A Penn State news conference in 2014. A sports journalist who helped break the story about convicted Penn State coach Jerry Sandusky says she abandoned Twitter because of threatening messages. (AP/Matt Rourke)
A Penn State news conference in 2014. A sports journalist who helped break the story about convicted Penn State coach Jerry Sandusky says she abandoned Twitter because of threatening messages. (AP/Matt Rourke)

Dark side of sports journalism as fans harass female reporters online

“I say we put her email address in all the porn sites. From FSU with love,” one user wrote on 247Sports.com, a CBS message-board about college and professional sports. The FSU stands for Florida State University and the “her” is ESPN investigative journalist Paula Lavigne.

The comment was part of an onslaught of threatening messages and calls, many using obscene language, doxxing or threats of sexual violence, directed at Lavigne when she investigated 10 university athletic programs. Lavigne’s experience is familiar for many female journalists covering sports, where fans and perceptions of the beat as an arena reserved for men result in some of the most violent language and imagery used to harass journalists.

When CPJ spoke with nine sports journalists who cover men’s college or professional sports for a range of outlets, from ESPN to local publications, all of them said they received barrages of online harassment in response to their reporting. In many cases, the intensity and duration of the harassment were more extreme for journalists whose coverage included reporting on sexual abuse and domestic violence.

Part of the problem, the reporters said, was the deep fan investment in college and professional sports. “Sports is almost like a religion beat,” said Mary Pilon, who has covered domestic violence in the National Football League, among a range of sports and business issues for outlets from The New Yorker to Bleacher Report. “People are really, really passionate about it and they really, really care. That can be a blessing or curse.”

“A politician doesn’t have tens of thousands of people gathering in a stadium every Saturday in the fall to cheer him on,” said Lavigne, who has exposed several scandals in college football and basketball. “There probably aren’t basements or man caves with his or his team’s memorabilia.”

The journalists said that they believe anger was the main driver for the harassment that comes after an expose or investigation; the intensity of the harassment seemed to reflect fan investment in athletic programs.

For instance, Marisa Kwiatkowski told CPJ she received no harassment when she and two colleagues at the Indianapolis-based regional daily IndyStar reported on Larry Nassar, a doctor convicted of sexually abusing hundreds of girls and young women at USA Gymnastics and Michigan State’s gymnastics program. When Lavigne published an investigation into Michigan State’s handling of sexual violence around its athletic department in February 2018, she said she received a slew of harassment on online message boards and social media. The threats often taunted the journalist with suggestions that she should face similar sexual assaults to the ones she investigated.

It wasn’t the first time Lavigne was harassed over her work. When the journalist filed a Freedom of Information Act request with Tallahassee Police Department–the local law enforcement around Florida State University–in December 2014, the police published her name and phone number in a press release about her request.

“They tried to argue with me that it was their practice to do that, to put out information publicly [and] the records they requested,” Lavigne told CPJ. “We never saw that to be the case. They didn’t do that to previous reporters that made records requests and I did not see that after the fact.”

The police responded at the time, saying they have “an obligation, under state law, to respond to national media requests such as this and have done so professionally and with a commitment to openness.” The police did not respond to CPJ’s email requesting comment.

Immediately after the press release was published, Lavigne said she fielded violent language and threats to send items to her home over text messages and phone calls. She hadn’t even written anything yet.

A December 2018 study by Amnesty International found that women are disproportionately targeted by online harassment and smear campaigns. Further, women of color were 34 percent more likely to be mentioned in abusive tweets than white women. In sports more than many other beats, female bylines may stick out among a sea of male-sounding names, drawing particular scrutiny and targeted harassment. In a report published this month, the Women’s Media Center found that sports is the most male-dominated subject in both print and internet news; men led 90 percent of sports coverage in print and 79 percent on the websites examined. The center found in a prior report that female journalists were more likely to report stories about sexual abuse or domestic violence. Fan reactions toward journalists covering these issues, which can result in penalties against athletes or teams, can be particularly strong.

The importance of football and basketball to some perceptions of American masculinity leads to some rejection of women’s participation in sports media, two female journalists with whom CPJ spoke said.

One of them, who asked not to be named in order to speak freely about the industry, told CPJ that when women enter public sports discourse, “you are in some ways sending someone in from outside the bubble and that can be dangerous.” to the existing power structures.

“Women get a disproportionate amount. They get more and the stuff they get is worse,” Matt Baker, a sportswriter for The Tampa Bay Times who has been harassed over his reporting on FSU’s football scandal observed of his colleagues.

When freelancer Jessica Luther published a report on the handling of sexual violence within the University of Missouri’s men’s basketball and football programs in late 2014, fans of the team shared doctored photos they had had found of Luther in the comment section of the article. “I remember it being very upsetting,” she said. “It threw me off for a couple of days.”

Luther said that she no longer reads comment sections, but she still faces harassment that affects her work. “I get very, very nervous. Like sick to my stomach before I publish and worrying what the backlash will be like,” she told CPJ.

Julie DiCaro, a sportswriter and radio commentator, told CPJ that when she visits high school and college students in journalism classes, she finds girls discouraged from entering journalism because of the overwhelming online harassment. She said the students tell her, “I really wanted to be in sports journalism but I don’t think I could handle the trolls, so now I’m going into PR.”

Journalists at larger outlets said their organizations offer help with the abusive behavior.

Lavigne credits ESPN with helping her when harassment has escalated. “Any time it gets to the point where it feels like it could get be a threat, I’ve contacted ESPN security and they have been on it. They’ve really been on it,” she said.

ESPN is a multi-billion dollar network that can–and does–offer excellent security measures for its journalists. Freelancers and reporters at smaller outlets without institutionalized security measures are more vulnerable. Reaching a conclusive risk assessment can be hard to achieve; because social media and the internet affords attackers of the anonymity, it is often hard to determine who is behind the threat and whether it could escalate into physical violence. Threats to personal safety, Pilon told CPJ, are discussed behind closed doors among female colleagues, but she has not yet identified dependable solutions.

When it comes to the harassment the journalists receive through Twitter, they have evolved their behavior as they have tried to identify what works best for them.

For Sara Ganim, the choice was easy. In 2011, Ganim broke the story of Jerry Sandusky, the Penn State football coach convicted of sexually abusing boys, for local daily The Patriot-News, and continued her coverage through 2017 at CNN. In 2014, after years of receiving violent threats and sexually-loaded messages, she decided to abandon Twitter entirely and said she has had no regrets. “Nothing that was contributing to my reporting was coming to me through Twitter. It was kind of like a time suck.” Ganim said, “I wasn’t really gaining anything from it anymore. And so I figured I could spend that time reporting.”

For full-time sports reporters however, Twitter can be a critical part of their work because athletes, fans, and commentators all interact on the social media platform.

Luther said she remains active on Twitter but found that by deactivating the direct message feature, the harassment slowed. She said she now includes a link to a contact form. While it’s impossible to determine how this may affect her reporting, Luther said, she has found that people with real questions or tips still reach out to her.

Pilon said she checks headlines on Twitter and will skim through her replies or mentions, if she checks her notifications at all. But she admits, she struggles to strike a balance. “You only have so many hours in the day; you have things you need to write, you have things you need to do. Should I spend half my day policing my Twitter feed? Is that the best use of my energy?”

For all the bad, Lavigne said she chooses to focus on the good. “Every now and then, some stranger will stick his or her neck out for me on Twitter or send me a note of support via DM. Those people are awesome. I like to focus on them. I also like to focus on the women who write me and appreciate what we’re doing.”