Female journalists face increasing danger, threats

Knock, knock, knock.

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When we knock on someone else’s door, we generally know who we’re going to see. Unless you’re selling Girl Scout cookies or alerting a stranger that their dog is loose in the road, you probably have a good idea of who you expect to see– a friend, a family member, a neighbor.

As a reporter, though, you frequently find yourself knocking on strangers’ doors.

Often you know the name of the resident, unless you’re talking with everyone in the immediate vicinity of a crime scene, disaster or some other significant event. But many times you don’t know much more than that.

Well, maybe you know their rap sheet.

Who is it?

I may know the individual’s name, age, height, what kind of car they drive, where they work, etc. from doing my research. I may even know how many times they’ve been in jail and whether they have known violent tendencies. But I don’t really know who is opening that door. I don’t know what kind of danger they present.

Lower legs, tan boots show as an individual walks across gray rocks

Knocking on the wrong door

A friend of mine who entered the profession shortly after I did posted once on social media about how she wondered if one day, she’d knock “on the wrong door.”

As female journalists, we often have to be more careful about our safety than our male colleagues. We all have jobs to do, and our sex shouldn’t hinder that, but it can affect how we do it or the kind of preparation we make. It’s not fair. It shouldn’t have to affect us, but it often still does.

In September 2018, the International Women’s Media Foundation and Troll-Busters released a study that showed that “nearly two-thirds of female journalist respondents have been harassed, with more than half experiencing attacks within the past year… nearly one-third of female respondents consider leaving the profession due to harassment and those early in their careers are twice as likely to consider alternate employment.”

Interestingly, the study found that nine in ten respondents felt that they were experiencing more physical and online attacks than normal over the last five years. These include death and rape threats.

If my husband was a reporter, I’d still demand safety precautions from him simply because there are some dangers regardless of sex. But as a woman, I’ve found myself ensuring my pepperspray is easily accessible, surveying quick exits, or gauging the nearest possible help as I wait alone in the dark for a closed session to end. It doesn’t scare me, or even make me nervous. It was just a precaution that developed as a habit to provide even a modicum of defense against whoever might walk down the street. It’s a habit that I realized developed all too mechanically.

One time, I went to the scene of a shooting and parked across a four-lane highway. It was dark, and as I left my car, people pressed up against my vehicle to peer in the windows and inspect the tires– even with cops immediately across the street at the crime scene. I was holding onto my purse and an (albeit ancient) DSLR, hoping no one was bold enough to be interested as I snapped photos of police at the scene. Someone warned me to get off the street.

Another time, I wrote about an individual’s arrest. (It was not his first.) I thought nothing of it, but soon afterwards he showed up at my office. I’m petite, and this young man was at least 6 feet tall and shaking with rage. My co-worker stayed at her phone, ready to call 911. I genuinely wondered if the man would hit me, furiously quivering as he was, but I provided my reasons for writing about his arrest while standing in the doorway to try to casually bar his access to my co-worker. He left, still angry, and luckily I didn’t hear from him again.

Yet another time, I turned to the local police after a reader sent my articles back to me with notes, diagrams and dirt-covered letters that rambled on about blood, violence and random references to the Joker. (Yes, from Batman.) He kept coming to the office to find me, and my co-worker would tell him I was gone.

One day, I heard the door and headed to the front desk, where a young man– probably in his teens– asked to confirm my name. When I said did, he quickly snapped my photo on his phone and said he’d been told by the letter-writer to photograph me. Then he walked out. I was too surprised to react immediately.

Those situations and others far more serious can happen to anyone of either sex, but female journalists often face more attention and threats than males. As a freelancer without the protection and network of a publication, it can be even harder.

Close-up of a person writing in a notebook with a pen

Female freelancers

Anne Helen Petersen wrote about the issue for Columbia Journalism Review in winter 2018.

“Solitariness, as (writer Nadra) 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.”

Anne Helen Petersen, Columbia Journalism Review

When I worked in larger offices, I texted with co-workers, set times to meet with them for work appointments or lunch, had staff meetings, and was generally seen throughout the day.

Freelancing can be lonely. I don’t have a shared office calendar. While an editor might get a call if I miss an appointment, no co-workers in an office will be notified of an unexpected absence.

Freelancing isn’t necessarily dangerous, depending on what you’re writing on and where. But it can provide cause to think about extra security measures, especially for female journalists.

Safety tips for female journalists

These are a few ways I try to boost my safety:

  • I use the app bSafe in situations where I need extra security.
  • My phone is always set to track my location, with my husband having full access to see where I am at all times.
  • If I have to wait in the dark, I avoid reading or otherwise distracting myself from my surroundings.
  • I carry pepperspray (affiliate link) and a pocketknife (affiliate link) for added safety if circumstances allow.
  • I try to always have a phone charger and battery pack with me so my phone doesn’t run too low on battery.
  • When I arrive at a scene, I often use my iPhone’s Send My Current Location feature to provide the exact location to someone I know will check in if it’s an unsafe area.
  • I avoid carrying a large purse if it is practical. (Sometimes, you need to be able to carry pens, a notebook, camera, etc., but when possible, going without a bag frees my hands and could present less of an attractive target.)

I don’t think I devote an unhealthy amount of attention to safety, but I try to take practical precautions.

We don’t need journalists who are afraid to pull punches, cover a topic at all or even stay in a profession because they’re afraid for their safety.

Dangers aren’t exclusive to female journalists (look at Jamal Khashoggi). Writers of color, minorities and queer reporters also face higher levels of harassment and danger.

Threats to journalists don’t just affect the individuals. They affect the publication and the profession. They also affect readers who deserve to receive the whole story from a diverse collection of journalists unafraid to report the truth.

As Petersen writes:


“It’s not that women can’t get this sort of access—journalism has never been a matter of being able to do it. We know how to navigate every encounter with an unknown man with the quiet thought that it might lead to violence. We figure out how to delete or ignore or make light of the emails that arrive in our inboxes. We learn how to deal with the way menace accumulates through the course of our daily workload. We know how to perform all of that labor—and, like so much other labor largely performed by women, to make its existence, and its toll, disappear. The question isn’t our capacity to do it. The question is, at what cost?”

Anne Helen Peterson, Columbia Journalism Review

Have you ever faced danger because of your profession? Does being a freelancer make it easier since you can turn down more dangerous assignments, or harder since you don’t have the protection of an employer? Were you surprised to learn of the danger stats for female journalists?

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