Even thick skin gets bruised Journalists cannot both work in public and shelter behind a firewall, but hate mail takes a toll on the heart and discourse
Read this article for free:
Already have an account? Log in here »
To continue reading, please subscribe:
Monthly Digital Subscription
$4.75 per week*
- Enjoy unlimited reading on winnipegfreepress.com
- Read the E-Edition, our digital replica newspaper
- Access News Break, our award-winning app
- Play interactive puzzles
*Billed as $19.00 plus GST every four weeks. Cancel anytime.
Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 08/10/2021 (605 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
I don’t remember the first time someone called me a c–t for something I’d written in the paper. It seems as if it would have been a memorable event, an early introduction to the bruises one incurs while working in public, but the reality of the job is that every such insult soon falls into a long line of the same, marching behind us in the distance.
We write, we report, we get called c–ts and bitches. We tell stories, we do our best, we get stalked on social media. We learn to use filters on our emails to weed out the worst messages, but those don’t always work. We hold up our heads, we seek out support, we can’t even spell out the words we are called in our own papers.
Abuse is part of the topography of working as a journalist. It’s worse for some than it is for others: worse for women, for Muslims and anybody who isn’t white. It comes in letters with no return address. It comes on social media and at anti-mask rallies. In my early years at the Free Press, there were even a few snarling voicemail messages.
Dozens of journalists have received targeted and shockingly hateful emails, triggering a renewed effort to understand the scope of the problem, and develop responses to push back against it.
Even the most minor things can trigger it. Once, a civil servant sent me a profanity-laden email from his government of Manitoba email account because he didn’t like a concert review I had written. Once, a man I had briefly interacted with on Twitter made a fake account with my photo to harass me in puerile and grotesquely lewd ways.
But those examples pale in comparison to the abuse of journalists that has surged across Canada in recent weeks. In that time, dozens of journalists have received targeted and shockingly hateful emails, triggering a renewed effort to understand the scope of the problem, and develop responses to push back against it.
First, let’s discuss the recent emails themselves. They began shortly after People’s Party of Canada leader Maxime Bernier tweeted the email addresses of three reporters who had contacted him for comment on their stories, urging his faithful to “play dirty.” They have continued right up until the writing of this column.
The emails are clearly a response to Bernier’s call. The majority are written as a mockery of a reporter’s request for comment; most, though not all, appear to be written by the same person. They are sent from email services known for strong privacy protections, and from multiple such addresses, likely to make them more difficult to block.
Shortly after the emails began, the Canadian Anti-Hate Network reported that Bernier’s tweet had been shared in an online youth white supremacist chat room. Of 25 emails I saw that have been publicly documented, 18 were directed at women and 13 to people of colour, particularly Black and Muslim women.
And the emails are, for the most part, so obscene, so misogynist and so nakedly racist that their content is largely unprintable. It is as if the writer’s goal is simply to pack as much hate as they can into each sentence. Some are explicitly violent: at least one contained a detailed fantasy about subjecting the recipient to a public execution.
One group of media outlets issued a joint statement against the hate, saying they would support their journalists and advocate for an industry response. The Canadian Association of Journalists (an organization with which I serve as a regional board member) has developed an action plan to advocate for reporters and confront the problem.
The Coalition for Women in Journalism has actively spoken out on the issue. Carleton University’s journalism school is working with the CAJ to convene an industry-wide summit. And on social media, people have offered a great deal of care and support for those affected; this storm started with hate, but it has been followed with love.
These acts of focus and solidarity give me hope. But the thing I fear most is that we cannot stop this, not really.
You cannot both work in public, as journalists do, and build a complete firewall around yourself. We cannot make ourselves unreachable, and still do our jobs.
As long as the internet exists, there will — indeed, must — be options for anonymous communication. We can devise better tools to limit the ability of abusers to access their targets, and pressure email providers to improve anti-abuse features. But there will always be ways for people to send abuse without revealing their own identity.
On the receiving end, there are few options. You cannot both work in public, as journalists do, and build a complete firewall around yourself. We cannot make ourselves unreachable, and still do our jobs. We need sources to be able to find us; we also owe audiences a chance to offer feedback and call our work to account.
This is something we know when we enter this field, but the reality can be painful. Journalists have little insulation to protect us, and newsrooms don’t always know how to support targets of hate; an industry that long lionized having a “thick skin” for the bruises of public debate still struggles to make space for how deeply it can affect us.
So a victim of abuse is faced with few options other than to manage on their own. And we do: when abusive emails land in my inbox I scan the first couple of words, block the sender and delete. As a personal tactic, it has served me well. But as advice it is callous and insufficient, a fancier way of saying “suck it up” in the face of staggering hate.
Some of this a problem for journalists to figure out. But the public should be concerned too. There are many things that chip away at a free press: authoritarian governments, media monopolies, weak speech protections. To this list, we must add abuse, because the effect it has and will continue to have on the public discourse is chilling.
I know this from my own work. Over time, my willingness to engage topics most likely to generate abuse has ebbed; if I wade in, I tend to approach them in the gentlest possible ways. Here too, the knife is double-edged: if I articulate this reluctance, a well-meaning reader or friend inevitably suggests that I have “let the abusers win.”
Maybe I have, but while my work is part of who I am, it is not the entirety. It is simply one part of a life I must inhabit completely, and that life must remain livable to me. There are days I’ve thought myself a coward for choosing not to engage an idea I know will draw hate, and maybe I am. But I also have to feel safe, and find joy, and sleep at night.
Once, in frustration, I tried explaining this to a person who had sent me an unusually cruel letter, accusing me of all manner of treachery in the most nasty possible language. I’m just a person, I told him. You don’t have to like what I write; but I am just a person who, like you, is just trying to get by in my life, and I don’t deserve this.
There are days I’ve thought myself a coward for choosing not to engage an idea I know will draw hate, and maybe I am. But I also have to feel safe, and find joy, and sleep at night.
To my surprise, he responded sheepishly, even apologetically: he didn’t think I would read what he wrote, he said. Until the moment I responded, I was a thing to him, not a person. Just a thing, a repository for the anger he felt at what he read in the paper. Not really real, and certainly not really human.
But not all who target journalists for abuse will have that moment of realization. Some know all too well that we are human: they know that, like all people, we can be hurt and we can be frightened. They know they can wield abuse as a weapon to silence, to intimidate, and to try and limit who can safely participate in public discourse.
That’s the bind so many journalists are placed in, particularly those who are Black, Indigenous or people of colour, those for whom simply existing draws the rage of the most vitriolic abusers. To work in public is to be available for abuse; for so many journalists, to contribute the full depth of their perspectives means inflaming it further.
Canadians should know this, even if there’s not a lot they can do. A healthy society needs thriving journalism, and journalism thrives most when it encompasses the most diverse range of voices and experiences and people. Hate aims to destroy the vibrancy of that world; if we care about journalism, we won’t let that happen.
Melissa Martin reports and opines for the Winnipeg Free Press.