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'They sent me an image of my photoshopped face on a pile of people being burnt'

A new DCU study published today reveals the hostility and abuse that women in journalism have faced online in Ireland.

BEING CALLED A “whore” for wearing hoop earrings, accused of “sleeping with people to get stories”, and sent an image of their face photoshopped onto a pile of bodies being burnt.

These are some of the experiences faced by women in journalism that are revealed in a new study published today by DCU.

The 62-page report has identified a broad range of types of online hostility encountered by women journalists in Ireland through in-depth interviews, finding that the “overarching feeling was that social media was a ‘double-edged sword’: being visible, active, and present offered a swathe of positives and opportunities, while it also brought problems”. 

The participants who were interviewed for the study acknowledged that all journalists, male and female, can experience hostility online.

However, they identified that women faced not only criticism of their work but also personal attacks on their background, expertise, and appearance; were subject to coarser and more sexualised language and content; were held to more difficult standards than men; and that the majority of such negative engagement came from men.

The study found that online abuse can come in “waves” based on covering certain articles or topics that would often attract negative engagement. Some of these types of topics that journalists identified were articles about Travellers, immigration, politics, and sport.  

The researchers interviewed 36 women working in national news sources. including RTÉ, Virgin Media, BBC Northern Ireland, The Irish Times, the Irish Independent, The Journal, The Irish Daily Mail/Irish Mail on Sunday, the Irish Examiner, the Irish Mirror, The Times Ireland/Sunday Times, and the Sunday World.

They also interviewed freelance journalists and journalists at two smaller publications that are not named in the study to protect the participants’ identities.

The interviews were conducted between April and August 2022.

Additionally, focus groups were held with 40 journalism students, both male and female, from DCU, University of Limerick, and University of Galway. 

Hostility and abuse

The interviewees recounted in detail some of the hostile and negative experiences they have been subjected to online during their time as journalists.

After sharing an opinion about the Covid-19 digital vaccine certificates and their use in restaurants and hotels, one journalist was retweeted by a high-profile commentator and subsequently received a pile-on of abuse.

“I got about 2,000 abusive responses, quote tweets, retweets. One of them told me I should die and they sent me an image of my Photoshopped face on a body on top of a pile of people being burnt. And lots of really horrible Nazi imagery.” 

One journalist described being subjected to a claim that she was “snorting cocaine and sleeping with people to get stories”, while another said she and her husband received unwanted contact on multiple occasions from a man she featured in a story more than a decade ago. 

A reporter working in television described that after appearing in a video as an intern, she was called a “whore” for wearing hoop earrings. Another said she received a comment saying “smelly prostitute” after sharing a post about online abuse that women face. 

Another journalist describing her experience of commentary about her appearance when she features on television said that people remark upon: “About the size of my lips, the size of my arse, my eyebrows. About the jewellery I wear, the way I talk, the class that I am – I’m very obviously working class.”

One was mocked for her accent after doing broadcast work and another was mocked over a photo of her cycling for her choice of safety gear.

A reporter who wrote a story that was critical of certain businesspeople approached one of them for a comment and subsequently received late-night threats and harassment on Facebook.

“He was sending veiled threats and text messages at 4am and being like, ‘if you post a story, I’m going to make sure your career is ruined. I’ll sue you for defamation’.”

The man found the journalist’s Facebook profile and took their personal photos. He proceeded to set up around “10 or 11 different accounts” and sent tweets using the journalist’s photos and tagging other people with comments such as “this bitch is trying to make all these people homeless”.

Another journalist was involved in an exchange with a well-known figure who criticised her conduct while reporting a story, and the figure persisted in posting about the journalist online for days afterwards.

“It was like they were trying to drag me in, to make me say something, to make me take the bait. And the more that happened, the more I was like ‘well, I might just say nothing’. Because you’re wading into a row where you’re never going to win … It’s incredibly frustrating to sit at home while [all] these people are saying stuff about you.” 

Several women described abuse or surveillance crossing over from online spaces into ‘real’ life, with people confronting them in person or contacting them to tell them they knew where they were.

“One person kind of got in my face and was shouting at me in the street and all this carry on. And then they took a picture of me and put it online to their following and they had thousands of followers. And I saw a load of people piling on and calling me X, Y, and Z, everything under the sun.” 

One woman, who described herself as having an immigrant background, said that she has experienced a “double whammy” of people being both racist and sexist, outlining: “I guess it does definitely make me more vulnerable to be a woman journalist online. You are also more vulnerable to real-life violence. If they get a hold of you and they can come to your door, they can harass you in person… you’d be more vulnerable than a man would be.” 

Expertise undermined

Some participants described how female journalists and experts’ level of knowledge or expertise about a subject is belittled or undermined.

Negative comments include sentiments such as “this is a stupid take, typical for a woman”, or that the journalist was not a “proper” expert in a traditionally male-dominated field like technology or motoring.

“Somebody wrote something [about my news report] like ‘maybe her stories would be better if she didn’t get all her stories from her hairdresser’. Now, they wouldn’t say that about a man … They were basically saying that I was poor at my job and that I was just some silly dolly bird who just gets stories from the beauty parlour essentially,” one journalist recounted. 

The journalists interviewed showed an openness to corrections addressing errors in their work if they arose. “I tend to be quite receptive if I do make a mistake and somebody tells me that – I want to change, I don’t want my work to continue to have a mistake in it,” one journalist said.

However, it was identified that the frequent “ridiculing” and publicised approach to “feedback” makes it challenging to engage with.


One reporter, who does not personally cover politics, said women in the political domain “need really hard skins – and especially with the rise of Sinn Féin. They can be perceived as either pro- or anti-Sinn Féin, and God help them whichever way they go”.

Many political reporters felt they were unfairly accused of being “mouthpieces” for the government or political parties despite their reporting proving the opposite.

“[They think] that we’re never going to question the government, we’re never going to question a minister – ‘why don’t we tackle them?’ That sort of stuff comes up just purely because you’re a journalist and it will have no basis,” one interviewee said.

“A lot of the time you see that these people clearly have not read what you’ve written, because if they had, they’d realise that you have questioned the minister, that you have put the tough questions to the minister or the government advisor or whatever, and you’ve actually tackled in the article their exact criticism.”   

Pressure to stay online

Even in the face of extremely negative experiences, many journalists still felt compelled to stay on social media for a wide range of reasons, including being able to monitor news, communicate their journalism, and access professional opportunities.

Social media platforms allow journalists to interact with potential contacts, find human interest stories, and communicate directly with figures that would otherwise be kept behind secretaries or PR staff.

Journalists also use social media to find work opportunities, especially freelancers, and build their visibility, which was noted as being useful in their current roles, for preparing for future prospects, and being invited to appear on radio and television to discuss their work.

Younger journalists in particular noted that it essentially feels “mandatory” in the journalism industry to be on Twitter. More experienced journalists acknowledged that the pressure was not as acute for them but that it is a reality for younger journalists.

“[If] you’re not promoting your stories and you’re not promoting your career online … You’re not showing, ‘this is who I am. This is the hard work I’m doing’. And that’s a good way to show potential employers your capabilities,” one person said.

Another said: “If there’s a tribunal or during the pandemic or a particular court case, some certain topic you’ve been reporting on quite intensively over a number of weeks or even just over a number of days. That’s the kind of thing a radio or TV producer, they spot that [online] and will ask you to go on the show. Those opportunities are not going to happen if you’re not visible online.”


The study recommends several solutions and recommendations to try to reduce the challenges and hostility that women journalists experience online.

Social media companies should respond more quickly to reported posts and re-evaluate their bars for what content should be removed, but also aim to prevent harmful content from being posted through better monitoring and verification of users instead of a slow, reactionary approach, the study advises.

News organisations should provide clear pathways and supports so journalists know where to turn to if they experience negative incidents online and training on how to separate public and private accounts, rather than employers over-emphasising the use of social media as a publishing or marketing tool.

Organisations should give their workers clarity about what is expected of them in terms of their professional social media profiles and how additional time and work in online spaces will be recognised.

From a legislative perspective, there should be meaningful monitoring of the objective and aims of the Online Safety and Media Regulation Bill.

“This should be done in a manner that will be pro-active and sensitive to the particular challenges for journalists and be part of broader reforms that will also tackle defamation laws which currently facilitate persistent legal threats against journalists,” the study outlined.

Legislators should “apply pressure on social media platforms to make changes and address the safety of their users and consider penalties, like fines, if regulations are breached”.

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