Women have increasingly become the ones who are able to tell important stories that have the potential to change the world. But the increasing violence against journalists is threatening to take away that power.

How can women in journalism be protected in a climate of disinformation and hate?

Attacks against journalists, especially women journalists, are increasing. This violence, both physical and virtual, is stifling important voices and making it harder to stop the spread of disinformation and hate speech.

“It’s quite heartbreaking to see that one of the largest challenges today is digital violence against female journalists and women who participate in public discussion. They face so much harassment and hate that a lot of women don’t feel it’s worth it,” OsloMet Professor Kristin Skare Orgeret says.

She is fascinated by the intersection of freedom of expression, journalist safety, gender, and politics.

Throughout her myriad experiences, she has learned the importance of looking at the world from different angles and listening to diverse voices. Journalism allows her to combine the methodologies of humanities and social sciences in pursuit of these stories.

“Today’s big challenges can’t be solved in isolation by nation states alone. They need to be solved in cooperation with other people at a global level,” Orgeret says. 

The right story, Orgeret believes, can change the world. Brave journalists reporting from conflict zones are able to stand up to dictators and push back against hate.

Women have increasingly become the ones who are able to tell those stories. But the increasing violence against journalists is threatening to take away that power.

Journalism is under attack

“20 years ago, people had such optimism for social media platforms,” Orgeret says. “We saw democratic revolutions toppling authoritarians and a positive spread of knowledge.”

Today, that optimism has largely been replaced by misinformation and hate speech.

This disappointing change is not just limited to conflict zones, but extends to places that seem safe for journalism like Germany and the Netherlands.

Orgeret points to events like the January 6th attack on the US capitol and violent demonstrations against Covid-19 restrictions around the world as examples of recent attacks against journalism. Everyday online harassment and violence against journalists are increasing.

Women in journalism have borne the brunt of these attacks. Although their ability to access hard-to-reach sources in conflict areas makes them an essential part of telling these stories, their voices are too often diminished, Orgeret argues.

The public tend to focus on their personal lives and their looks. They are sexualised. 

New research from Orgeret’s colleague Elisabeth Eide reveals that women receive 27 times more online harassment than men. Women are also often pushed into more ‘family oriented’ fields of reporting and excluded from the fields of politics and conflict.

War and the changing face of reporting

The war in Ukraine has shown us a new perspective on journalism. In The Conversation, Orgeret highlights the story of Ukrainian news anchor Marichka Padalko who stayed behind to fight Russian disinformation while her husband kept their children safe.

Orgeret argues that the traditional representation of war as a male-dominated arena, with men as the aggressive fighters who stay behind and women as pacifists who flee with the children, is inaccurate.

In reality, everyone reacts in similar ways to conflict, exhibiting both bravery and fear, the desire to fight and the desire to flee.

To give a more accurate picture of war, Orgeret believes we need to connect with those emotions and tell diverse stories.

Showing emotion is the key to telling good stories and connecting with audiences.

It’s a fine line, however. A piece of journalism that reads as too emotional can undermine its credibility. Reporting that is too stodgy or aloof runs the risk of boring or alienating the target audience.

On balance, Orgeret finds that emotions humanise the reporters and add depth to the people in a story. This is especially important for reaching younger audiences who increasingly get their news from social media.

Tracing hate and conflict

Orgeret’s research shows how essential these voices are to stopping the viral spread of propaganda and hate.

Her ongoing study is funded by the Norwegian Research Council in collaboration with researchers from Netherlands, Mali, and Ethiopia. It investigates how digital media – Twitter, Facebook and TikTok – amplify ethnic and political tensions.

Orgeret works with ethnographers, local anthropologists, and computational social scientists to create maps of how messages spread in two regions, the Sahel and the Horn of Africa, and two countries, Mali and Ethiopia, which recently exploded in conflict.

“We can actually see how the hate speech and the 'othering' of people, making them unworthy and inhuman, prepares people for horrible actions,” Orgeret explains.

These stories, based on misinformation and lies, change how people see their neighbours.

These are the same tactics used by authoritarians like the Nazis in Germany and the Hutus in Rwanda to commit genocide. 

“I don’t know if we will be able to find ways to resolve all these problems, but we are getting important empirical data of how hate speech fuels ethnic and political tensions and contributes to the escalation of violence,” Orgeret says. 

One part of the solution, the researcher believes, will be finding and amplifying voices of people who understand the local stories and can make an emotional connection to the people involved.

Journalists, especially women, are an essential part of telling these stories. Orgeret is working hard to make sure they are able to work safely and effectively.

Equipping the next generation

The lack of strong institutions and low media literacy make countries like Mali and Ethiopia more vulnerable than elsewhere. However, digital violence and threats to journalists are a worldwide phenomenon.

In order to prepare journalists to stand up to these threats, Orgeret, together with colleague Professor Roy Krøvel and their research group MEKK, has been hosting the Safety of Journalists conference at OsloMet for the past eight years. There, they discuss ways to protect journalists in both conflict areas and peaceful countries.

Orgeret works with the Norwegian Union of Journalists to teach the best practices to women journalists on the African continent in French and English, and learn from their experiences.

Sharing these stories and skills is one of the best tools against a social media landscape that thrives on polarisation and has become a growing threat to journalism and democracy.

In addition, Orgeret works with international colleagues to develop strategies for fighting the threats against women's participation in the public sphere.

While she is worried about important voices in the fields of journalism and politics being lost, she remains hopeful for the next generation of journalists.

Urges journalists to keep asking why

The journalism professor is fond of the Greek term doxa, which means ‘to appear or to accept’, in the context of the world around us and which includes things we usually take for granted. She invites her students to challenge doxa.

Typically, this happens through exposure to other cultures and norms, travel or the passage of time. On the other hand, phenomena like the #MeToo movement about gender and power showed that the right story can change norms in a matter of months.

Orgeret's advice to new and aspiring journalists is simple yet radical: 

“Take a step back and challenge what we take for granted. Ask 'why? Why? Why?',” Orgeret urges.

About Kristin Skare Orgeret

She was recently appointed board member of the Advisory Board for the new Online Violence Early Warning System project led by the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ), which aims to develop a systematic response to online attacks on women journalists.

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