Women journalists see harassment as part of the job, a new study finds
A recent video of TV reporter Tori Yorgey being hit by a car while doing a segment on live television went viral for several reasons. Yorgey’s ultra-calm reaction was even more remarkable: She was quick to recover and say that she was okay, and even went on to say, “You know, that’s live TV for you.”
While journalists, especially broadcast journalists, have been trained to keep going no matter what and to not make themselves the story, a new study finds that women journalists also see attacks — deliberate or otherwise — as part of the job. The study, based on in-depth interviews with 32 print and broadcast journalists in the U.S., was published recently in the Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly.
The theme of women saying that harassment and attacks were part of the price they pay for being female journalists was something that kept coming up during the course of interviews, said Kaitlin Miller, assistant professor of journalism and media at the University of Alabama and the author of the new study.
When men described their experiences with harassment or other attacks, they really seemed to wear it as a badge of honor and a sign of having done good work, Miller found. “Wow, they’re really looking at these experiences quite differently,” Miller realized — and decided to explore these themes further as part of her doctoral dissertation.
The first question the study investigated was whether journalists tended to face different types of harassment based on their gender. Perhaps unsurprisingly, women were more likely to face most of the 16 types of harassment the study examined, including having their appearances be made fun of and getting repeated requests for dates. Male journalists were more likely to be threatened with physical harm or actually hit (slapped, pushed, or spit on).
That journalists — especially women journalists — face harassment isn’t new. But Miller says much of the research and discourse about harassment experienced by journalists focuses either on sexual harassment or harassment on social media . “We have not seen a lot of exploration of emotions in journalism, because for years there was the stigma that journalists are objective, third-party flies on the wall,” Miller said. “We’re finally seeing research showing that emotion does play a large part in the journalistic process. Here, we’re seeing that it even comes down to how journalists are assessing the experiences that they personally have.”
Overwhelmingly, Miller’s interviews with respondents revealed that women tend to believe that harassment — both the kind of harassment and the frequency — are par for the course of being a woman journalist. As one respondent shared, “Any time a woman has a strong point of view in a public forum like a newspaper, um, she’s gonna pay for it a little bit.”
But the men who were interviewed for the study had different interpretations of attacks on them or their work. As one male respondent shared about threats in response to a story, “I just felt like if this is the reaction, then we must be on the right track, because we’re making someone nervous enough to do something that we’ve never experienced here before.” For men, threats in the form of name-calling or other harassment were something to be proud of. “I’ve kind of sort of felt like it came with the territory, and oddly enough, we kind of wore it as a badge of honor,” another respondent shared.
It became clear to Miller was that men and women view their identities as journalists differently. “For men, that identity tended to be as a journalist alone, but for women that identity tended to be as a ‘woman journalist,’” Miller said. “We didn’t have ‘woman journalist’ and ‘man journalist.’ We had journalist and ‘woman journalist,’” she said, emphasizing that the study looked at gender identity and not sex.
The study looked at the emotional reactions journalists feel when faced with harassment. Women tended to say they felt fear, anxiety, and alarm. One respondent described how she felt when a random man knocked on her car door when she was out at night working on live shots: “My heart was racing, because I’m thinking, oh my gosh, is he going to hurt me? Why is he here? This doesn’t make any sense whatsoever.”
In contrast, men tended to share emotions of anger about instances of harassment, especially name-calling: “I think you can only be called an idiot so many times before it kind of has some kind of effect on you and just pisses you off.”
Miller’s own experience as a television reporter influenced her interest in the topic and the recommendations she has for others looking to help improve journalist safety. Like Yorgey, Miller often had to go out on her own to do live spots, and sometimes she was harassed by strangers. Once, when she was doing such a shot on the campus of Montana State University, “There were college students who came up and who were taking selfies with me and yelling at me and harassing me while I was live on air … This all happened while I was alone at night in the middle of nowhere on a college campus. So I was very vulnerable.”
Her suggestion is to do away, when possible, with sending reporters out alone in the field. “You’re extraordinarily vulnerable while covering a protest or doing a live shot alone. You open yourself up to increased harassment. There’s no doubt about that,” Miller said. “We need to see an organizational model that moves away from these one-man-band situations and leans more towards group reporting in certain settings.”
Because men and women seem to perceive and process harassment differently, newsroom setups where men oversee women may be unhelpful in ensuringwomen journalists feel seen and heard, Miller said. “We have an entire demographic of people who have a different experience than you, being tasked with managing you,” Miller said. A lot of young journalists Miller has spoken with are fearful of saying anything, she said, because they don’t want to be labeled as whiners.
“This is particularly bad for women of color, who feel they’re already labeled as speaking out too much. And so we need to see a shift in newsroom culture to more diversity in newsroom leadership,” Miller said.
Finally, there is a need for clearer processes in newsrooms for reporting harassment. A lot of journalists either say nothing or just save all the records themselves.
Ultimately, Miller sees this as part of a larger body of work — including other studies she’s done — examining the impact of harassment on journalists. “We need to see some larger institutional change happen,” Miller said.
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