Journalists and Harassment

Among the many risks journalists face, they are often targets of harassment and aggression. While harassment is a concern for all journalists, female journalists in particular are more likely to be targets [Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), 2011]. Despite increasing awareness of the issue, little is known about journalist-specific risk factors and consequences. Most recently updated in December 2017, this fact sheet summarizes key information about harassment of journalists. (Note: The topic of online harassment is not included in this review).

What are the different types of harassment?

Sexual harassment

Sexual harassment can take many different forms, and researchers often organize sexually harassing behaviors into three categories: gender harassment, unwanted sexual attention, and sexual coercion (Gelfand, Fitzgerald, & Drasgow, 1995). 

  • Gender harassment: behaviors that convey hostile attitudes towards an individual due to that person’s gender. 
  • Unwanted sexual attention: both verbal and nonverbal behavior of a sexual nature that are considered unwelcome or offensive. 
  • Sexual coercion: bribes or threats affecting an individual’s employment status, which are based on the sexual cooperation of that individual. 


Interpersonal aggression is defined as “any form of behavior directed toward the goal of harming or injuring other individuals” (Neuman, 2012, p.15). Workplace aggression specifies that these behaviors occur in a work-related context. This definition encompasses a wide variety of behaviors from incidents of physical violence to name calling to sabotage.

Occupational Intimidation

Occupational intimidation occurs is defined as a form of harassment meant to discourage or otherwise harm a person’s ability to carry out duties related to their work (Parker, 2015). This goal may be reached through various means including phone taps, verbal threats, invasion of privacy, imprisonment, and murder. 


What is the prevalence of sexual harassment in the general population? 

Approximately 50% of women and about 10-20% of men report having experienced sexual harassment in the workplace (Berdahl & Raver, 2010). 

Given the increased frequency of sexual harassment among women, many researchers have chosen to focus specifically on women targets, specifically. 

  • 35-42% of women report having experienced gender harassment.
  • 15% of women report having experienced unwanted sexual attention. 
  • 1-6% of women report having experienced sexual coercion (Berdahl & Raver, 2010).  


What is the prevalence of sexual harassment among journalists?

According to several research studies examining sexual harassment in male and female journalists:

  • 58% of female and 35% of male journalists reported experiencing some form of sexual harassment (Parker, 2015)
  • Women were statistically significantly more likely to report experiencing sexual harassment than men.
  • 10% of Swedish journalists reported at least occasionally receiving threats of sexual violence against themselves (Nilsson & Ornebring, 2016)
  • 3% of Swedish journalists reported at least occasionally receiving threats of sexual violence against someone else (e.g. a friend or family member) (Nilsson & Ornebring, 2016)

In their study of female journalists, Barton & Storm (2013) found 14.3% of female journalists reported experiencing sexual violence in relation to their work.  Flatow (1994) also studied sexual harassment against female journalists and found:

  • 62% of female journalists report having experienced verbal sexual harassment.
  • 30% of female journalists report having experienced non-verbal sexual harassment.
  • 22% of female journalists report having experienced physical sexual harassment.
  • 20% of female journalists report having experienced environmental sexual harassment

It is important to note that these numbers are drawn from convenience samples rather than through random sampling methods. Such sampling methods may result in inaccuracy, either making rates higher (if journalists who have experienced harassment are coming forward to share their experiences) or lower (if journalists who have experienced harassment are unwilling or unable to share their experiences).



Several studies of the prevalence of non-sexual harassment of journalists found:

  • 63% of journalists reported experiencing occupational intimidation within the past twelve months  (Parker, 2015)
  • 21.6% of female journalists reported experiencing physical violence in relation to their work  (Barton & Storm, 2013)
  • 31% of Swedish journalists reported being threatened at least once in the past twelve months. (Nilsson & Ornebring, 2016))
  • 76% of Swedish journalists reported receiving abusive comments at least once in the past twelve months (Nilsson & Ornebring, 2016)


Who harasses journalists?

According to Parker (2015) among journalists who reported experiencing occupational intimidation:

  • 17% were intimidated by a person in the local community
  • 13% were intimidated by an unknown person(s)
  • 11% were intimidated by a source
  • 8% were intimidated by a government official
  • 7% were intimidated by a manager
  • 5% were intimidated by a colleague
  • 4% were intimidated by a member of a safety detail
  • 2% were intimidated by an editor
  • 1% were intimidated by a crew member

The same study also examined perpetrators of sexual harassment against both male and female journalists. Parker (2015) found:

  • 20% were harassed by a colleague
  • 11% were harassed by a manager
  • 11% were harassed by an editor
  • 9% were harassed by a person in the local community
  • 6% were harassed by a source
  • 5% were harassed by a crew member
  • 4% were harassed by an unknown person(s)
  • 1% were harassed by a member of a safety detail
  • 1% were harassed by a subordinate  

Barton & Storm (2013) examined several types of harassment against female journalists including “intimidation, threats, and abuse,” physical violence, and sexual violence. They found:

  • 32% of reported “intimidation, threats, and abuse” were perpetrated by an employer
  • 63% of perpetrators of “intimation, threats, and abuse” were male
  • 82% of reported physical violence occurred while covering a story either “in the field” or “in the street”
  • 50% of reported sexual violence was perpetrated by a co-worker, boss, or supervisor.

According to another study on female journalists (Flatow, 1994), among those who reported experiencing sexual harassment:

  • 60% were harassed by a coworker.
  • 40% were harassed by a source.
  • 29% were harassed by a supervisor.
  • 23% were harassed by another employee in the organization, with the harassing person’s position not specifically identified.


What are the impacts of harassment?

People who experience violence or harassment in a workplace context are likely to suffer from a number of work-related, psychological, and physical consequences (Chan et al., 2008; Collingsworth et al., 2009; Cortina & Berdahl, 2008). While there are few studies of the impact of harassment on journalists, individual journalists have reported symptoms ranging from: (West, 2017; Mantilla, 2015)

  • Anxiety attacks
  • Tension headaches
  • Insomnia
  • Weight loss
  • Extreme and excessive vigilance
  • General fear for safety 
  • Social isolation
  • Inability to get out of bed

Nilsson & Ornebring (2016) studied the effects of online harassment in Swedish journalists and found:

  • 49% of journalists were fearful of threats they received
  • 9% considered quitting their profession because of threats they received
  • 68% felt hurt after receiving abusive comments

37% worried about abusive comments they received

Problems experienced by journalists are similar to those reported by those in other professions who experience harassment in the workplace. These concerns include work-related, psychological and physical consequences (Chan et al., 2008; Collingsworth et al., 2009; Cortina & Berdahl, 2008):

Work-related consequences

  • Derive lower satisfaction from their work
  • Less committed to organization
  • Decline in job performance
  • Work withdrawal (e.g., being late, missing work, avoiding work duties, considering leaving job altogether)

Psychological consequences 

  • Anger and hostility
  • Lowered self-esteem
  • Humiliation
  • Self-blame
  • Relationship distress
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Substance abuse
  • Posttraumatic stress

Physical consequences 

  • Suppressed immune functioning
  • Heightened inflammation
  • Headaches
  • Gastrointestinal disorders
  • Sleep disturbance
  • Respiratory complaints
  • Pain
  • Weight loss/gain

Other characteristics that have a negative impact on psychological distress involve the frequency of the harassment and the power of the perpetrator.


How do journalists cope with harassment?

Studies suggest journalists may not be well equipped to respond to harassment. In one survey only 30% of female journalists reported their organizations took steps to protect the personal safety of journalists, 21% reported their organizations prepared them for non-violent work-related harassment, and 21% reported their organization prepared them for work-related violence (Barton & Storm, 2013).

Journalists may individually cope with harassment in a variety of ways, including doing nothing. A study of Swedish journalists found 66% of the journalists did not take any measures to address threats and 85% took no actions to address abusive comments (Nilsson & Ornebring, 2016). Of those who took measures to address threats, the most common responses were to hide/erase phone number or other personal data (38%) and reporting the threat to the police (33%). Of those who took measures to address abusive comments, the most common responses were closing down/sharply restricting the possibilities to comment on content (44%) and restricting behavior on social media (13%).

According to qualitative data collected by Barton & Storm (2013), other journalist specific coping behaviors include:

  • Avoiding certain stories that would require them to come in contact with their harasser or avoiding reporting on particular beats.
  • Seeking comfort from other journalists who have experienced something similar, both to cope and to alert others of people who pose a threat. 
  • Giving up working in journalism entirely.


Is harassment Reported? 

In a study of Swedish journalists (Nilsson & Ornebring, 2016) who experienced threats or abusive comments, 33% of those who took protective measures reported threats to the police and 7% reported abusive comments to the police.

In a study of female journalists, Barton & Storm (2013) found 35% of those who had experienced physical violence perpetrated by an employer, police, or other authority reported the violence. Of those who reported the violence, 52% reported the violence to their employer, 26% reported the violence to the police, and 23% reported it to another authority. 

Barton & Storm (2013) also asked female journalists why they were reluctant to bring incidents of harassment forward. These reasons include:

  • The reporting authority (e.g., boss, police, government official) may be the perpetrator or otherwise not trustworthy 
  • They wanted to avoid facing future discrimination or not being considered for opportunities available to male colleagues (e.g., certain assignments, promotions, training opportunities)
  • They feared negative consequences (e.g., retaliation and demotion)
  • They didn’t know who to report to
  • They were discouraged from talking about the harassment by a supervisor, colleague, or union representative.
  • They were told to “grow up”, “forget about it,” or “reject or ignore inappropriate behavior” 

Studies of harassment in the general population have found similar concerns about reporting harassment. Those who do not report harassment may avoid doing so because: (Berdahl & Raver, 2010; Cortina & Berdahl, 2008)

  • They believe their complaint will not be taken seriously.
  • They believe their complaint will not be acted on appropriately. 
  • They don’t want to be involved in something potentially controversial. 
  • They don’t want the harasser to be punished in an official manner. 
  • They want to avoid having a harassment complaint on their formal employment record.
  • They want to avoid secondary victimization or retaliation.
  • They fear they will be blamed.
  • They fear their career might be damaged.


Future Directions

Sexual harassment, aggression, and occupational intimidation against journalists have a range of negative consequences and implications for individual journalists and news organizations. While awareness is increasing, there is still much to learn.



Barton, A. & Storm, H. (2016). Violence and harassment against women in the news media: A global picture, International News Safety Institute.

Berdahl, J. L., & Raver, J. L. (2010). Sexual harassment.  In S. Zedeck (Ed.), APA Handbook of Industrial Organizational Psychology Volume 3: Maintaining, Expanding, and Contracting the Organization (pp. 641-669). American Psychological Association: Washington, DC.

Chan, D. K-S., Lam, C. B., Chow, S. Y., & Cheung, S. F. (2008). Examining job-related, psychological, and physical outcomes of workplace sexual harassment: A meta-analytic review.  Psychology of Women Quarterly, 32, 362-376.

Collingworth, L. L., Fitzgerald, L. F., & Drasgow, F. (2009). In harm’s way: Factors related to psychological distress following sexual harassment. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 33, 475-490.

Cortina, L. M., & Berdalk, J. L. (2008).  Sexual harassment in organziations: A decade of research in review.  In C. L. Cooper & J. Barling (Eds.), Handbook of Organizational Behavior (pp.469-497). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. 

Flatow, G. (1994). Sexual harassment in Indiana daily newspapers. Newspaper Research Journal, 15, 32–45. 

Gelfand, M. J., Fitzgerald, L. F., & Drasgow, F. (1995). The structure of sexual harassment: A confirmatory analysis across cultures and settings. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 47, 164–177. 

Mantilla, K. (2015). Gendertrolling: How misogyny went viral. Santa Barbra, CA: Praeger.

Neuman, J. H. (2012). Gender and sex differences in the forms of workplace aggression. In S. Fox & T. R. Lituchy (Eds.), Gender and the Dysfunctional Workplace. (pp. 14–28). Northampton, MA US: Edward Elgar Publishing. 

Nilsson, M. L., Ornebring, H. (2016). Journalism under threat. Journalism Practice, 10, 880 – 890.

Parker, K. (2015). Aggression against journalists: Understanding occupational intimidation of journalists using comparisons with sexual harassment.  Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Tulsa, Oklahoma.

West, L. (2017). Shrill. Lebanon, IN: Hachette Books.