WTOC weekend anchor and investigative reporter Amanda Aguilar. (Amanda Aguilar)

This article is part two in a series about the harassment of women and marginalized journalists. Read part one of the series here.

[Content note: This article contains descriptions of sexual and racial harassment.]

Amanda Aguilar is used to getting all kinds of messages from strangers on social media: fan mail, but also rude comments, racist rants, or sexually suggestive remarks. But nothing could have prepared the Savannah, Georgia-based weekend TV anchor and investigative reporter for what would eventually unfold when she started hearing from Mark.

Mark, a man who Aguilar believes is in his mid-to-late 50s, became a fan of hers while she was working as a TV reporter at KSN in Wichita, Kansas, between 2016 and 2019. During that time, he sent Aguilar roughly 100 messages on social media, most of them consisting of Bible verses. Aguilar would occasionally respond with well wishes when he wished her happy holidays, but never engaged further. At the time, she didn’t consider Mark’s messages to be harassment.

“I don’t go through my messages a lot on Facebook,” Aguilar said. “I wish I did, and I’m starting to do that now because he had left me so many hints that he was planning to come to Savannah.”

In January this year, Aguilar received an alarming call from a coworker. 

“He said, ‘I’m not trying to scare you or anything, but my friend is a salon owner. Some guy came into her salon and he was talking about you and asking people, ‘Do you know where Amanda Aguilar is? Do you know where she lives? I moved here from Wichita to meet her,’’” Aguilar said. 

What happened to Aguilar isn’t uncommon, especially for women of color working in TV news. The nature of the job makes TV news reporters and anchors highly visible in ways print and online reporters often are not, and when they work in the same market for an extended period of time, viewers can sometimes begin to feel they actually know the people on their screens. Psychologists call these parasocial relationships: the one-sided connections many people have with public figures that create a false sense of friendship. For women of color working in TV news, the public’s inflated sense of familiarity can be a wellspring of harassment, where viewers feel entitled to send them critical, inappropriate, or rude messages, or even to seek them out in real life. 

“I think part of it also has to do with the fact that female reporters on TV tend to be young and they tend to be attractive, and I think that makes them more of a target in some ways,” said Kim Walsh-Childers, a journalism professor at the University of Florida who conducted research on the harassment of female journalists in the ‘90s. “But [harassment] is never, ever their fault and the stuff that they have to put up with in many cases is just ridiculous.”

For Aguilar, she at least had the benefit of coworkers looking out for her and management that was responsive to her situation, both of which were needed when Mark escalated his behavior. Women in other newsrooms aren’t always so supported. Workplace harassment is typically defined as any unwanted conduct that creates an uncomfortable work environment, but for local TV journalists, harassment can come from people technically outside that environment, including sources and viewers. While newsrooms may have internal resources and policies addressing harassment by managers or colleagues, harassment that comes from outside sources is often a more complicated matter. With few options for support, many reporters feel they have little choice but to resign themselves to treating harassment from viewers as just part of the profession.

When she learned Mark had come to Savannah, Aguilar immediately notified management at her station, who implemented safety protocols for when she went out into the field to report. Aguilar normally did her job solo, but management required her to be accompanied at all times and to park in an area away from her usual spot. Aguilar sought help from the police to track Mark down and serve him with a restraining order, but they were unable to find him. 

While trying to find Mark, Aguilar started going back through her Facebook messages to see if she could find any identifying details that would help detectives. There in her inbox’s archives, she discovered a strange message from Mark that connected to a disturbing incident that happened at WTOC earlier this year. Days before the presidential inauguration, an unidentified man dropped off a package at the station with no return address and no recipient, which prompted the bomb squad to be called into the station as a precaution. The package contained a rock. According to the message Aguilar found, Mark was the man who had delivered that package.

“No more than an hour after he left [the station,] he had sent me a message that said something like, ‘Please take care of this artifact. I’ll be back for it,’” Aguilar said. After realizing the connection, Aguilar continued to work with investigators and kept her guard up. But when she arrived home the night of Feb. 19, Mark was standing in front of her apartment building. 

“All he said was, ‘Hey, how are you doing?’” Aguilar said. “I think my heart stopped for a minute. I was so traumatized that I ran to my neighbor’s apartment because I didn’t want him to see where I lived.”

By the time police arrived, Mark was gone. Investigators were able to track him down several days later and warned him to stay away from Aguilar. Mark has since returned to Kansas, but Aguilar is still shaken by the encounter.

“I honestly still have PTSD from it,” Aguilar said. “I’ve had nightmares about it. I know he drives a red mustang convertible, so whenever I see one I totally freak out.”

The experience has caused Aguilar to rethink how she should interact with viewers in the future. As a Filipina American journalist, she has received rude and inappropriate messages from viewers that have fetishized or demeaned her, but Mark was a bit more challenging to identify as a threat from the get-go.

“When he was messaging me, I didn’t feel like it was threatening and that’s why I never blocked him,” Aguilar said. “The thing I’ve realized about harassment is that it’s any situation where you feel like your safety is at risk. It’s not just hateful or racist emails. It’s also the constant, constant contact where one person isn’t even responding or encouraging the conversation. It makes you wonder if that person could ever do something [harmful], or what their mindset is.”

Daily drip of harassment

Most unwanted contact from local TV viewers doesn’t escalate to the level Aguilar experienced, but the daily drip of harassment and personal attacks still take an emotional toll.

Lisa Williams, a Black woman who has worked in local TV news in both San Francisco and Los Angeles, has dealt with a steady stream of unsettling racist messages and pornographic videos from viewers since she started working on air full time in 2016. Now a Los Angeles-based news anchor, she asked to use a pseudonym to protect her identity.

“The messages that describe exactly what people want to do to me are the ones that bother me the most,” Williams said. “One of the messages I get a lot is, ‘You’re my morning chocolate.’ I always get comments related to chocolate. I get so tired of it. Why are you objectifying me as a piece of chocolate?”

In addition to viewers harassing her with racist, sexist, and fetishistic messages, Williams says she also gets pushback on her reporting in ways her white colleagues don’t. Viewers send her messages challenging her education and credentials, or accusing her of spreading false information. A majority of the negative messages Williams receives come from fake accounts with no photos, and many accuse her of being an affirmative action hire.

“I get messages that say things like, ‘You only got hired because of your looks,’ or ‘The only reason you got the job is to round out the color wheel,’” Williams said. “I feel like there are people out there who are intentionally creating accounts just to harass people. If they thought they weren’t doing anything wrong, they wouldn’t hide their identity. That takes time and thought, and that makes it even more twisted.”

As part of a Facebook group for Black female anchors, Williams often hears about the harassment other women TV journalists endure. Much of the vitriol centers on their hair, especially when it’s worn in its natural, kinky, coily, or curly state. 

“People will get awful emails and letters sent to the station saying, ‘This is unprofessional. This is disgusting. How can you allow this?’” Williams said. “I don’t wear my hair curly on air, and that’s why.” 

Williams has some advice for women starting out in local TV news who get harassed: Do your best to brush it off, stay strong, and if necessary, block people and report them.

“I think people [working in TV] will lie and say it doesn’t get to them, but we’re all human,” Williams said. “We have feelings and emotions. You can be having a great day knowing you’re performing well as an anchor, but when someone leaves a nasty comment in your inbox, it can be hard to block it out. It does hurt.”

The role of management

Noelle Bellow, a TV anchor and reporter in San Francisco, has also dealt with racist and sexually suggestive comments from viewers, and still remembers the first offensive email that was sent to management about her when she had her first on-air job in local TV. Bellow was working at a local news station in East Texas when a woman sent a critical email to the station directed specifically at her.

“She said something like, ‘Tell that colored girl to cover up. She’s distracting my husband,’” Bellow said. “It’s not just men who do this stuff. Women do it, too … I think a lot of times, women and especially women of color are kind of sexualized by viewers.”

Thankfully, Bellow had a boss who immediately voiced his support and called her into his office to console her.

“He said, ‘I just want you to know that we don’t stand for any of this. There was nothing wrong with what you were wearing,’” Bellow said. “That email really sticks with me because it was obviously very pointed and was directed at me specifically. To receive an email like that cuts you at the legs a little bit because I was working really hard and trying to do a good job.”

Though some reporters like Bellow and Aguilar have received support from management after negative interactions with viewers, not everyone working in TV has had that experience. When management doesn’t make it clear to reporters that they’ll be believed and supported when confronting harassment, it creates a sense of isolation and mistrust that prevents reporters from asking for help. Many reporters don’t report harassment from viewers over concerns they’ll be taken off their beat or come across like they can’t handle the pressure. Since local TV stations also regularly go through staff cuts, the fear of termination can also prevent women from speaking up. Reporters are stuck between two terrible choices: stay silent to protect their jobs, or speak up and put their livelihoods and reputations at risk—neither of which are good for their mental health.

“My concern is that a younger, newer, less experienced journalist might be inclined to keep her mouth shut because they might be at the top of the list the next time there are layoffs,” Walsh-Childers said. “They might think, ‘Why would I give my boss any additional reason to cut me?’”

TV news organizations are aware of the vulnerable positions their reporters and anchors are in, and that their visibility makes them a target. Rather than waiting for reporters to report harassment—which many think is too risky for their careers—station managers and owners must take precautions in order to keep them safe. There’s no one simple solution to reducing or eliminating the harassment many women in TV are subjected to, but Walsh-Childers doesn’t believe the problem is unsolvable. Moving forward, she says the biggest question news organizations need to answer is whether there is anything they can do to disrupt the pattern of online harassment and protect their journalists. She said news organizations could potentially provide training for reporters on how to deal with harassment, implement protocols for what to do when harassment occurs online and let people know who to report it to, or find some way to communicate to their viewers about what is or isn’t appropriate. But at the end of the day, it can be difficult for reporters to feel safe and comfortable in the communities they report on knowing those communities include people who may have no problem crossing the boundary into harassment.

“I would like to believe that building trust with the community reduces the likelihood of people engaging in this kind of harassment of any reporters, regardless of medium or gender, but I really don’t know,” Walsh-Childers said. 

Carolyn Copeland

Carolyn Copeland is the News Editor at Prism. Follow her on Twitter @Carolyn_Copes.