The Cost Of Reporting While Female

You begin by teaching yourself what you can ignore. Rot in hell. You’re a cunt. Maybe you wouldn’t be so mad if you weren’t so ugly. They arrive as replies on Twitter, a line dropped into a DM, comments reassuring in their lack of specificity. The reasons they arrive are not always clear. The first time I was told I should go die a slow and painful death, it was because I had written about Kristen Stewart. I’d posted on a small WordPress blog, and a female fan had disliked the way I’d analyzed her star image.

Most of it arrives online—through Twitter, via personal Facebook messages, on Instagram, through email exchanges, and sometimes even in our parents’ inboxes. When ignored, these threats can sharpen and multiply. What begins as displeasure with a piece can escalate to confrontations that are chilling in their  cruelty. Abuse and menace have become a way of life for women in journalism. But like so many things in women’s lives, the labor of confronting that menace is largely invisible.

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Abuse can also manifest itself in invisible ways: In the stories that have gone untold or unexplored by women because the risks of telling them, psychologically or physically, require too damn much. Most editors don’t understand the extent of the abuse—why would they? They don’t read our inboxes or track our direct messages, they can’t assess our fear as the responses mount, weighing the validity of each threat alongside the daily back-and-forth of reporting. Depending on their own identity, they don’t know the complex matrix of decisions women make in the field to render themselves less threatening, or the thought put into how and who to block, report, or ignore online.

I spoke to several women about how this kind of harassment affects their work as journalists, and while many started the conversation saying they didn’t deal with threats on a daily basis, they ended by telling me intricate strategies they’ve developed for shielding themselves from it online. They’ve defused situations where their very status as a female reporter—asking questions, being in public—made them vulnerable. It’s exhausting to try to experience the reporting world from the same place of safety as a straight white man, but female reporters, especially minorities and those who identify as queer, often forget how many things are making us tired—and making our jobs so much harder.

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In 2015, Julie DiCaro was covering rape allegations against Patrick Kane, a hockey player for the Chicago Blackhawks. A reader took a picture of the side entrance she used to enter her workplace and sent it to her. “If someone’s willing to go through all that trouble,” she tells me, “what else are they willing to do?” When Scaachi Koul, currently a culture writer for BuzzFeed, was covering the sexual assault trial of CBC Radio host Jian Ghomeshi in Canada, commenters began to go after her preschool-aged niece, who is biracial, calling her a “mutt,” and criticizing her family for bringing a white person into their family. When Soraya McDonald wrote a piece for ESPN’s The Undefeated that was critical of Floyd Mayweather, she was asked if she was “tap-dancing for the man.” And when Nadra Nittle was covering education for the Los Angeles Newspaper Group, she started receiving messages about “vengeance” from the spouse of the principal of a school she’d covered.



“My editor was like, don’t worry about it,” says Nittle, who now writes for Racked. “But I let my husband know. I let my sister know. I let the school district know. I had to let them know there was a pattern of behavior.”

Nittle touches on three themes of reporting as a woman: First, you teach yourself to downplay whatever threat there might be. (“I didn’t feel like my life was in danger, necessarily,” she tells me.) Second, you tell people about the actual menace, so you have a record of your concern. And third, you realize your supervisors may or may not have the same level of concern, or first-hand exposure, to the threats you face. Whether such threats are viable matters less than their intent: to make women feel more vulnerable, and to use that vulnerability to make them question their work as journalists, a job that is itself under threat.

In 2013, Nittle was reporting part of the Zip Code Project, a large-scale documentation of areas of Los Angeles. “I was assigned to one of the middle-class neighborhoods,” Nittle tells me, “and one of my editors asked me to take video. I had this moment, walking around the neighborhood, in the middle of the day. I don’t want them to think, ‘Oh, here’s this black person, what is she doing filming in this neighborhood?’”

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Solitariness, as Nittle points out, makes it more difficult to “announce” yourself as a press. It also immediately marks you as more vulnerable—especially when you’re reporting as a freelance journalist. Staff journalists, after all, have infrastructure in place (editors, security teams, offices, co-workers) that, depending on the assignment, keep tabs on a journalist’s location, monitor any harassment she receives, and put security measures in place when necessary. There are people, in other words, looking out for her in some capacity. A freelancer operates largely on her own, oftentimes reporting a story on spec before bringing it under the umbrella of an organization that could help shield her.

Liana Aghajanian reports internationally, often in places the mainstream media doesn’t cover, on issues of immigration, identity, and culture in the United States. When she plans to report in an area where she wouldn’t feel safe, she brings her partner along. “I know that because he’s there, I’ll just feel more protected—and I’m able to do things other female reporters can’t do.”

“I’ve started to think about what it means to be a freelance female journalist on a whole other level,” Aghajanian continues. “You associate it with being something dangerous and risky, but the risks are around us in ways that we don’t actually know yet. You want to be like, yes, this is so cool, they’re going to let me into their world. But now you have to think: Is that person going to harm me? Is that person going to put me in a situation where my life is at risk? That makes you more cynical. And especially with my work, and the sorts of topics I like to pursue, if I become more cynical, my work is going to suffer.”


Abuse can manifest itself in the stories that have gone untold or unexplored by women because the risks of telling them.


When I pitched my editors at BuzzFeed earlier this year the idea of moving my beat from New York City to Montana, it was in hopes of avoiding that sort of cynicism, while also benefitting from my small-town Idaho upbringing. People from rural areas are skeptical of anyone from cities, and doubly skeptical of reporters from them. But being from “around here” has many benefits: I know how to talk to just about anyone. I also know exactly how to make myself as unthreatening as possible.

Molly Priddy’s been a specialist in this sort of reporting for nearly a decade. She covers what she refers to as “women’s issues” for the Flathead Beacon, a weekly paper funded by Maury Povich and Connie Chung out of Kalispell, Montana. “I have this nebulous social issues beat,” she tells me, “in part because I’m the only woman on staff.”


Illustration: Ellen Weinstein

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