Study reveals problem of social media hostility towards women journalists

Posted: 1 March, 2024

Three researchers pictured holding a report in a library

Researcher Dr Dawn Wheatley is the author of a prominent study published in May 2023 that documents the pressure and negative experiences of women journalists in Ireland who are navigating social media as part of their professional work.

The project was funded by the Irish Research Council of its New Foundations scheme, and was carried out in partnership with the National Women’s Council (NWC).


Titled ‘Social media and online hostility: Experiences of women in Irish journalism’, Dawn based the study on interviews with 36 national-level female journalists from a variety of outlets, including RTÉ, Virgin Media, BBC Northern Ireland, The Irish Times and the Irish Independent, among others.


Among the journalists’ reported negative experiences of being online are being ‘piled on’, which describes a rapid escalation of critical and judgmental reactions to a person online; late-night threats; mocking; unwanted contact; being targeted by a group; ridicule and shaming; and fake accounts set up in a journalist’s name.


The journalists acknowledged that male colleagues also face criticism and are targeted online, however most also identified particular gendered insults and threats, whether related to their appearance, attempts to discredit their expertise or professionalism, or comments that included outrightly sexual undertones.


The main findings outline how social media is an essential, useful and intertwined part of most journalists’ day-to-day work, and that most journalists have internalised the pressure to be active online. According to the report, they believe that having some kind of social media presence will help them to build their professional profile, generate more opportunities, and ultimately increase their “employability”.


Repercussions for women journalists

Writing in the report about the repercussions for women in journalism if employers push for active social media accounts from their journalists or potential employees and of online hostility, according to Dawn: “Women have historically been underrepresented in Irish journalism in numbers and seniority of roles. There has been some improvement in recent decades, but the influence of online culture and negative interactions could be a deterrent, causing a regression in women’s voices, presence, and influence in journalism.”


Key Policy Recommendations

The report sets out some key recommendations for social media companies, news organisations and legislators. These include that legislators apply more pressure on social media platforms to address the safety of their users, and that social media companies respond more quickly to reported posts and provide additional filtering options.


According to Dawn, the recommendations are both clear and realistic, and would make a huge difference. She said, “Looking towards the technology companies and the government for the solution is an obvious direction, but I think it’s also really important the newsroom managers wake up to this problem. The recommendations I set out in the report make that quite clear – small things such as clarity of when/if a journalist is expected to use social media as part of their work, or having clear, well-signposted structures and supports in place if journalists do encounter troubling content – these can make a huge difference in day-to-day work.”


Opening up discussion

According to Dawn, “The main aim of the project was really to document, in their own words, what women journalists were experiencing. I know from speaking to some journalists since the publication of the study that even getting it down on paper can serve as a starting point to get discussions going in the newsroom and get managers to realise the scale of what their reporters are grappling with.


“The risks Irish journalists are experiencing are – thankfully – less outrightly dangerous than in many countries around the world, but there is still a serious burden with social media that I think needs to be better acknowledged.”


Original field of study

Dawn has presented the study at two international conferences – the International Conference on the Safety of Journalists, in Oslo, Norway in November 2022, and the European Communication Research and Education Association (ECREA) conference in Aarhus, Denmark.


“It’s a topical issue in the research field at the moment,” said Dawn, “so it’s great to be able to contribute with an Irish perspective – often, these studies are dominated by much bigger countries.”


Dawn continued, “In particular, colleagues have appreciated the emphasis I’ve put on exploring the attitudes towards blocking/filtering practices used by journalists, and I think this is something original in this field as it’s a complex issue for journalists given their public-facing role and expectations around being accessible.”


National Women’s Council – Civic Society Partner

Commenting on her partnership with the National Women’s Council for the study, Dawn pointed to the organisation’s recent work on online abuse of women politicians and how her research study complemented it, and allowed the NWC to expand its advocacy and recognition of this problem into the journalism space.



Picture of Dr Dawn Wheatley

About Dr Dawn Wheatley

Dawn, who is an Assistant Professor in the School of Communications at Dublin City University (DCU) focusing on journalism, political communication and social media, worked as a production journalist for the Irish Daily Mail and The Irish Times before turning to research and teaching in DCU.


Before becoming an Assistant Professor, Dawn had undertaken her PhD at DCU from 2014 to 2018 for research funded by the IRC’s early career postgraduate scholarship programme that looked at media coverage of government health policy stories on online news websites in Ireland.


She currently chairs the BA Journalism Degree at DCU, which is the country’s longest-running journalism degree. She is also part of the Institute for Future Media, Democracy & Society (FuJo) in DCU where, in collaboration with the BAI since 2015, she is part of a team that has produced the annual Reuters Digital News Report for Ireland. This survey of the public provides crucial audience data from more than 30 countries about consumption habits and attitudes towards the news.


Today, Dawn is an expert on the news media landscape in Ireland, and in November 2022, she was invited to provide testimony before the Joint Committee on Tourism, Culture, Arts, Sport and Media on a discussion into future business model plans and a long-term vision for the media sector.


About the IRC’s New Foundations Programme

Enhancing Civic Society is one strand of the New Foundations funding programme and it supports small, discrete projects with civic society partners, such as the NWC, to collaborate on research that will tackle national or global societal challenges.


Since 2015, over 250 community, voluntary and charity organisations have engaged across our programmes with 423 funded projects and an associated investment in excess of €8,375,000.


The ‘Social media and online hostility: Experiences of women in Irish journalism’ report by Dr Dawn Wheatley can be read here.


Dr Dawn Wheatley took part in a first-person interview in August 2023 for this feature.



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