News crews set up inside in the Air Force One Pavilion in 2016 to report of the passing of former First Lady Nancy Reagan. Female journalists working for local broadcasters across the U.S. have spoken of the threats and unwanted attention they have to deal with. (Getty Images/AFP/David McNew)
News crews set up inside in the Air Force One Pavilion in 2016 to report of the passing of former First Lady Nancy Reagan. Female journalists working for local broadcasters across the U.S. have spoken of the threats and unwanted attention they have to deal with. (Getty Images/AFP/David McNew)

For local female journalists in US, rape threats, stalkers, harassment can come with the beat

In 2016, the FBI told a local TV journalist that she wasn’t safe sleeping in her own home. Her TV station, which covers a major American city, hired an off-duty police officer to guard the parking lot when she arrived at work. Even for a journalist covering organized crime, such measures may seem extreme–but her beat is much less fraught: she covers light-hearted local news and sport.

The journalist, whose name is being withheld by CPJ to protect her safety, had been targeted by a stalker. The man had sent her child pornography, and threatened to find her, rape her and, if she told the police, kill her.

“These were really tough days, scary days,” she told CPJ in a recent phone call. “This wasn’t some creepy guy with a crush, this was somebody threatening my life.” A suspect is currently awaiting trial, she said.

American journalists are increasingly on alert. The fatal shootings at the Capital Gazette newspaper in June put a spotlight on the dangers local reporters can face from the very communities they cover, and a bomb mailed into the CNN newsroom underscored the broad nature of the threat. Meanwhile, President Donald Trump has continued with his anti-press rhetoric, calling the media “the enemy of the people.”

CPJ spoke with half a dozen female journalists who work in television or radio broadcasting in small and mid-sized markets across the U.S., about the threats they face. They told of stalkers who threatened violence, barrages of sexual images sent via-social media, and viewers who tracked them down in the real world.

A number of factors exacerbate the risks, the journalists said, including the public-facing nature of delivering news on local TV and radio stations in often small, close-knit communities, and the requirement that reporters maintain active and accessible social-media profiles.

Another issue is that local journalists increasingly cover stories alone. The precarious and ever-changing nature of the journalism industry has led to an increase of so-called “one man bands,” which puts journalists’ safety at risk, said Lynne Adrine, a former broadcast journalist and the director of the Washington, D.C. graduate program in broadcast and digital journalism at Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications. When one journalist is tasked with performing the jobs of multiple people–reporting, interviewing, filming, and taking photos all at the same time–they have to focus on several tasks at once, which lowers their situational awareness.

Few of the journalists with whom CPJ spoke said they had received any formal safety training, and that their newsrooms tended to respond only after something happened.

The journalists said the internet was the primary site of harassment. Receiving unsolicited “dick pics” and sexually-explicit emails were common; female journalists, particularly women of color, bear the brunt of online harassment, a December 2018 study by Amnesty International and Element AI, a global artificial intelligence software company, found. Journalists, particularly those in broadcasting, have to walk a fine line between being an approachable public figure and a guarded private individual.

Inevitably, online harassment can cross into the real world. Kim Fischer told CPJ that while working at KXAS-NBC, in Dallas Texas, she started to notice that strangers were sending Facebook requests to her friends, canvassing the social media site for places she might be, and showing up in person to try to speak with her. “We watch you on TV, we saw you were here,” the men would tell her. While she never felt unsafe, Fischer said putting too much personal information online was what prompted a lot of unwanted attention and harassment.

Stephanie Pagliaro, a radio journalist based in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, faced a more sinister situation. She is one of several local female reporters whom a man named Jordan Richison is accused of stalking. Richison was accused of creating Facebook accounts for non-existent journalists and real members of the public to try to communicate with journalists, according to reports. He had previously been charged with multiple counts of stalking and unlawful use of a computer. Oklahoma court documents show he is currently serving a 15-year sentence after pleading guilty in August to a violation of his probation, associated with previous cases.

Pagliaro said that Richison used Facebook Messenger to talk with her, and that the details he knew about her were mostly gathered from the Facebook and Instagram pages she used to promote the station and her work. Her job, which includes co-hosting public events and doing live remotes, means “everyone knows what we look like,” said Pagliaro.

Another reporter working the American South, who asked to remain anonymous to protect her safety, told CPJ the harassment often intensified after she covered controversial topics, such as racial issues, or policing. She said she experienced more harassment as the national debate over the nature of journalism intensified. Out in the field, she told CPJ, passersby would harass her.

“Every woman in my station would agree,” she said. “[People just start] yelling about what we’re wearing, how we look.”

The journalist, like others with whom CPJ spoke, said they would like more support from their managers and newsrooms. “The first time I told my boss [about the harassment], he said, “Oh that’s annoying,’ ” the reporter said.

J. Alex Tarquinio, president of the Society of Professional Journalists, said that anecdotally, harassment against journalists in the U.S. is increasing. The difference for broadcasters “is the exposure to the public,” she said. “If they are well-known they will be recognized in a way most print reporters will not be.”

While increased harassment could lead to women leaving the journalism profession altogether, another possibility is that women will self-censor, said Tarquinio. “Even the risk that women reporters will not want to respond to readers, will change beats, will do less controversial stories or be taken off a difficult subject” is concerning, she said.

While Pagliaro found the police to be helpful, at least two of the reporters told CPJ they did not think that the police were well equipped to deal with their cases of cyberstalking and online harassment. One reporter said that when confronted with an overworked police force, she put her journalism skills to work and created her own dossier on her stalker.

The journalists said that the online harassment made them more cautious of engaging with viewers and listeners who are well-meaning. Despite journalists actively covering the harassment of others, among those in the industry, “no one wants to be labeled a problem, no one wants to be seen as a fragile flower that’s going to need additional support,” said Adrine.

Many of the reporters said they have cut down on their social media posts, and never post outside their homes or give away their exact location. “You have to be a little bit guarded, and aware of suspicious things,” said Pagliaro. “If something feels off, there’s a chance that it is.”

Avi Asher-Schapiro is CPJ’s research associate for North America. He is a former staffer at VICE News, International Business Times, and Tribune Media, and an independent investigative reporter who has published in outlets including The Atlantic, The Intercept, and The New York Times.

Lucy Westcott is CPJ’s James W. Foley Fellow. Prior to joining CPJ, Westcott was a staff writer for Newsweek, where she covered gender and immigration. She has reported for outlets including The Intercept, Bustle, The Atlantic, and Women Under Siege, and was a United Nations correspondent for the Inter Press Service.