Experiencing and reporting sexual harassment

“Workplace harassment is among the most wounding experiences that a news professional can have”. These words open the panel ” #UsToo: sexual harassment, gendered threats and press freedom” at the International Journalism Festival 2018. According to Bruce Shapiro, director of Dart Centre for Journalism and Trauma and moderator for the event, silencing workplace harassment is a free-expression issue that should be regarded as much of a threat to journalists as anything else.

Although journalistic safety is considered of great importance and reporters are trained on how to stay safe or how to help a colleague that may be in a potential danger, there is barely any form of education about sexual harassment when on an assignment.

Sexual harassment is not a phenomenon limited to the newsroom, as female journalists also encounter it when working with sources and fixers on the field. Alexis Okeowo from the New Yorker shares that as a female journalist, she always needs to stay alert and it becomes quite exhausting to pay attention to every small detail. Such conditions limit the work of female journalists and create additional hardships in an already quite competitive field. As a female journalist, one should be able to do as much as a male journalist can without facing additional constraints, explains Alexis.

Susan McKay, journalist and author, explains that unequal pay and disregard of female topics is a further part of the problem. Female journalists often don’t pitch certain topics or don’t voice their concerns because they know that their male colleagues will just roll their eyes and disregard them as irrelevant. She maintains that campaigns like #metoo represent a chance to voice such concerns, but they also carry the risk of feminist thoughts to be trivialised or labeled as hysteric.

She emphasises that newsrooms should look at new ways of reporting rape trials as social media are changing the way such trials are brought to the public attention. The public is often unaware that journalists need to follow a certain ethics, which doesn’t allow them to take sides or influence the trail. They need to respect the jury’s verdict and restrain from disclosing potentially sensitive or harmful information. Social media doesn’t have such restrains, however, which facilitates a new way of talking about rape trials and conventional media should take such discourses into account if they want to stay relevant.

Working with victims of sexual harassment

When reporting sexual harassment, the role of the journalist is crucial. Often, however, this role entails convincing victims of sexual harassment not to make their stories public, as this is rarely a route to justice and the average reader may have a strong negative outburst on social media, which can further traumatise sexual harassment victims. “There will be a lot of attention. When you put this thing in the world, a lot of unexpected things can happen. I can’t tell you what they are, I can tell you what I have seen,” says Jina Moore, East Africa bureau chief of The New York Times, who has been reporting on cases of sexual harassment for about 10 years.

She further explains that it is essential for the interview partners to understand that you as a journalist are asking difficult questions not because you don’t believe them or that you are not on their side, but that you are asking these questions in order to write a credible story.

Moore further adds that the role of the journalist in such sensitive reporting is also to sometimes dissuade their sources from sharing their sexual harassment story, as an online comment storm may follow which may have bad consequences for them.“What is always a point of difficulty and tension is the need of the journalist to reach out to the accused perpetrator in the case. That is always really really hard for women to hear that it’s going to be part of the process,” she shares.

Fact-checking the story is another sensitive moment, as sexual harassment victims need to repeat what they have already told the reporter. “I use my fact-checking process also as a way of giving the woman who is going to be in my story some hint of what the hell is going to appear in the paper,” explains Jina Moore. It is also important for journalists to make sure that they have understood everything correctly: “Imagine getting the details of your assault wrong in the paper that is doing harm to a source,” adds Jina.

Harassment as part of the job

“It is easy to talk about sex, it is not sexy to talk about money,” explains Alexis Okeowo when asked what direction should the professional conversation follow from now on. For her sexual harassment is a consequence of power imbalance at the workplace, which also resonates in unequal pay and lack of women in management. “We are not worried only about being harassed”, she adds, but also about payment. All comes to the general undervaluing of women as workers and of the stories women tell, explains Susan McKay. Changes should be implemented on a policy level, adds Jina Moore, as often there are non-existent work policies if a colleague becomes a victim of sexual harassment. She stresses that it is high time we showed that this is an issue we are remedying rather than an issue we just talk about and care about.

Another important issue is that female journalists rarely feel comfortable to talk about harassment coming from sources as they don’t want to be seen as weaker than their male colleagues or unfit for the job, adds Alexis Okeowo. Newsrooms should come up with ways to address this problem. Some female journalists may reject assignments because of fear to be sexually harassed, which adds to the issue. It is important for female journalists to do what feels right: whether this will be to take people along when on an assignment, meet sources in public places, or just leave if they feel in danger, share the panelists.