Journalists getting heckled and harassed whilst doing their jobs is nothing new, but female reporters are ready for it to become a thing of the past.
For many years, female reporters have been subjected to various forms of harassment and heckling from the public, and it’s clear that many have had enough.
However, it is difficult to gauge whether the importance of the discussion outweighs the backlash these reporters face as a result.
CBC’s Chris O’Neill-Yates is unfortunately no stranger to harassment, primarily speaking out against the FHRITP (a verbal assault referring to a sexual act) trend that has swept North America since 2014.
A few years ago, while preparing to shoot a stand-up for a news story, a car drove by and a man leaned out through the window and yelled the phrase directly at O’Neill-Yates. At the time, she said she had heard about the phenomenon through social media, and at first, she was slightly awed that it had spread to Newfoundland.
“It’s something that I didn’t expect,” said O’Neill-Yates. “Maybe I was naïve, but it makes you feel very vulnerable.”
Following the incident, O’Neill-Yates wrote a column about it, expressing her disgust, condemning the originator and the sexist fad as a whole.
Since then, O’Neill-Yates says a number of her colleagues have been subjected to similar harassment, some even within the last year.
NTV reporter Heather Gillis says she’s been victim of the FHRITP craze “four or five times”. Other cases of harassment she’s endured include a man relentlessly interrupting while she was conducting an interview. It got so out of hand the person she was interviewing had to walk her to her car. She has received hate mail, and there was even a point in time where an ex-con got a hold of her cell phone number and repeatedly called her.
“It’s never a good feeling,” Gillis said. “And it just kind of makes you skeptical of the general public sometimes, because you don’t know who you’re dealing with.”
Both reporters received a lot of negativity through social media following their decisions to speak out against the harassment. From comments about their physical appearance, to outright name-calling, many seemed to think the women were being melodramatic, or couldn’t take a joke.
“…when people say to me, ‘get a sense of humor’ – I have a great sense of humor,” said O’Neill-Yates. “I love to laugh as much as anyone I know. But, that’s not funny. And to tell women to get over it and to take a joke – it’s not a joke, and nobody who has it happen to them thinks it’s a joke.”
For Gillis, having a thick skin is part of the job.
“But, you get to a point where you’re very tired of it,” said Gillis. “And you’re just trying to make it better for other people, and then you face even more backlash.”
Gillis says she and her colleagues often talk about their experiences amongst themselves, but after the barrage of negative comments she received following her experience in April, she’s been hesitant to speak out publicly.
She says when a fellow journalist was subjected to a similar attack – it was reported to police – Gillis warned her about sharing it with the public.
“When she told me it happened, I said don’t put it on social media because you are going to face so much backlash … There’s probably a delicate balance about how to go about it, but I just don’t know what that is.”
O’Neill-Yates, however, feels it’s important to keep the discussion alive, in spite of a potential backlash.
“Well, there is a certain attitude out there that by talking about it, you’re giving these people a platform,” said O’Neill-Yates. “But, I always think that talking about things that happen in society, whether they’re good or bad or indifferent, I think talking about things is the first step to changing things.”
O’Neill-Yates says that, while these incidents haven’t directly impacted the way she feels about her job in general, she is much more aware now that it could happen again at any given moment. But, she doesn’t seem to have any intention of backing down.
“…I’m not gonna be bullied or feel like a victim for anybody. I’m just gonna go out and do the job I’m paid to do.”