How the media covers its own Weinsteins

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Following the blockbuster Harvey Weinstein investigations by The New York Times and The New Yorker, media reporters are sorting through and investigating waves of tips about sexual harassment in the media, including their own shops. And they are doing so under a broad range of different standards and guidelines, involving everything from the use of unnamed accusers to questions about the newsworthiness of some sexual harassment claims.

The reports have led to the firings of Vox’s Lockhart Steele, MSNBC political commentator Mark Halperin, and former New Republic editor Leon Wieseltier as well as concerns at news organizations around the world. NPR’s head of news, Michael Oreskes, was asked to step down after new allegations of sexual misconduct were brought to the attention of NPR CEO Jarl Mohn. NPR reporters have won praise for their frank reporting of the Oreskes story—presenter Mary Louise Kelly asked Mohn tough questions about his handling of the allegations live on air, while media reporter David Folkenflik has reported on the anger felt by many in his own newsroom.

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Folkenflik was one of five media reporters and columnists who described to CJR how they handle stories about newsroom harassment and assault. Some insist on recent examples of harassment and rigid on-the-record sourcing, while others are willing to grant anonymity and look into older allegations. Most stress they’re looking for patterns of behavior over isolated incidents. The industry is facing a reckoning, and media reporters are still trying to figure out how to report on powerful offenders who in many cases have gotten away with harassment for years.

Media reporters are fielding an unprecedented number of tips, making it more tricky than ever to determine which cases to pursue. “For instance, I’ve had people point out a man who allegedly sends drunk text messages to younger women,” says Michael Calderone, senior media reporter at Politico. “It’s something that may be worth pursuing, but at the same time, it seems like there are more egregious allegations out there. It’s important to prioritize the ones you think would be the strongest story.”

Washington Post blogger Erik Wemple says the so-called “Shitty Media Men” list that emerged after the Weinstein reporting opened the floodgates for tipsters sharing names of alleged offenders. “It’s almost I think at the stage where it’s hard to figure out who to pursue next,” he says. “There’s just so many calls about so many men being made.”

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Unsurprisingly, media reporters agree that on-the-record testimony makes for a stronger story. New York Times media columnist Jim Rutenberg says his paper pretty much requires it: “I think it’s meant the stories have hit harder.”

However, Rutenberg acknowledges that this can be hard to obtain, and that post-Weinstein, the reception around anonymous sourcing has changed. Case in point: CNN’s report on Halperin. “That was an example where they had enough corroboration,” Rutenberg says. “They were clearly comfortable, it looked journalistically solid, even though it was all anonymous. I think our standards will remain on-the-record. I’m sure there’ll be exceptions, but so far that’s been our main stance.”

Wemple considers the current spate of stories unique and a justified use of anonymous sourcing. “I don’t know that I’ve ever seen more credible anonymous sourcing in my life,” he says. “The women who have chosen not to put their names forward [in these stories] for very good reason, they have moved HR departments, very big companies, to take drastic actions.”

Wemple notes the anonymous sources in the CNN report were only anonymous to readers. “The harassers know who they are, and they know the truth.”

Ultimately, journalists have to use the same standards covering their own industry that they do on others.

Reporters look at how recently allegations against individuals in the media were made—and how many of them there are—to see if they offer clues about institutional malfeasance or lack of action over a long period of time. The Oreskes story was broken by The Washington Post’s Paul Farhi, based on a pair of historic, anonymous reports from Oreskes’s stint at The New York Times. Folkenflik has since said he looked into a more recent complaint against Oreskes last year, but NPR didn’t publish a story about it—in part because Folkenflik wasn’t aware other women had similar stories to tell until Farhi’s piece came out. “I’m thankful he did publish that, because it enabled me to understand the episode I had reported on previously for what it was, which was a warning sign of a very serious nature.” (Oreskes was formerly a member of CJR’s Board of Overseers, before resigning last week.)

The journalists CJR spoke with said they’re also prioritizing tips based on the seniority and prominence of the accused person. This is a story about the abuse of power and influence, they say, and men in senior positions, like television hosts and top editors, have the most power. “It speaks to a larger institutional issue about the type of behavior that’s going on in the organization,” says Calderone. “The Mike Oreskes story might not just be about Mike Oreskes—it might be about NPR more broadly.”

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As a columnist, Rutenberg sees his role at the Times as an observer of the moment’s broader effect, not just to report on specific people. “When we look at how systems broke down, and in some cases law and order broke down, I think it’s important we keep our eyes on those aspects,” he says.

Even though Steele held a prominent role as editorial director at Vox before his firing, Folkenflik says he mentioned his name only once on the air. “I don’t know if a national audience has any sense of who he is, or of what that means to be the editorial director of Vox Media,” he says. “Not every corporate action or every accusation is national news.”

But when the report is about someone from within, it definitely is, as was the case with NPR’s firing of Oreskes. Folkenflik praised NPR’s leadership for letting him do his job, even when it reflected badly on them and may give critics further ammunition, as a demonstration of the organization’s journalistic values. “That’s an astonishing credit to NPR at a time when it deservedly has a black eye and has some really tough questions it’s yet to answer to the satisfaction of a lot of its staff,” he says.

Ultimately, journalists have to use the same standards covering their own industry that they do on others, says Margaret Sullivan, media columnist at The Washington Post.

“We just have to be a little trickier because it could involve places where reporters have worked, or where they know someone, or they used to work with someone,” she tells CJR. “I don’t see this topic as one that requires us to reinvent the rules of ethical journalism. We have to apply the same rules we always do.”

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Karen K. Ho and Jon Allsop are CJR Delacorte Fellows.