Credit: Photo by Sergey Zolkin on Unsplash

This article first appeared on Reach Plc's LinkedIn account and has been republished with the author's permission

My first real taste of online abuse was in 2015 when I was heavily pregnant and a report about research I was conducting into digital impacts on local news was published on an industry website. 

"Where has this person been hiding for the last 5 years if she isn't aware of this most basic fact and did I see she was a news editor???” intoned just one of the outraged voices challenging my intelligence, worth, value as a journalist and academic - under a pseudonym of course.

"Head of news? I dread to think what her story ideas were like," declared another anonymous contributor.  

The pile-on continued for several days, with faceless voices at best patronising my intelligence and worth and at worst, suggesting I should kill myself for thinking anything I had ever done was of value. New in my research role and vulnerable, I had serious imposter syndrome and, despite knowing the anonymous trolls were wrong, I was devastated by the backlash.

Rebecca Whittington (above), online safety editor of Reach Plc.

Fast-forward six years; I have my PhD (and, for all those who doubted, I would just like to say I passed without correction and was awarded recognition for excellence in research - so go chew on that). During that time I also raised a young family and worked full time as a lecturer and programme leader for journalism.

Now, I am back in journalism, working for Reach in the first designated role established by industry to tackle the online abuse of journalists. I have a lot to be proud of and thankful for. Yet, when I revisit that thread of abuse, it still makes a lump rise in my throat and makes my heart beat a little faster. It still makes me question my worth.

This was just one experience, six years ago. But it reflects the experience of women journalists the world-over every day. And there is worse. 

Personal comments about appearance made with a gendered tone - about weight, body shape, clothing choices and more. Patronising comments demeaning ability and intelligence. Sexualised comments and approaches. Comments about the way a woman sounds, her ethnic origin or faith and the application of dangerous and offensive stereotypes. Threats to attack, graphic messages detailing methods of assault or murder. The list is extensive and too horrific in many cases to be repeated.

It is also worth noting - in case anyone reading wonders or thinks outright that this is just a case of a few 'snowflakes' needing to toughen up - that at best these comments suggest a section of society which has failed to move on from the 1950s' view of women. In fact, in many cases, the content I see directed at female journalists online is so threatening, violent and violating it constitutes criminal activity and should be treated with the same level of seriousness as the response to a physical act.

Then there are the photographs - stolen from social media accounts and repurposed as pornographic images, phone numbers shared for people to text and call on anonymous numbers, direct messages to personal accounts spewing misogynistic hate, sexual violence, death threats, threats against loved-ones. All of this in an effort to intimidate, silence and control.

This is the lived reality of women working in journalism across the world. In 2021 UNESCO published the results of a multi-national study which found almost three-quarters of women journalist respondents had experienced some kind of online violence connected to their work, a quarter had received threats of physical violence and almost a fifth had been threatened with sexual violence. A fifth reported offline attacks conducted in connection to their work. 

Online violence has become almost expected in an industry which has responded to digital innovation organically. Abuse and threats have increased along with online user numbers and the development of new technologies. This impacts everyone working in journalism, not only women. But the rise in misogynistic speech, the regularity of sexual violence and the graphic death threats suggest a creeping normalisation of this online behaviour within our society; after all, it is our society which uses online spaces, not just journalists. 

In the West, anti-media rhetoric combined with the pure misogynistic behaviour of Donald Trump further legitimised the backlash against women journalists. It was these tropes, prompted, promoted and encouraged by Trumpian and far-right supporters which saw an attempt to silence investigative journalist Carole Cadwalladr through an online campaign of malice, misogyny and violence. Cadwalladr’s experience and bravery is documented by the UNESCO research, which dedicated a chapter to her story. Cadwalladr herself continues to use Twitter to publish her investigative work, to share the impacts of the coordinated campaign against her and to call out corruption. She refuses to be silenced. 

Cadwalladr is one of the many women railing against this toxic use of the internet. Here she leads a list of women refusing to let female journalists' voices, work and contributions be diminished - but this list is far from finite. This is the start of an XX Directory of inspiring women collaborating to drive down online harms against all journalists internationally. Who would you add to the list?


  • Alison Gow - one of the women at Reach Plc to start the conversation about the online safety of journalists. In her former role as President of the Society of Editor’s, Gow presented her insights into online abuse to the Parliamentary Joint Committee scrutinising the Online Safety Bill which aims to establish a new regulatory framework to tackle harmful content online.
  • Jenny Kean - Research conducted by journalist and journalism lecturer Jenny alongside journalist Abbey McClure informed development of a toolkit titled #DontTakeTheFlack for students and trainers to use in teaching journalists of the future which is now being applied at journalism schools across the UK.
  • Leona O’Neill - Journalist and lecturer. Leona was terrorised by threats and intimidation online and in her community after she witnessed the murder of colleague Lyra McKee by IRA gunmen Hear some of her story here.
  • Dr Julie Posetti - a research lead in the UNESCO study of online violence against female journalists and an active amplifier of the voices of women journalists being targeted by online violence
  • Marianna Spring - BBC specialist reporter covering disinformation and social media. Her Panorama investigation Online Abuse: Why Do You Hate Me? Interrogates the online abuse of women.
  • Hannah Storm - Journalist and co-author of ‘No Women’s Land: On the frontline with female reporters’. Hannah also founded and is the director of Headlines Network, an organisation which promotes mental health in the media. Hannah also works with journalists across the globe to promote conversations around journalism and safety.


Groups and resources for women journalists:

Rebecca Whittington is the online safety editor of Reach plc, where she works to support staff through online abuse incidents, and lead efforts to prevent further abuse. She was formerly the head of news for Yorkshire Post and a journalism lecturer and course leader at Leeds Trinity University. Contact her on Twitter if you would like to contribute yourself or others to the XX Directory.

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