Jody Vance felt it was important to respond when, in 2015, a listener accused her of being a liberal snowflake spreading false news about Donald Trump.
The fill-in talk-radio host on Vancouver’s CKNW had made a point of respectfully replying to her audience throughout her broadcasting career – including her years at Sportsnet, where she was the first woman in Canadian history to helm her own prime-time sports show. But the man’s e-mails grew more aggressive. In 2016, she let him know that their conversation was over.
“That’s when the ‘ALL CAPS’ e-mails came into play,” she said recently.
Ms. Vance agreed to speak with The Globe because her alleged harasser was arrested at the end of last month, and has signed an undertaking with the Vancouver Police Department in which he agreed not to contact her before a court date in the new year.
Government and Big Tech must tackle online harassment against journalists
Because of her experience, Ms. Vance said, she wants to promote public discussion, as journalists – particularly those who are women or people of colour – are being hit with an intensifying wave of hate on politically polarized online platforms.
Ms. Vance said she hopes other journalists will do what she initially didn’t: catalogue every interaction and report them to their employers and local police. In her case, the criminal justice system is working, she said, but it takes far too long to win justice for complainants.
“I put it in my mind that it would make me somehow high-maintenance, and I’ve learned that’s not the case,” Ms. Vance said.
She had been stalked and harassed before. Shortly after she arrived in Toronto, in 2000, one man repeatedly mailed her typed letters professing his undying love for her. Another would write to “his princess” in green ink and send her four-leaf clovers in Ziploc bags. She said her employer reported these things to the police at the time.
A third incident shook up her life entirely. Someone broke into her third-floor attic apartment while she was sleeping, moved her things around, and then left without stealing anything. That week, she moved into a high-rise condo with a 24-hour security guard.
When it came to the e-mail harasser, Ms. Vance spent years trying to handle the problem on her own.
More than once, she tried blocking his address. Each time she did this, he would simply create a new account (often with a name that included a lewd reference to her) and continue sending a barrage of misogynistic and violent messages, sometimes with screengrabs of her social-media posts. The e-mails – which frequently CCed her bosses, colleagues and radio guests – parroted popular far-right conspiracy theories and included references to Nazi concentration camps.
Hoping he would just go away, for two years she skimmed new correspondence for his familiar hate-filled cadence.
It was only after she checked her spam box one day in 2018 and saw hundreds of unread messages from the man that she understood the danger and went to her bosses at CKNW. They were sympathetic. They suggested she call the police, and added her to a service that monitored social media for threats.
She finally reported the harassment to the VPD in late 2019, after one of the messages startled her. It said, alongside a photo of starving Jewish prisoners taken during the Second World War, that she and her child belonged in a “concentration camp to be punished.”
“Threatening my son was the catalyst,” Ms. Vance said.
Ms. Vance showed The Globe a redacted copy of a criminal undertaking recently signed by the man accused of harassing her, in which he promises to abide by five protective conditions, including orders not to contact her or her employer and to avoid mentioning her in any public forum. The order says that the man is scheduled to appear in court in mid-February to answer for criminal harassment offences. The Globe is not naming him because he has not yet been formally charged by the Crown, which has until the new year to approve any charges recommended by the VPD.
Constable Tania Visintin, a VPD spokesperson, recently confirmed that the force has an open and active investigation into the man.
Ms. Vance is white and her harasser did not single out her race in his online abuse. But journalists of colour are often targeted on the basis of race.
Fatima Syed, a climate change reporter, podcast host and vice-president of The Canadian Association of Journalists, said she called the police recently after receiving a piece of hate mail. She was out for a walk by a lake last month with a friend when her phone buzzed three times – once for each of her separate e-mail inboxes. Ms. Syed said the message was so vile it made her fingers tremble and her heart race.
Ms. Syed rarely shares the hate mail she receives with the public, but she said she posted the recent message in full on Twitter to raise awareness, and as an act of solidarity with the “very strange club of female racialized reporters who were being targeted, and who were scared for their safety.” Ms. Syed said she personally knows 10 reporters now dealing with similar hate-filled e-mails.
Reporting such messages to police, she said, “is painstaking work that gives a lot of emotional burden to those dealing with online hate, but it’s better than feeling helpless. And it’s better than feeling scared. It’s better than me looking at my phone or e-mail constantly and wondering, ‘when’s the next one going to hit?’ ”
One “weird silver lining” to this campaign of hate is that suddenly newsrooms and their managers cannot look away and are committing to finding better solutions for journalists, many of whom think about leaving the media when confronted with such personal attacks, Ms. Syed said.
Chris Tenove, a postdoctoral research fellow studying journalism and digital media at the University of B.C., said journalists routinely face three types of harassment: unwanted attention from obsessive fans aspiring to form a relationship, partisan or politically motivated insults, and blowback from the general toxicity present on social media platforms.
Earlier this month, in response to a September tweet from People’s Party of Canada Leader Maxime Bernier in which he asked his followers to “play dirty” with three political journalists, a group of 19 Canadian media outlets, including The Globe, signed a joint statement of support for all journalists who are targets of hate and harassment.
“We are united in supporting our journalists and newsrooms against those who seek to silence their stories and threaten their safety. Together, we will continue to advocate for industry-wide responses to end this behaviour,” the statement said.
Even though the justice system has intervened to protect her, Ms. Vance does not feel at ease. “So how did it affect my life? It made me worry about my newly free-ranging tween son every single time he was at home by himself or went out on his own. I’m worried about my loved ones,” she said.
Before her alleged e-mail harasser was arrested, she said, she was able to uncover his identity with help from a colleague. According to the information she found, he has a female partner, school-aged children and a career – three things that surprised her.
“I try not to get too deep into the weeds on this because the goal is to make it so he never does this to anyone else, ever again,” she said. “I think in doing that I will somehow be protecting his children, maybe his wife and maybe his neighbours.”
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