The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The column I won’t write because of a troll with a gun

A man types on a computer keyboard in this February 28, 2013 illustration file picture.
A man types on a computer keyboard in this February 28, 2013 illustration file picture. (KACPER PEMPEL/REUTERS)
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Before last week, I had an idea for a column that I thought could speak to gender, power dynamics and motherhood.

It could be funny, illuminating and maybe even cause some small measure of change.

It could also be — and this is why you will not read it anytime soon — risky.

Journalists train their minds to constantly scan for stories. We scroll through eye-drying amounts of documents looking for telling trends, and we spend our days talking to strangers to learn what we didn’t know an hour earlier. We look around rooms as if trying to solve one of those puzzles that asks you to find 12 things that are different between two similar scenes because we know how one out-of-place detail can speak to something significant.

Why is there a board over that window that wasn’t there yesterday?

Why is that picture frame broken?

What journalists don’t often do is look inward at ourselves or at our colleagues. We pride ourselves on a toughness of spirit, of keeping our composure while covering stories that make other people fall apart. On one of my most difficult days of reporting, when I was still an intern, I drove to the home of a woman whose daughter had died after drowning at a pool party. When I arrived, the mother asked me to sit in the center of a circle of chairs that were filled with the girl’s relatives and friends who all wanted to share stories about her. I sat there, absorbing a dozen people’s grief, knowing that I would eventually have to stand up, rush to the office and write an article that accurately captured the girl they knew and missed.

Only after I filed the story and my editor asked me if I needed to talk to someone, did I realize I had covered three child deaths in a row. I told her I was fine, and truthfully, I was because even at that early stage of my career I had already learned how to compartmentalize the stress and emotions that were an inevitable part of the job.

Students journalists from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School cover the March for Our Lives

Journalists don’t talk about this, or the other demands on them, and maybe that’s why we have become in the public’s eye one large faceless entity called “the media” instead of a collection of individuals with families and hobbies and regrets.

What we also don’t discuss outside of the newsroom — but are finally starting to do more so in the last week — are one of the worst aspects of the job: the trolls. Most reporters have received emails that go beyond reasonable criticism and are filled with vile insults and threats.

But only part of the newsroom hears from an especially vicious type of person: the misogynistic troll.

This is the troll that is drawn out by female bylines and whose messages usually read like a disturbing Mad Lib:

Dear (slur for female body part or word for female dog). You’re a (slur for female body part or word for a female dog). I hope you (horrible violent act). (Verb) my (male body part).

The scariest ones take it further and scrutinize photos, so they can highlight flaws. These can be related to hair, skin, teeth, weight, the shapes of someone’s eyes. I know because I recently asked some of my female colleagues to send me some they had received. Minutes later my inbox was filled with vitriol.

“If your boyfriend/husband/father hasn’t beaten the [expletive] out of you, then they’ve done you wrong,” read one.

“Do the world a favor [slur for female body part], and eat a bullet!” read another.

One of the only printable ones read, “You should go get married, obey your husband, and make babies.”

I try to respond to most emails sent to me, even the ones that contain racist sentiments because on occasion, when people receive a respectful reply, they realize a person is on the other end and suddenly act human again. I also believe hearing other perspectives make us all more informed, and for that reason, I have never Facebook banished anyone for a political post.

Without exception though, I immediately delete the misogynistic messages. But even after they are gone, I find myself thinking about them for way too long and I am always nagged by the same question: What would their mothers think?

I am raising two boys and I ask them often “What is something kind you did today?” I would want to know if ever they spoke to a woman the way these men do. I know from talking to my colleagues that some of these messages have driven them to tears, ruined vacations and even pushed them to get cosmetic work.

And so, here was my idea for the column that you will not read. I planned to ask a few female journalists for the emails that struck them the hardest. I would then try to contact these men to see if they stood by their words enough to let me talk to their moms. If they said no, that in itself would be revealing. But if even one was bold or stubborn enough to say yes, it could lead to a potentially enlightening encounter.

The Annapolis shooting was an attack on a newspaper — and on women

The reason you will not read that piece anytime soon is because my mama didn’t raise a fool. To find that one man open enough to let me speak to his mother, I would have to invite the anger of others who don’t want to be exposed and the shooting at the Annapolis newspaper showed us the danger in that. There, a troll who harassed a woman and blamed a newspaper for printing the truth became a killer. He went from using words to a gun. And now, police officers stand guard in front of other newsrooms, and people who spend way too many hours working, eating meals at their desks, worry about what it is they are guarding against.

There may come a time when I can do that column, but it is not now, when the country’s highest authority has described the media as an “enemy of the public” and his wife wears a jacket with a message supposedly directed at reporters that reads, “I really don’t care, do u?”

Maybe though, we can hope, a man somewhere will read this, realize there are real women on the other side of the send button and before typing a string of curses and insults pause just long enough to ask himself: “What would my mother think?”