On Saturday night, freelance journalist Dr Kate O’Halloran was subjected to an array of online abuse brought on by a single tweet she made about sexism in sport.
As a journalist who frequently covers issues of gender equity in sport, it was not the first time O’Halloran had been targeted, nor the first time she had drawn attention to trolling.
On this occasion, after O’Halloran had complained about the nature of commentary towards AFL umpire Eleni Glouftsis, she received hundreds of abusive messages (both public and private) from men of a misogynist and homophobic nature, questioning her profession and threatening violence.
She subsequently posted a sample of the abusive messages on Twitter and told the online world of the impact the abuse had caused her mental health, arguing that she needed to leave social media for a time so as not to be further targeted.
The following day, the Herald Sun published a rolling AFL live blog with the title “Garry Lyon calls for calm over “100 per cent wrong twitter gaffe”, where Lyon, who was singled out in O’Halloran’s tweet, said: “People want to get on the gender bandwagon, they’re looking to be outraged”. This was followed by further articles on Fox Footy, news.com.au, Perth Times and The Daily Mail, while there was also a thread containing further threats and abuse of O’Halloran on Reddit. O’Halloran was not contacted for comment by any of these publications.
The choice by News Corp publications to pursue this story – despite O’Halloran’s heartfelt Twitter post in which she opened up about the emotional impact of ongoing trolling – opened the floodgates for many more private messages and posts of a more extreme nature, including misogynist comments on her personal Facebook account posted on photos from many years ago.
Women journalists receive targeted abuse online
O’Halloran is among the many women journalists who receive vile online abuse. In fact, a global survey by the International Federation of Journalists found that almost two thirds of women journalists receive online abuse and harassment. To put this further into context; every 30 seconds a woman journalist is harassed online. This harassment takes the form of name-calling, sexist comments, serious accusations of physical harm such as death and rape threats, devaluing their work, threats against their partners and children, and posting of personal details online (doxing).
This creates a toxic work environment for women journalists, with impacts to their health, income and ability to work, as well as their sense of safety and security, with women reporting anxiety and panic attacks, depression, sleep disturbances, loss of self-esteem, fear and social isolation as just some of the negative effects on their wellbeing (Women’s Health East 2018). For a large portion of women journalists, fear of abuse also translates into public spaces.
As stated in an upcoming report by Gender Equity Victoria and the Media Entertainment & Arts Alliance to be released in October this year, much of the abuse that women journalists receive reinforces unequal relations of power amongst genders and often relies on narratives that undermine women in society, such as referring to women’s sexual activity in negative ways, degrading and dehumanising women, and using the threat of sexual or physical violence to intimidate them.
Backlash to women journalists who advocate for gender equity
This week, the ABC’s Outer Sanctum empathised with the nature of the abuse O’Halloran received stating, “Social media can be a difficult place for those of us who advocate for gender equality”.
It is well known in the prevention of violence against women sector that sexism and gendered abuse online often targets individuals as backlash to any perceived gains for gender equality. It is those who challenge dominant gender norms, behaviours and practices that are most commonly the victims of online abuse. For instance, a report by VicHealth found that those who work to promote gender equality can expect to meet resistance and backlash. Such online abuse is also intersected with other forms of discrimination and oppression, such as racism, transphobia and homophobia.
While gender equitable progress is being made, women journalists who promote women’s equality and defy gender norms are targeted online and receive the extreme end of backlash in the form of abuse and threats to their physical safety.
How can we address this wicked problem?
Gender Equity Victoria has been leading a world-first project funded by the Victorian Government. addressing violence against women in online settings, with a particular focus on women as journalists
In Victoria, we have had significant investment in the prevention of violence against women, with the understanding that the underlying driver of family violence and all forms of violence against women is gender inequality. This evidence base is established in Change the Story, the national framework for the prevention of violence against women. We now have the tools and knowledge to apply this framework to different settings to prevent violence against women, and we can apply this to media settings to end violence against women journalists.
The upcoming report provides policy recommendations for media organisations to provide a safe working environment for women and stop sexist attitudes relaying in to comments feeds, and to provide greater organisational and collegial support for women working in media organisations.
The report identifies online abuse as a workplace health and safety issue that recommends a whole of organisation approach to gender equity and a range of measures and actions that media organisations can adopt to support women journalists. It includes a responsibility to support freelance journalists, who are more likely to be women than men, and more likely to write on feminist topics, and that responsibility to create a safe environment for these journalists doesn’t end when they submit their articles.
While we know that there must be increased justice responses, tighter security and social media policies to keep women safe online, we need to focus our energies on preventing violence before it occurs. We know that media organisations are powerful institutions that can lead by example and model respectful behaviours and standards towards women.
If anyone needs to get on the “gender equality bandwagon”, it is media organisations, as they have a responsibility to keep women safe online.
The GEN VIC and MEAA report will be released October 2019.