would be considered egregiously inappropriate or offensive in a normal office job – if a co-worker or a customer had called them a bitch or a whore.

But most accepted it as normal in the jobs they currently have, and some no longer found it upsetting.

In researching this story, all of New Zealand’s major mainstream media outlets were approached and asked for their social media guidelines for reporters. Four outlets provided them; NZME and Māori Television did not respond to requests for comment.

The results from those who did respond were stark: most newsrooms have nothing in their social media guidelines that tells journalists what they should do if they’re harassed or abused online by members of the public. Mediaworks’ spokesperson Shaun Davies, the head of digital news for NewsHub, contacted me after our interview to say the organisation is now in the process of drawing up such guidelines.

Most newsrooms instead give journalists fairly strict rules about how they should behave on the web, intended to help uphold the company’s reputation and preserve the reporter’s neutrality.

While TVNZ’s guidelines do tell reporters to “speak to a manager” if they’re concerned about an online interaction, RNZ is the only media outlet surveyed to have guidelines cautioning about the impact of online attacks on women specifically, because Megan Whelan – who is aware of the problem – wrote it in herself.

Research for this story showed the approach of most New Zealand newsrooms fits global trends. Most employers prohibit reporters from abusing members of the public, without considering what happens when the abuse flows the other way.

An online editor at The Guardian, where a study showed women and people of colour came in for the worst abuse on their opinion pages, said there’s no policy set in stone there either. She said individual editors tended to coach writers about what to expect from a particular piece, including advising them to spend some time offline after it was published, or remove especially inflammatory content. But she said there was no written guide to what should happen when a journalist was harassed online and everyone dealt with it on an ad hoc basis.

Most journalists interviewed said some gendered comments were hurtful, and the cumulative effect of abusive feedback took a toll. But they went to pains to point out they didn’t want pity or sympathy. Journalists shouldn’t be treated like heroes just for doing their jobs, they said, and nasty comments wouldn’t force them out of theirs.

But dealing with such harassment was a time sink, and discussing the exact nature of the things said about reporters online could provoke embarrassing conversations with their bosses. Megan Whelan found just that in a recent instance where a man who’d had been searching for how to send feedback to RNZ had spotted a picture of her and publicly posted an abusive critique of her appearance instead. He included her Twitter handle to make sure she saw it.

Whelan would have ignored something so crass, except that in this man’s case, he wasn’t an obvious troll. His account had a reasonably large following and he used his real name. She tried to keep it light, retweeting the comment with a witty riposte. After other Twitter users came to Whelan’s defence, the man deleted his comment and apologised.

Whelan considered the engagement, overall, a success. But she resented the fact that she lay awake late that night wondering if she’d done the right thing. Had she conducted herself properly? Had she been fair and professional according to the RNZ social media guidelines – which she wrote? Having to second-guess her own decisions in the face of base, petty harassment frustrated her.

Susie Ferguson interviewing prime minister Bill English. Photo: RNZ

Susie Ferguson’s real anger was reserved for the way gendered harassment undermined her professional experience.

“The frustrating thing, when people disparage you, is that they’re robbing you of your experience. And in any job, but especially in this job, your experience is your currency,” she said.

Earlier this year, Ferguson attended the launch of Nicky Hager’s book about the New Zealand Defence Force’s involvement in Afghanistan. The next morning, she discussed the matter on air with RNZ’s Political Editor Jane Patterson, who had also been there.

“If you have not the stomach for war, go back to the kitchen,” a listener texted, in response to the interview.

Ironically Patterson, in her years as a gallery reporter, had spent time in Afghanistan, and Ferguson, over six years as a war correspondent, had been there five times.

After another interview, a man criticising Ferguson on Twitter asked what on earth she knew about Middle Eastern politics. When she replied that she’d been a war reporter in the Middle East, the man accused her of lying.

“If people don’t give weight to your background, you start thinking, well if they didn’t know that I did this, then what do they think I’ve done?” Ferguson said.

Usually, the writers of pieces about sexist trolling express some bafflement about why people think such feedback is okay. They often paint a picture of unhappy people texting or tweeting feedback from their parents’ basements in their underwear. But women spoken to for this story pointed out that the comments made by listeners or viewers don’t come out of nowhere, and research shows that the internet doesn’t magically make people behave worse than they would otherwise.

In one tweet Susie Ferguson posted about gendered comments she’d got at work, she recounted being told “don’t be smart” and “don’t be cute” by interviewees. “So… smart AND cute then?” Ferguson joked, in a tweet that went viral by New Zealand standards.

Both comments were made by high profile, professional men; it wasn’t listeners texting in anonymously. One was a Member of Parliament and the other a QC.

The prevalence of gendered harassment seems the result of a fractured, but increasingly intimate public discourse, in which media consumers have more access to reporters than ever before, in a divided social and political climate. In this way, New Zealand is not unique; Donald Trump has worked to normalise a rhetoric about women and people of colour that has spilled through the internet and into real life. NBC political correspondent Katy Tur needed hired security after Trump pointed her out from the stage at his rallies; Teen Vogue political columnist Lauren Duca – feted for her election coverage – asks on her website that people not send her rape threats, and writer and journalist Lindy West – famed for her feminist take-downs of trolls – quit Twitter earlier this year, describing it as a “roiling rat-king of Nazis.”

Catherine Adams, a veteran journalist and researcher at Nottingham Trent University, found almost two-thirds of the 100 female technology or gaming journalists she surveyed had experienced sexist abuse, and a third felt it was getting worse.

Thirty-nine percent of female tech journalists had changed how they worked because of the harassment, taking pen names, giving stories to male colleagues to publish, making themselves inaccessible online, or not writing at all.

Journalism in New Zealand is fairly white, and a lot of the highest profile women in journalism are too. For those who aren’t, the situation is even worse. Yvonne Tahana, an experienced newspaper journalist who now works in TV, said the gendered comments she has received have been dwarfed by the amount that targets her race. Tahana, based at TVNZ in Auckland, is Māori, and she said feedback mentioned it frequently.

“It’s bluntly racist, it’s openly racist, there’s no skirting around,” she said. Māori men she works with get the same treatment.

Yvonne Tahana. Photo: Supplied

She gets good support at TVNZ, but news bosses haven’t always understood the effect such abuse had on her. At a previous job, she once told a regular abusive emailer that he was being racist. The man complained to her boss, who told Tahana off for her comment.  

“What the boss told me was just ignore it, just ignore it, just ignore it,” she said. “I’d got to a point where I couldn’t.

“That boss was a good person, but I wish I’d told him that he didn’t get it. That for women who are targeted in this way in the workplace, it takes a toll.”

A number of newsrooms make counselling available to their employees, who can access it for free at any time. One of those providers is EAP Services, whose spokesperson Greg Ford said the organisation had no record of journalists coming to counselling specifically for help dealing with online abuse, although at least two women interviewed for this story said they had. The discrepancy could be because the primary reason for attending counselling was likely recorded as something else, and the subject came up in the course of their sessions.

Ford, also a clinical psychologist, said repeated instances of low-level stress at work could spill over into the rest of an employee’s work or personal life, making it harder to deal with other stresses, or resulting in out-of-proportion reactions to smaller problems.

He said that in industries across New Zealand, employers are increasingly wrestling with social media and device use, both in and out of work hours. He said employers need to know where they stand on the level of availability and engagement they expect from employees. Ford also doesn’t think social media notifications delivered to the home screen of your phone every 30 seconds – a scenario many journalists described – is good for anyone.

If there are ways for journalists to seek redress for hurt they feel from such abuse, it is difficult to find them. New Zealand’s Accident Compensation Corporation covers the costs of injuries sustained at work, including counselling for mental injuries. I approached ACC to find out whether sexually-motivated harassment online, incurred during the course of the job, would fit the bill.

A spokesperson said ACC couldn’t say whether any such claims had been made, as there aren’t specific numbers kept for mental injury coverage following an incident of online abuse. But the spokesperson said approval of such a claim was unlikely, unless the claimant was under the age of 16. The only other possibility for redress was reporting a specific online threat to the police under the Harmful Digital Communications Act 2015.

The journalists’ union, E tū, said they would expect any accounts to which an employee was receiving abuse to be shut down – be they email or social media. But ask any journalist, eager to receive hot tips on stories or meet real people who might help illustrate their next piece, and you’ll hear it’s more complicated than that. Most journalists I interviewed felt that getting to talk to people, unfiltered, was crucial to doing their job. But many admitted it was hard to draw a line on how accessible to make themselves.

As well as the risks to journalists’ mental health, a number of those interviewed for this piece shared stories about harassment threatening to spill over into the real world after starting online. RNZ’s Megan Whelan had two rape threats sent to her direct message inbox on Twitter, prompting her to close her inbox to anyone she didn’t mutually follow on the platform.

Megan Whelan. Photo: supplied

Journalists often use private messaging on social media to receive useful feedback or story tips, so Whelan said having to close her inbox was a blow. She’s also had men email her with disgusting requests after media appearances.

“I was on TV, in one instance, talking about women’s representation in Parliament in the Pacific, and what this man had taken from it was that I was potentially available for sex. The effect it has is to say, ‘You’re not safe at work either. We can get to you here.’”

On another occasion, a man messaged her to say he liked her voice and then told her what he enjoyed doing while he listened to it. She is nervous when opening emails from address she doesn’t recognise.

Other journalists I spoke to recounted propositions on Facebook or over email for sex. One television reporter came to our interview with screenshots her colleagues had provided, Facebook messages from a serial offender who does the rounds of their newsroom, using private messages to make inappropriate overtures to reporters. The same man had showed up at a reporter’s live cross location after learning from the news that she was there.

Long-time RNZ broadcaster Kathryn Ryan has sympathy for the often young reporters at the cutting edge of online journalism, making themselves more accessible, and their private lives more public, than reporters ever have before.

She hasn’t experienced gendered harassment from listeners, but she recognises the way easy access to journalists online can facilitate it.

Kathryn Ryan. Photo: supplied

Ryan relishes getting to make her own decisions about what she shares, and worries for those who are pioneering social media-heavy reporting when “the rules haven’t been set yet and there are no safety barriers in place.”

Recalling the transition of media outlets to digital, Ryan said there was a sense of urgency and anxiety that there was no future for the media without social media, instant updates, and highly accessible journalists. She said companies had to figure out how much of that engagement and access to journalists the majority of the public really wanted.

She dismissed the idea that free-for-all comments sections were essential to an open, accessible internet.

“Media companies need to support freedom of speech by building practical protections around our staff, and others who want to participate in our sphere,” she said.

This makes sense. In fact, it seems that the only way forward is for media outlets to shoulder some responsibility for what they will accept people saying to their reporters, rather than relying on social media platforms or the journalists themselves to find solutions. Some women I spoke to who had fought back against sexist harassers, or tried to lay clear boundaries, told me it had backfired. Even blocking harassers on social media sometimes led to more abuse, and it left some reporters feeling like they were out of options.

RNZ’s Megan Whelan said the public should care about the harassment of women reporters if they felt invested in the idea that journalism was important. She said there was a real risk that reporters would get sick of the abuse and leave their jobs.

Whelan said she understood why she and other women journalists kept putting themselves at the mercy of digital and social channels in the face of abusive responses. She loves engaging with people, and still believes in the power of a great public discourse. It’s just harder, these days, for her to believe it’s possible, and she feels worse about the state of public debate after 18 months of moderating RNZ’s comments.

“I want to help find a way that we can have grown-up, sensible conversations about these really difficult issues the world is facing,” she said.

“So I’m an idealist, but I’m also a massive cynic because I don’t know if we can ever do that.”

Charlotte Graham worked full-time at Radio New Zealand from 2006-2015 as a reporter, editor, producer, and presenter, and has worked there on and off since. She most recently reported for the New York Times in Hong Kong.

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