Bold Type: Wait, Am I a Bad Journalist?

Bold Type: Wait, Am I a Bad Journalist?

Welcome to Bold Type: Resilience After Harassment, a series celebrating resilience and growth—by journalists, for journalists—in the face of online harassment.

To protect their identity and safety, some writers have chosen to stay anonymous. This story comes to us from A., who is an investigative journalist.

As a journalist, I’m constantly learning and unlearning. My ideas or beliefs can morph, adapting to different perspectives, as new information comes to light or as I talk to different sources. But there is one thing I resolutely know about myself: I am a leftist and I am a leftist journalist.

I care about the ways structures of power oppress specific members of society, how race and gender and sexuality inform the way people are able to live their lives. I write for left-leaning publications on issues like xenophobia and migration, or the stifling of women’s rights. As a journalist, I try to lift up the voices of people who have been left behind by state or social structures—an inherently leftist way of looking at the media.

I’ve always thought that one of the greater honors as a progressive journalist would be to be called out by a right-wing pundit, hung out to dry for my liberal viewpoints. That would mean I was doing my job well. Each time I post an article about refugees, or abortion, I wait to see who will get angry. I’ve been lucky; never more than a few comments from bored trolls.

And then, last year, something so strange happened that it momentarily threw off my sense of self. I wrote a story for a well-respected national magazine on left-wing violence in one European country. The article was about the existence and history of left-wing terrorism in a particular country; it concluded that this violence seems to serve no real purpose and dwarfs in comparison to the right-wing, neo-Nazi violence that happens in the country. It took me a week to research and write.

I posted the article online. Over the next few days, I watched in horror as it started trending in ultra left-wing circles. I was called a fascist, an imbecile, a mouthpiece for the government (never mind that the country I wrote about had a left-wing government at the time).

The First Moments

It is a very strange feeling to be attacked online. I felt ashamed and stupid, and could feel my face getting hot as I masochistically read each angry analysis of my piece. One woman in particular was quite vocal, writing several long tweets ripping apart the piece and “the journalist who wrote this” over several days. I looked her up and saw that she was also a journalist. I’m not a confrontational person, but I’ve always felt that no matter how awkward it might be, it’s best to have a direct conversation. This, I would learn, is advice better suited to my marriage or friendships than it is to online vitriol.

The Response

I privately messaged her, thanking her for reading the piece and for sharing her critiques online. I addressed some of the points she had laid out on her Twitter feed, which had been retweeted and liked dozens of times. I naively assumed that as a fellow female journalist, she would be able to see my perspective, and that we could have a productive conversation. Instead, she ripped my piece open again, picking apart each sentence with the enthusiasm of an unhinged high school English teacher.

I’m lucky that I have an amazing support system of female journalists who I can lean on. “Don’t worry,” they told me when I shared this exchange. “She’ll have moved onto something next week.” They were right, but it took me months before I was able to think about this story without wriggling in embarrassment. Most troublingly was being left with the feeling that I wasn’t who I thought I was—maybe I wasn’t a good journalist, and maybe I wasn’t a good leftist.

The Support and Assurance

Like my day-to-day life as a journalist, there were lessons to be learned here. Firstly, having a group of colleagues you can vent to is a huge balm. Most of my colleagues had gone through similar, if not worse experiences; simply sharing made me feel better. My colleagues read my piece and assured me I was still both a good journalist and a good leftist. Having my fears assuaged by outsiders put things in perspective. They reminded me that this was a stranger on the internet—literally the thing we grew up learning to avoid—and that whatever this person thought, it was more a reflection of them than it was of me. I absolutely recommend starting a WhatsApp group with a couple of colleagues you already know (my group is from a fellowship reporting trip), or you can join existing freelance groups. I love Study Hall, the various Binders groups, and Anna Codrea-Rado’s The Professional Freelancer listserv.

Secondly, freelance journalists don’t get constant feedback from bosses, because we don’t have any. Looking for reactions to our pieces online can seem to fill this void, but it’s not a fruitful endeavor. The same way one exercises restraint in not looking at their ex-partner’s social media profiles, one might not want to snoop around online explicitly looking for reactions to pieces. I no longer search for responses to my articles, employing an “out of sight, out of mind” mentality. When something negative does fall into my lap, I try to remember the basic rule of (British) journalism: what is today’s news is tomorrow’s fish and chips paper.

Thank you so much to A. for sharing her story with us and the public. Interested in sharing your own story? Get in touch →

Additional Online Harassment Resources

Illustration created for OnlineSOS by Anna Tóth