A woman reporter was told she “gained too much weight” and that sent the message that she “is not able to discipline herself in a visual medium.” Another woman journalist was called a “stupid blonde sorority chick” and a woman anchor was told to “keep shoving food down that pie hole of yours… it shuts up that annoying donkey braying noise you make when you talk.”
Last week some of those women and their men colleagues at WGN Chicago addressed negative emails and tweets they received from viewers. The video shows how women news anchors bear the brunt of nasty viewer commentary, and that criticism normally centers on the woman news anchor’s appearance.
Women with years of reporting experience and journalism expertise often find their skills eclipsed by criticism about their appearance and negative perceptions about their intellect. But journalists who are women of color face criticism that is a unique blend of sexualized insults and racial slurs combined with violence, according to leading experts.
No research looks specifically at women journalists of color, but there is a double burden that women of color face in terms of harassment, according to Jennifer L. Pozner, founder and executive director of Women in Media and News, which provides media analysis, education and advocacy group on behalf of women journalists.
“Women of color, in particular black women, face what can basically amount to an uncoordinated campaign of policing of appearance,” said Pozner, author of Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth About Guilty Pleasure TV.
One of the most recent examples involves Rhonda Lee, a black woman meteorologist who lost her job at a Louisiana station after she responded to Facebook comments from a viewer who said her short, natural hair was inappropriate for television: “The black lady that does the news is a very nice lady. The only thing is she needs to wear a wig or grow some hair. I’m not sure if she is a cancer patient. But still it’s not something myself that I think looks good on tv [sic].” Lee responded to the Facebook comment, explaining black hair to the viewer. She wrote: “I am very proud of my African-American ancestry which includes my hair… Conforming to one standard isn’t what being American is about and I hope you can embrace that.”
Black women journalists regularly experience those kinds of insults that involve race and gender, said Jamia Wilson, executive director of Women, Action & the Media (WAM).
“Often the kinds of microaggressions that women of color are dealing with are not necessarily the first thing that people are thinking about but they are the kinds of things I hear about and see all the time,” said Wilson who decided to become a print journalist after a college professor suggested she change her natural hair to have a successful broadcast career.
Michelle Ferrier, a black woman who is a former newspaper columnist, received hate mail in which she was called a nigger and a bitch. Those menacing letters prompted Ferrier, who now works in academia, to leave journalism to ensure the safety of her family and herself. She is also currently developing an online tool to help women journalists fight online harassment called Trollbusters.
“Three years of the six years that I was a columnist I received hate mail, specifically hate mail from one particular person who sent me mail every couple of months, a little terrorist bomb dropped into my life,” she told an audience of journalists late last year.
“Online we see the same type of activity that happened to me at The Daytona Beach News Journal,” Ferrier continued. “It’s a risky business… Online harassment is a general problem. Forty percent of people say they’ve experienced online harassment– women in particular, people of color, trans people are all targets of online harassment designed to shut down people’s voices. Twitter in particular we see attacks that are not just “oh you’re fat and I don’t like your dress.” These are attacks that threaten women with rape, with death, with doxing, with swatting where teams come to their homes to terrorize them both online and offline with this kind of activity. These are women whose voices are being shut out of journalism the as my voice was shut out of journalism.”
The kind of criticism women journalists, in general, face is unfair and it’s been going on for years, said Dorothy Tucker, vice president of broadcast for the National Association of Black Journalists.
“For somebody to think that female reporters are supposed to look perfect all of the time is unrealistic because of the job that we do,” said Tucker, also a veteran reporter at CBS 2 in Chicago. “We have sexism that finds it easier to pick on women than men. Typically, in the past we just kind of accepted it. I applaud my sisters at WGN for standing up.”
It should be no surprise that women journalists face gendered attacks while working in the media because it is the media that helps to spread negative ideas about women, said Wilson of Women, Action & the Media.
“It shapes our ideas about gender, shapes our ideas about who we are in the broader culture and who everyone else is,” Wilson said, noting that most of the gatekeepers are men. “Media is our largest public education tool. Cultural conditioning as well and the conditioning that we get from media really contributes to the perpetuation of the problem.”
Common media practices such as Hollywood red carpet interviews during which women actors, directors and producers are asked more about their looks rather than their work also contribute to an overall media culture that reduces women’s worth and focuses on their appearance, Wilson said. “Why do we care more about a woman’s shoes than her views?”
Georgia Dawkins, a board member of Journalism and Women Symposium and a producer at ABC Action News in Tampa, Florida said that the extreme criticism that women broadcast journalists face contributed to her decision to be a television producer.
“I was afraid that people would talk. I know I’m not ugly. I know I’m not too big but then again people are so critical. So now when I hear my anchors talking about nasty messages they get about the length of their hair or their eye shadow I’m grateful that I’m on the other side of the camera and nobody sees me.”
Women journalists have faced criticism based on gender for decades including the hateful hand-written letters and venomous voicemails before the Internet era. But with the integration of digital platforms and social networks into journalism, online harassment of women journalists is now amplified and it’s silencing some women journalists, said Pozner who also studies online harassment.
“They’re keyboard thugs” Dawkins said. “They have more power in 140 characters or less. I think that people become more bold when they use the Internet as a tool. You can say anything…But you can’t take that hurt away. You can’t take away the damage that it does either.”
Online harassment of women has grown to be such a problem that the Women’s Media Center launched the Speech Project in February to document online abuse women experience and its impact.