What we found when we asked newsrooms about sexual harassment

December 1, 2017
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On October 5, a New York Times investigation cracked open the decades-long abuse of women by Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein, a so-called open secret that reporters had previously failed to successfully report out. He was aggressively denounced, and days later, The New Yorker followed with a similar exposé, kickstarting a near-daily barrage of allegations and, even more shockingly, firings among the entertainment elite. At that time, no one anticipated that the growing list of predatory men would soon include some of the most prominent journalists in the country.

The revelations continue to pour in, and the media industry has grappled—and often fumbled—with the public outing of the “whisper networks” women have relied on to keep safe. Today, as journalists do the difficult and necessary work of reporting out allegations of harassment and assault everywhere from the ranks of Congress to comedy halls, the damned are increasingly joined by publicly shamed male journalists who have been ousted for their inability to behave appropriately. Men are facing consequences the likes of which we’ve never before seen.

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At the center of this stream of breaking-news alerts is the reality that our newsrooms, committed to truth and transparency in the public interest, have long fallen short on their responsibility to keep their own reporters safe. And so the Columbia Journalism Review has set out to better understand the sexual harassment policies in place at newsrooms around the country. In late October, we designed two surveys to conduct a (unscientific) study: one for journalists, and one for newsroom human resources professionals and other senior management. A third survey was created to assess the realities of freelancers. Over the course of three weeks, hundreds of staff and freelance journalists filled out the surveys and dozens, primarily women, wrote to us with stories about being sexually harassed in their current and previous newsrooms. Many made specific allegations that, with permission from the journalists, CJR will report out in the coming weeks.

But in three weeks, we heard back from not a single one of the 149 newsrooms we contacted to participate.

Our goal is to learn more about how newsrooms handle claims of sexual misconduct in an attempt to demonstrate that, as an industry, we are both able and willing to answer the same hard questions we demand of other industries. We wanted reporters to tell us how well they understood their employers’ formal policies. Were they given a paper or electronic copy of a sexual harassment policy upon hire? Were they required to attend sexual harassment training? If they wanted to file a complaint of abuse, would they know how to do so? We wanted newsrooms, similarly, to tell us about their formal policies. CJR staff members disseminated the staff and freelancer surveys on social media, on our website, in journalism-related online forums and groups, through email listservs, and among our own friends and formers colleagues. We sent the management survey to 149 news organizations by email.

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Since we first distributed the surveys on November 13, we’ve heard back from 310 staff and freelance journalists working in the United States and abroad. The vast majority of them, 81 percent, self-identified as female. Sixteen percent of survey respondents identified as male, and just under 2 percent identified as third-gender or non-binary, while others self-described in a number of ways, including as transgender.

The journalists worked at a variety of outlets in diverse geographic regions and across mediums, including small outlets in the US and Canada, as well as prominent international news organizations such as NPR, The Washington Post, Vice, CNN, CBS, The Atlantic, BBC News, and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. We heard from magazine and newspaper writers, podcasters, public radio reporters, and television journalists. We heard from small, regional print outlets and from young, digital-only publications, from hard news reporters and film critics, sports reporters and photojournalists, all working in places as disparate as New Hampshire and Islamabad.

Their responses were illuminating. Sixty-six percent of participating staff journalists said their companies had clear sexual harassment policies—a good sign. But just 21 percent strongly agreed that they understood those policies. Twenty-two percent said they disagreed when asked if they understood their newsroom’s policy, and 12 percent strongly disagreed.



As allegations continue to surface, newsroom managers have been reissuing electronic copies of company policies and highlighting avenues by which employees can report previous incidents. But those efforts will be in vain if employees don’t have a clear understanding of what those resources mean, and how to use them if necessary. One reason for the lack of misunderstanding could be an absence of regular training.

Most staff journalists said they attended sexual harassment training as part of a new employee orientation, but 73 percent said that they’d never been required to attend sessions outside of orientation where policies were formally discussed. And a whopping 96 percent of freelancers said the newsrooms with which they work had never shared copies of their sexual harassment policies with them. None of the 20 freelancers who said they physically worked onsite in newsrooms at least three times per month have ever been given copies of harassment policies.

Given that, it comes as no surprise that 80 percent of freelancers said if they wanted to report an instance of sexual misconduct involving newsrooms they work for, they would not know how to do so. For nearly 90 percent of freelancers, a typical work contract included no language regarding company sexual harassment policies, or details about what protections, if any, the company extended to its freelance and contract workers. Thirty-nine percent of participating freelancers said they do not feel safe in their work with news organizations.

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Staff journalists reported better numbers. Thirty-four percent of staffers strongly agreed when asked if they feel safe at work (another 35 percent answered “agree” and 11 percent disagreed or strongly disagreed). But a sobering 53 percent of participants still said they either didn’t know how to file a report, or were unsure if they would know how to do so, suggesting that media organizations are failing to adequately communicate with their employees.

Human resources experts—and the US Supreme Court—have long stressed the importance of sexual harassment policies and training. (Harassment of an employee on the basis of sex, including harassment of a sexual nature, is illegal under Title 7 of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, if it is “so frequent or severe that it creates a hostile or offensive work environment or when it results in an adverse employment decision,” according to the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission; this section of the law applies to companies with 15 or more employees.) Though companies are not legally mandated to have a formal, written sexual harassment policy, most do, says Sharon Sellers, president of SLS Consulting, which works with companies in the US and abroad to develop sexual harassment policy and training, among other HR functions. But policies are ultimately just paper; they alone do not change culture.

“We can do all the training in the world,” says Sellers, “but unless that culture is in effect from the top down—that we are going to show respect to all employees—that policy isn’t worth the paper it’s written on.”



That reality was demonstrated in our survey results. Forty-one percent of staff journalists said they’d personally experienced sexual harassment in a newsroom (67 percent of which did not report the incident to HR), and 28 percent said they’d witnessed another journalist being harassed (82 percent of which didn’t report the incident to HR). Among freelance reporters, the numbers were 47 percent and 33 percent, respectively. Like the preponderance of shocking allegations, the latest of which involves the most prominent man in morning television, these numbers—a small slice of the national and international media community—illustrate the pervasiveness of sexual harassment. Women, of course, have long known this fact. And they are ready to talk about it.

So we were disappointed when not a single one of the 149 newsrooms we sent surveys to submitted a response—not even publications at the center of recent allegations, or those that have criticized the handling of allegations, or those who have done crucial reporting on sexual harassment and assault in journalism and other industries.


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We sent the survey to a combination of human resources directors, senior editors, communications directors, and press officers at 135 outlets on November 8, and to 14 additional outlets on November 15. We sent follow-up emails, and CJR staffers sent personal emails to friends and former colleagues at select organizations in an effort to encourage senior staff to rally for their publications’ participation. (The survey was submitted to and completed by the human resources office of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, which publishes CJR.)

Thirty-three percent of corporate recipients opened the first email and just 9 percent clicked through to the actual survey. Some recipients opened the email multiple times; officials at The Wall Street Journal/Dow Jones opened the email a total of 11 times. The Intercept opened it six times, and The Atlantic opened it five times. Ultimately, none submitted answers.

The form asked for basic editorial staff demographics and for a detailed explanation of any existing sexual harassment policies and reporting procedures. Our goal was to apply the same standards of transparency to our peers that we demand of other industries. With every new allegation of harassment and abuse that surfaces in the news, readers repeatedly ask how it was that inappropriate behavior went unaddressed for so long, and increasingly, as reported in Politico’s Morning Media newsletter, reporters begin their coverage of these accounts “by pointing out that no one had previously complained to management.” Beyond the familiar reasons, the answer to why women often do not report harassment or assault lies in part with our ability to understand what policies are in place at different companies.

Sellers, who expressed disappointment, if not surprise, that none of the news organizations contacted chose to participate, says companies might have been hesitant to answer the survey because there was no guarantee our analysis would keep names of companies anonymous. And while she does advise her clients to post their policies on intra-company websites, she says she wouldn’t encourage them to post those policies publicly.

“There are so many groups that would take apart policies to find faults, all the way from unions to any group with a vendetta against a news organization,” she says. It’s a predictable piece of advice, and Sellers doesn’t dispute the notion that human resources departments work first and foremost for the company, not the employee. But part of serving the company, she says, includes serving its staff.

“The bottom line is that they want people to get along well and want to come to work, do their jobs well and not have conflict. If an employee has all this conflict, they’re not going to do their job well, and that’s not in the best interest of the company or the employee,” says Sellers. “I don’t see anything a company would gain from posting [the policy] for the world to see, but if there is a policy, it does no good to hide it.” Sellers has facilitated similar surveys as a third party, to gauge best practices about human resources policies and make comparisons within other industries, but she reports the data anonymously, a tactic she says encourages participation.

“Right now, no company wants to be under the microscope, where their actual procedures are analyzed. There is so much going on with people coming forward and there’s a lot of uncertainty in the HR field,” says Sellers. “[Maybe] they didn’t want to emerge as the example of what not to do.” If officials were sure they were doing things the right way, she says, they might more readily open themselves up to potential criticism.

The fear of being made an example, the hot shame of being publicly wrong, is an understandable paralysis. But it’s not an excuse  journalists would easily accept from others, particularly when it has become clear exactly how much of the responsibility for this hostility falls not just on the shoulders of guilty men, but on the organizations that have enabled and protected them. If our ideals of accountability, and the pursuit of truth in the public interest, are to be taken seriously, we must accept that they extend to us as well, even when it is uncomfortable. Especially when it is uncomfortable.

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Alexandria Neason was CJR’s staff writer and Senior Delacorte Fellow. Recently, she became an editor and producer at WNYC’s Radiolab.