Any journalist expressing a strong opinion on a contentious subject will get abuse online. If that journalist happens to be a woman, the level of abuse will be of an order of magnitude greater and more toxic.
If that woman is a woman of colour, LGBT, non-Christian or old, then the abuse goes off the scale.
The result is that many women journalists are self-censoring and minimising their exposure online. Increasing numbers are suffering mental health issues and questioning their future in the industry. Public discourse is thus deprived of their voice, the range of opinions expressed becomes ever-narrower and society as a whole suffers.
Everyone in the industry has long know this to be true, but until now there has not been the empirical evidence to support it. That changed yesterday with the release of a survey put together by Women in Journalism and Reach – ‘Online harms against women working in journalism and media’. The launch was accompanied by a webinar chaired by Mirror editor-in-chief Alison Phillips with a panel that included Reach online safety editor Dr Rebecca Whittington, columnist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown and LBC host Sangita Myska. I imagine a recording will be made available, which I would thoroughly recommend watching.
One of the key findings of the report was, that “75% of participants said they had experienced a threat or challenge to their safety from a member of the public online or in person during the course of their work.”
While, in the ideal world, the social media platforms would sort this problem out, they clearly won’t. They are advertising-fuelled businesses and safety is way down their list of priorities.
As Sangita Myska said, we must not be naïve about the platforms and wait for them to put their house in order. We ourselves need to act – by pressurising lawmakers to regulate the platforms, by pressurising publishers to better protect their female employees (including freelancers) and by creating networks of women journalists that can provide support for each other.
WiJ says it is making the plight of women journalists their top priority over the year ahead and will be encouraging employers to sign up to an online harms policy and to appoint a permanent staff member to act as a champion. They also plan to pull together a list of resources for women journalists and to offer training to line managers on how they can better protect and support their female colleagues.
It’s vitally important that journalism is a diverse profession and that all voices are heard and celebrated equally, regardless of gender. There is no easy or quick fix, but as the panellists on the webinar pointed out, there are lots of practical steps we can take now to improve the situation.
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