female journalists

TVA reporter Kariane Bourassa (centre) | Twitter

Women are routinely disrespected, even when the disrespect isn’t televised

Rape threats and on-the-job harassment, abuse and assault are par for the course for female journalists.

I was happy to see collective outrage expressed over TVA Nouvelles journalist Kariane Bourassa being “hugged” against her will by two unknown men while reporting from an anti-mask protest in Quebec City this past Sunday. “Female journalists should not have to do their job while constantly looking over their shoulder to see if someone will invade their space,” she tweeted, while sharing a screenshot of the incident.

Kariane Bourassa responds to assault

One of the two men was later found on Facebook “apologizing” to her, while simultaneously imploring everyone “to calm down” because they “didn’t kill anyone.” He ended his “apology” with: “If there’s no room for a little humour, we’ve hit rock bottom.”

Ah… the time-honoured and forever-uttered-to-women justification and minimization of ordinary sexism:

“It’s just a joke.”

“They were just having a little fun.”

“Boys will be boys.”

“They didn’t mean anything by it.”

“Lighten up.”

Adding stress to an already stressful job

Reporting on the front lines, covering a protest, doing a live hit from an event or even just trying to get streeters from often-uninterested passersby, done as quickly and as efficiently as possible, is hard work. It requires concentration, being quick on your feet, fact-checking on the fly, the ability to write, memorize and read your script for the camera, all while remaining composed, professional and representing your news outlet to the best of your abilities. It also puts you right in the line of fire, vulnerable and out in the open for every fool to think they can access you.

In these lean industry times, most video journalists do not even have the luxury and the added protection of having a camera operator on assignment with them. They are routinely on their own, with nothing more than a camera, a tripod, their phone and their common sense.

On top of the daily stress of a relentless work pace, tight deadlines and an industry experiencing major cutbacks and layoffs, journalists now have the added stressors and dangers of covering news in the middle of a global pandemic, and coming into daily contact with people who constantly flout science recommendations and government regulations for social distancing and mandatory masks.

Female journalists, however, have a few more obstacles thrown in their way just to make their lives a bit more interesting: sexism and misogyny and a culture that too often normalizes or excuses infantile male predatory behaviour as “harmless jokes.” There is a cost to reporting while female that, too often, women keep under wraps for fear of being perceived as difficult, complainers or not tough enough for the job.

Female journalists feel the brunt of harassment

There is nothing funny or flattering about being accosted on the street by some random man who decides to yell “F*ck her right in the pussy” or “T’es belle!” or touches you without your consent while you’re trying to shoot your stand-up and head back to the office to edit your story on time. It’s insulting, it’s scary, it’s demeaning, it’s distracting and it’s deeply offensive. It throws you off your game and takes you away from the headspace you need to be in. It also makes you feel like you’re not safe on the street where so much reporting takes place and forces you to constantly be on edge while you should be focused on your work.

Ask any female journalist and I guarantee you they’ve been the target of some creep who thought it would be cute to jump in front of the camera, follow them around or hurl lewd, sexist or downright abusive insults from across the street, forcing them to have to record their stand-up one more time. But this time they get to do it while distracted, angry, scared or frazzled.

I’ve been seeing the anger and outrage circulating over Bourassa’s assault (and, make no mistake, in COVID times being hugged by two unmasked strangers and incurring the risk of infection of a virus that has proven deadly to so many, is most definitely an assault, and I hope she files charges) and this solidarity is a wonderful thing.

But I want to see people just as outraged and upset when it isn’t televised. Stop downplaying, brushing off, minimizing these incidents and how it affects a victim’s mood, their performance, their daily behaviour and choices, and their sense of security and self.

You don’t have to see an assault like this happen in real time to believe it happens. Get angry even without the photographic proof. Believe women when they tell you that this type of disrespect happens far too often and starts at far too young an age in their lives. Stop perpetuating and normalizing it by excusing the behaviour as harmless.

We like to pretend that Quebec is some sort of bastion of gender equality and that men know how to behave towards women here. The recent wave of sexual allegations rocking the province should put an end to that kind of comforting, but false, belief. But, of course, men like the ones who assaulted Bourassa, and smiled for the camera like they were engaging in something proud-worthy, never see themselves as part of the problem. It’s “just fun.”

Misogyny manifests in different ways

How female journalists are treated is often just an extension of how women are treated in this society.

It was just a few weeks ago that a Montreal woman came forward with a complaint about an STM driver making lewd gestures to her, mimicking cunnilingus while driving a bus. Think about it… A public service employee paid with our tax dollars, tasked with driving us safely to our destinations, is hurling sexist abuse while on the clock, instead of his full attention being on the road! The STM is “looking into it” and “condemning” the behaviour. Since internal action is confidential, we’ll never know if this man will ever be disciplined, and if so, what that disciplinary action will be. If the people doing the disciplining are also a bunch of guys and part of the boys’ club who also think this is funny and not worth him losing his job over it, he just got away with disrespecting a woman on our dime.

Imagine living in the kind of world where this type of behaviour is so tolerated that this man thought he could get away with something so glaringly unprofessional and still get to keep his job. That’s the world women live in. For all this talk of “cancel culture,” most of these sexist buffoons don’t get cancelled. They move along in life perfectly fine thanks to our complaisance as a society and a code of silence that protects them.

How else does a Republican congressman think he can call a female colleague a “fucking bitch” while she’s on the job and get to keep his? Of course, we all know how that worked out for him, because Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez obliterated him with one of the finest speeches against structural sexism ever recorded. But she shouldn’t have had to give that speech at all.

Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez responds to harassment

I know that part of journalism often involves throwing yourself in the middle of a protest and trying to get those coveted quotes and clips for TV. Unpredictable situations are part of the job. Seasoned TVA Nouvelles reporter Yves Poirier certainly saw his share of abuse while covering the Montreal anti-mask protest on Saturday.

But there is a different kind of abuse and disrespect reserved for women. It’s layered with sexism and misogyny. It’s arrogant, it’s meant to communicate control and power over us by belittling and scaring us physically. There’s a reason no male equivalent exists of the “FHRITP” trend that terrorized female journalists for a while. And there is a reason why female opinion columnists routinely receive rape threats and gross anonymous messages online simply for daring to express their thoughts. Like feminist author Laurie Penny astutely wrote, “A woman’s opinion is the mini-skirt of the internet.” When we put ourselves out there, we’re basically “asking for it.”

Of course, journalists have the right to refuse an assignment if they feel their safety is at risk, and most assignment editors understand and respect that. But female journalists shouldn’t have to limit where they go or tolerate people and behaviour that make their already difficult job even more tedious and treacherous.

They have the right to do their job without being demeaned and assaulted. I can’t believe that something so obvious still needs to be written in 2020. ■

Read more editorials by Toula Drimonis here.