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Journal ArticleDOI

Female journalists under attack? Explaining gender differences in reactions to audiences’ attacks:

01 Oct 2020-New Media & Society (Sage Publications)-Vol. 22, Iss: 10, pp 1849-1867

TL;DR: This study examines why female journalists are more likely than male journalists to use avoidance strategies as a reaction to online attacks, based on mediation analyses of online survey data of 637 journalists representative of Switzerland.

AbstractThe literature on public figures attacked by their audiences is unclear why female and male figures react differently to attacks. This study examines why female journalists are more likely than mal...

Topics: Coping (psychology) (55%)

Summary (3 min read)

Introduction

  • In today’s media-permeated societies, public figures are regularly harassed by their audiences, but not all of them seem to be equally impacted.
  • They are attacked through letters, face-toface, and these days overwhelmingly online, such as on social networking sites, in emails, and in comment sections.
  • Thus, the present study examines why female journalists might show different avoidance behavior from male journalists as a reaction to attacks.
  • This theoretical framework is particularly suitable because it contrasts two possible explanations for gendered behavior.

Coping with attacks

  • When individuals are confronted with attacks and hate speech, whether offline or online, they cope with it by adapting their attitudes and their behaviors (e.g. Leets, 2002).
  • Commonly, men and women are expected to behave in accordance with dominant beliefs about gender roles (Berger et al., 1980; Webster et al., 2018).
  • If people apply emotion-focused adaptations, they avoid the threat that reduces stress and anxiety (Roth and Cohen, 1986).
  • In contexts where journalists cope with attacks against them personally or against their colleagues, avoidance strategies are of specific concern.
  • Here, the authors use the proposed mechanisms of sanction severity and of stress resulting from gender role socialization as a basic framework to predict why female journalists are more likely than male journalists to apply avoidance strategies as a response to attacks.

Data and method

  • This study uses data from an online survey of journalists in Switzerland conducted between July and October 2017.
  • Some survey questions were inspired by similar surveys by Preuss et al. (2017) and Nilsson and Örnebring (2016).
  • The authors used two contact channels to maximize the reach of the survey.
  • The authors explicitly motivated journalists who had never been attacked to participate to minimize a nonresponse bias, because attacked journalists may more likely self-select into the survey.
  • The final sample can be considered representative for journalists in Switzerland (see Table I in the Supplementary Material for a socio-demographic comparison with an extensive study on journalists in Switzerland by Dingerkus et al. (2018)).

Measurements

  • The three outcome variables represent the three strategies journalists used to avoid future attacks (last 24 months).
  • Journalists were asked relatively how often they, as a reaction to attacks, (1) had avoided reading readers’ comments to their publications, (2) had avoided contacting their audience by limiting social media activities or keeping their contact information hidden, and (3) had limited or closed the possibility of comments to their publications.
  • This variable is dichotomous, although in the survey the authors offered a third option (“other”) besides these two gender options.
  • The authors measured the migration background of the journalists with two dichotomous variables.
  • Frequency of publishing indicates how often journalists published journalistic content.

Mediation model.

  • The authors recommend a bootstrap test of the indirect effect and reporting the coefficients and the 95% confidence intervals of this test.
  • Furthermore, the authors report the unstandardized regression coefficients of the two regression steps in Figure 2 to allow a more detailed interpretation of the results.
  • The authors used a multiple imputation method to deal with questions some journalists had not answered (on average less than 7% observations of a variable were missing).
  • For the first regression step, the authors treated the mediator variables as quasi-metric and applied standard ordinary least square (OLS) regressions.
  • Across all models, the main results remain robust.

Results

  • Overall, their results do not support the hypotheses on sanction severity but fully support the hypothesis on stress by gender socialization: as shown in Table 1, the coefficients of the indirect effect of sexually attacked and physically–materially threatened are not significant, while the indirect effect of the stress mediation is significant for all three outcomes.
  • For the coefficients of the regression steps, see Figure 2 (and, for more details, see Tables III and IV in the Supplementary Material).

Sexually attacked

  • The first regression step in calculating the indirect effect shows that women are more likely to be sexually attacked.
  • The coefficient of gender in the sexually attacked regression is significant.
  • Nevertheless, there is no overall mediation effect for being sexually attacked, because the mean indirect effect from the bootstrap analysis is not significant for any of the outcome variables (accordingly, the 95% confidence interval includes zero in all three outcome variables).
  • Therefore, being sexually attacked does not mediate gender differences in avoiding strategies.
  • In the first regression step, the gender coefficient is not significant, indicating that there is no difference between men and women in the likelihood of being physically–materially threatened.

Stress due to gender socialization

  • For stress, the mean indirect effect of the bootstrap analysis is positive and significant, with a 95% confidence interval excluding zero for all three outcomes: limiting engagement with audience, adapting reporting behavior, and considering quitting journalism.
  • The coefficients for the three outcome variables regressed on stress are positive.
  • The size of the indirect effect that is mediated by stress relative to the total effect for limiting engagement with audience is 0.31/0.705 = 0.443; for adapting reporting behavior 0.736; and for considering quitting journalism 1.740.
  • The direct effect of gender on all three outcomes is not significant when mediators are included.
  • Therefore, the authors have an indirect-only mediation (Zhao et al., 2010), meaning that gender affects the outcomes only via the indirect path through stress.

Discussion

  • In today’s media-permeated societies, many public figures such as journalists are regularly harassed, particularly online.
  • The mediation results explain this gendered avoidance by a gender difference in feeling stressed from attacks.
  • More importantly, however, female journalists are not more likely than males to apply avoidance strategies because they are more likely to be sexually attacked or physically–materially threatened.
  • First, although the inclusion of diverse control variables and the theoretical foundation minimize confounding factors, the survey design does not allow causal inferences to be drawn.

Adams C (2018) “They Go for Gender First”. Journalism Practice 12(7): 850–869.

  • Almeida DM and Kessler RC (1998) Everyday stressors and gender differences in daily distress.
  • Chen GM, Pain P, Chen VY, et al. (2018) ‘You really have to have a thick skin’: a cross-cultural perspective on how online harassment influences female journalists.
  • Tittle CR and Logan CH (1973) Sanctions and deviance: evidence and remaining questions.

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ZurichOpenRepositoryand
Archive
UniversityofZurich
UniversityLibrary
Strickhofstrasse39
CH-8057Zurich
www.zora.uzh.ch
Year:2020
Femalejournalistsunderattack?Explaininggenderdierencesinreactions
toaudiences’attacks
Stahel,Lea;Schön,Constantin
Abstract:Theliteratureonpublicguresattackedbytheiraudiencesisunclearwhyfemaleandmale
guresreactdierentlytoattacks.Thisstudyexamineswhyfemalejournalistsaremorelikelythan
malejournaliststouseavoidancestrategiesasareactiontoonlineattacks. Avoidanceincludeslimiting
audienceengagement,adaptingreportingbehavior,andthinkingaboutquittingjournalism.Drawingon
socialroletheoryandgenderstereotypes,thisstudycontraststwoexplanatoryhypotheses.Theresults,
basedonmediationanalysesofonlinesurveydataof637journalistsrepresentativeofSwitzerland,show
thatwomenaremorelikelythanmentouseavoidancestrategiesbecausewomenaremorestressed
byattacks.Thisheightenedstressisarguedtoresultfromdierencesingenderrolesocialization.In
contrast,whilewomenaresomewhatmoreseverelyattackedthanmen,thiscannotexplaintheirgreater
probabilityofavoidance.Resultscontributeatheoreticallyandempiricallyrichexplanationofgendered
reactionstoattacks.
DOI:https://doi.org/10.1177/1461444819885333
PostedattheZurichOpenRepositoryandArchive,UniversityofZurich
ZORAURL:https://doi.org/10.5167/uzh-182140
JournalArticle
AcceptedVersion
Originallypublishedat:
Stahel,Lea;Schön,Constantin(2020).Femalejournalistsunderattack?Explaininggenderdierences
inreactionstoaudiences’attacks.NewMediaSociety,22(10):1849-1867.
DOI:https://doi.org/10.1177/1461444819885333

Female journalists under attack?
Explaining gender differences in reactions to audiences’ attacks
Lea Stahel
University of Zurich
Department of Sociology
Andreasstrasse 15
8050 Zurich, Switzerland
Tel: +41 44 635 23 17
stahel@soziologie.uzh.ch
Constantin Schoen
University of Zurich
Department of Sociology
Andreasstrasse 15
8050 Zurich, Switzerland
Tel: +41 44 635 23 16
schoen@soziologie.uzh.ch

Abstract
The literature on public figures attacked by their audiences is unclear why female and male figures react
differently to attacks. This study examines why female journalists are more likely than male journalists
to use avoidance strategies as a reaction to online attacks. Avoidance includes limiting audience
engagement, adapting reporting behavior, and thinking about quitting journalism. Drawing on social role
theory and gender stereotypes, this study contrasts two explanatory hypotheses. The results, based on
mediation analyses of online survey data of 637 journalists representative of Switzerland, show that
women are more likely than men to use avoidance strategies because women are more stressed by
attacks. This heightened stress is argued to result from differences in gender role socialization. In
contrast, while women are somewhat more severely attacked than men, this cannot explain their greater
probability of avoidance. Results contribute a theoretically and empirically rich explanation of gendered
reactions to attacks.
Keywords
Coping, gender, journalists, online attacks, social role theory, socialization, survey

Introduction
In today’s media-permeated societies, public figures are regularly harassed by their audi-
ences, but not all of them seem to be equally impacted. Generally, public figures such as
politicians, celebrities, popular academics, and journalists have become highly exposed
and accessible. This has made them easy targets for shaming, defamation, and trolling
(Barlow and Awan, 2016; Johnen et al., 2018; Preuss et al., 2017; Shin et al., 2017).
Some of them regularly receive large amounts of vulgar, pathologizing, inappropriately
generalizing, disparaging, offensive, and threatening feedback against either them or
their work (called attacks in the following). They are attacked through letters, face-to-
face, and these days overwhelmingly online, such as on social networking sites, in
emails, and in comment sections. The existing anecdotal evidence on attacked public
figures emphasizes the negative impact of such attacks on the targeted individuals and on
society at large (e.g. Astor, 2018; Barlow and Awan, 2016; Eckert, 2018). Most of this
evidence, though, is limited to attacked women. For example, among journalists, it is
predominantly female journalists who report avoiding attacks by closing their social
media accounts or stopping writing for the public, and, thus, self-selecting out of the
public sphere (Adams, 2018; Chen et al., 2018; Friedersdorf, 2014; Sletvold Øistad,
2015). Similar accounts by men are rare. Combined with other evidence showing that
online harassment generally affects women more strongly than men (Kenski et al., 2017;
Pew Research Center, 2014), this suggests that female public figures might be more
likely than male public figures to use avoidance strategies as responses to attacks.
However, the existing literature on attacks against public figures and journalists spe-
cifically (e.g. Barlow and Awan, 2016; Johnen et al., 2018; Preuss et al., 2017; Shin et al.,
2017) to our best knowledge includes no systematic research on whether women are
indeed more likely than men to react to attacks with avoidance. Furthermore, the litera-
ture neither argues theoretically nor shows empirically how such gender differences
among public figures could be explained. Filling these research gaps is, though, both
important and timely. New research may theoretically clarify and differentiate the thus-
far inconclusive gendered dimension of attacks on public figures. Also, knowledge about
any gendered avoidance may clarify long-term consequences, such as any reduction in
the diversity of people and perspectives in the public sphere (Adams, 2018; Craft et al.,

2016; Nielsen, 2014).
Thus, the present study examines why female journalists might show different avoid-
ance behavior from male journalists as a reaction to attacks. We use the literature on
coping (e.g. Chen et al., 2018; Fox and Tang, 2017; Leets, 2002) to examine journalists’
responses to attacks. We focus on three forms of avoidance: limiting engagement with
one’s audience, adapting one’s reporting behavior, and considering quitting journalism.
To explain the gendered aspect of avoidance behavior, we draw on social role theory and
gender stereotypes (Eagly and Wood, 2011; Prentice and Carranza, 2002). This theoreti-
cal framework is particularly suitable because it contrasts two possible explanations for
gendered behavior. The first is sanction severity (Eagly and Wood, 2011; Prentice and
Carranza, 2002; Rudman et al., 2012; Wenzel, 2004), which allows a focus on the sever-
ity of attacks. It argues that female journalists are more likely to apply avoidance strate-
gies than males because they are more severely attacked. This explanation is suggested
implicitly or explicitly in many anecdotal sources on the topic (e.g. Chen et al., 2018;
Ferrier and Garud-Patkar, 2018; Friedersdorf, 2014; Tofalvy, 2017). The second reason
is the internalization of gender roles (Dedovic et al., 2009; Matud, 2004), which allows
a focus on the stress experienced following attacks. It argues that female journalists are
more likely to apply avoidance strategies than males because they are more stressed by
attacks generally. We analyze online survey data of 637 journalists representative of
Switzerland in a multivariate mediation approach. Our results contribute a theoretically
driven and empirically validated explanation for public figures’ gendered reactions to
attacks to the literature on attacks against public figures.
Research on coping and on gender differences in behaviors
This theoretical section first introduces literature on coping with attacks. It then presents
the theory and reasons for gender differences in behaviorsanction severity and stress
resulting from internalization of gender rolesand how both may lead to avoidance.
This theoretical framework justifies our focus on avoidance as a coping strategy and
explains gendered avoidance behavior among journalists.
Coping with attacks
Individuals cope with attacks in a variety of ways. When individuals are confronted with

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  • ...These findings echo concerns raised by Stahel and Schoen (2019) that “unequal gender reactions to attacks can systematically disadvantage women.”...

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  • ...Women generally report a higher incidence of online harassment than men (Eckert, 2018; Mijatović, 2016; Stahel & Schoen, 2019)....

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  • ...In the end, “the original idea of involving the audience in news production, aimed at strengthening democratic structures and weakening exclusive gatekeeping ones ... might boomerang; it may promote inequality within the journalistic profession” (Stahel & Schoen, 2019, p. 16)....

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  • ...…that one gender is more often placed in situations (such as audience-facing roles) that elicit greater possibilities for harassment, a difference that could account for much of their greater reported rates of harassment (see also Löfgren Nilsson & Örnebring, 2016; Stahel & Schoen, 2019)....

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  • ...This led them to conclude that their study, at least in Switzerland, “contradicts the image of women as the main target of particularly severe attacks” (cf. Binns, 2017; Stahel & Schoen, 2019, p. 15)....

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  • ...Being sexually attacked online, women journalists who exhibit a more traditional gender role orientation reduce their engagement with the audience or even consider quitting journalism (Stahel & Schoen, 2019)....

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  • ...Not only feminist activists, but also women journalists and scholars working on controversial topics experience harassment when they make themselves publicly visible on social media platforms (e. g., Stahel & Schoen, 2019; Veletsianos, Houlden, Hodson, & Gosse, 2018)....

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  • ...…ideological orientation and social characteristics induce backlash effects against women in digi tal communication contexts (Wilhelm & Joeckel, 2019) and how women professionals deal with online harassment and abuse (Chen et al., 2020; Sobiraj, 2018; Stahel & Schoen, 2019; Veletsianos et al. 2018)....

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  • ...According to Chen et al. (2018), Eckert (2017), and Stahel and Schoen (2019) women and people of colour are more likely to receive online harassment....

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