By the summer of 2015, I had been a correspondent for Science magazine for nearly 25 years. I covered archaeology and human evolution, and worked on a small team that included another reporter as well as an editor. That summer, one of my colleagues got a tip that an anthropologist named Brian Richmond—famed for the co-discovery of some early human footprints in Kenya, and the curator for human evolution at the American Museum of Natural History in New York—was under investigation for sexual misconduct.
Our team went into a huddle. Should we cover it? Should we even look into it? None of us was particularly enthusiastic. Richmond, while prominent among anthropologists, had just taken up his post at the museum, so he was not yet well known in the broader scientific community.
We had few details, and we weren’t sure how much anyone would care. It was more than two years before The New York Times and The New Yorker shared a Pulitzer Prize for exposing Harvey Weinstein as a serial sexual abuser. The term “Me Too”—coined a decade earlier by Tarana Burke, an advocate for victims of sexual harassment and assault—was not yet part of the culture.
But in early October that same year BuzzFeed reported that the astronomer Geoff Marcy had been found guilty of sexual harassment by the University of California, Berkeley. Marcy was forced to resign his tenured position. In many ways, that investigation helped launch the modern era of #MeToo reporting. It also changed our calculation on Richmond. Since I was in New York at the time, teaching science journalism at New York University, carrying out the investigation fell to me.
It was the first of more than 20 investigations—some lengthy, some fairly brief—of sexual misconduct and bullying in academia, mainly in the sciences, that I have carried out over the past four years. And it began a process, for me, of realizing the limitations that major publications have when it comes to #MeToo.
For many news outlets, it is standard practice to meet with lawyers before commencing such an investigation. Lawyers essentially want to make sure that a publication has an airtight defense if the subject of a story sues. Those concerns are not supposed to interfere with the reporting, but they do. Legal advice is designed to mitigate risk, and to remove the messy human factors. Good reporting requires risk, and lives in that messy humanity.
Shortly before publication, my editors urged me to encourage the central victim in our story to publicly reveal her identity. She and I had previously agreed, after much discussion, to a degree of anonymity that would protect her; she still had to see her abuser every day in the corridors of the museum. I refused to ask her to change her mind.
My reporting confirmed one instance of sexual assault and a number of incidents of sexual harassment. In February 2016, Science published a 4,000-word article in print and online. Even before our article was published, the museum launched a new investigation, after having previously allowed Richmond to keep his job. Richmond, who denied the allegations against him, eventually resigned.
But mainstream publications declined to follow up. (Even The New York Times, which knew about my story before it ran, never ran a story about a scandal at a major New York institution.) And a month after the story appeared, Science ended my contract, after 25 years, due to what the news editor rightly characterized in an email as a “mutual loss of trust.”
FOR A WHILE, my #MeToo reporting found another home, at The Verge. There, I published two major stories detailing failures by two institutions—the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, and Texas Tech University—to deal adequately with sexual harassment.
But a third story, centering on sexual assault and harassment allegations against David Lordkipanidze—a Georgia-based paleoanthropologist who heads that country’s national museum and oversees one of the world’s most important human-evolution fossil sites—was killed after Lordkipanidze retained a formidable defamation attorney. I tried for weeks to find another home for the story. When I couldn’t, I decided to publish it on my blog. Since that decision, I have not looked back—nor, to date, have I been sued.
Over the past 18 months, I have published nearly all of my #MeToo reporting on my own site for free, and without libel insurance. I still employ the same strict journalistic standards I used when I worked for Science and other publications. I never report rumors or second-hand information, and I always have multiple sources for the statements in my stories—especially for any allegations that reflect badly on an individual or could be contested.
I don’t expect many other journalists to follow this unorthodox path—not least because nobody pays me. But I have found that the reporting still reaches the communities that most need it, and the people that are best placed to take action.
In one case, a paleontologist at the University of Bath in the United Kingdom lost a $1.2-million grant after I publicized the university’s investigation of misconduct charges against him. In another, my reporting helped prompt an inquiry into the director of a laboratory at the University of Adelaide, in Australia, over allegations of bullying, harassment, and other misconduct.
The Adelaide inquiry concluded in late August with the suspension of that lab director, ancient DNA pioneer Alan Cooper, from the university, pending further disciplinary proceedings. The news was covered by the Australian media as well as by flagship science journals such as Nature and my old employer, Science. Only one publication, the Adelaide Advertiser, credited my work; those that did not missed an opportunity to show how coverage outside of traditional news outlets can nevertheless compel institutional action.
I believe such stories are as important as the succession of exposés of some of the most powerful men in America. While the investigations of Weinstein and others have been carried out in a very serious manner and deserve the accolades they have garnered, they have tended to focus on fallen men whose positions in the national consciousness can make them seem like subjects one might encounter in a Greek tragedy. Yet for every Weinstein, there are a hundred less powerful figures—academics among them—who are getting away with similar behavior simply because they don’t attract the same level of scrutiny. Sometimes a reporter can change that, even working alone.