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The media’s #MeToo problem

Nov 15,2018 - Last updated at Nov 15,2018

LONDON — Journalism classrooms may be dominated by women, but global media are still ruled by men, who occupy the majority of management positions, report more news stories and are more frequently presented as expert voices. This imbalance is reflected in the content newsrooms produce, with fewer written words and broadcast seconds dedicated to telling women’s stories. It is also reflected in the industry’s culture, which leaves women more vulnerable to sexual harassment and abuse.

Given the importance of relationship-building in media, not to mention the desire for connection among journalists who cover extreme or harrowing events in difficult environments, intimate ties can easily form among colleagues and associates. The problem arises when these relationships turn sour or, worse, when they are non-consensual or based on coercion, such as when a more senior colleague pursues a sexual relationship with a subordinate.

Of course, across countries, there can be significant differences in what is considered predatory or inappropriate behaviour. But, globally, almost half of women journalists report having experienced work-related sexual harassment, according to a 2014 study by the International News Safety Institute (INSI) and the International Women’s Media Foundation (IWMF). Two-thirds reported that they had faced “intimidation, threats or abuse”, mostly by bosses, supervisors or co-workers.

For perpetrators, impunity remains the norm. Almost three-fifths of respondents in the INSI/IWMF study who had experienced harassment said that they had reported incidents to their employers. In most cases, however, it was the women who experienced the abuse who suffered adverse consequences: damaged reputations and career prospects, not to mention the impact on their psychological and emotional well-being.

So while men with histories of predatory behaviour continue to occupy senior positions in the global news industry, women journalists are pushed to the point that they consider leaving it. In a recent survey by the IWMF and TrollBusters, one-third of respondents said that they had considered abandoning journalism; those at earlier stages in their careers were twice as likely to say that they were considering work in other fields because of the threats and attacks they received, in person or online. 

Despite the obstacles they face, more women appear to be rising in the ranks of the global media industry, even though progress is relatively slow. In digital newsrooms, which often have fewer of the inherent inequities of legacy media, the number of women in leadership positions appears to be growing faster. However, the “bro” culture in certain newer newsrooms carries its own sexual harassment risks for women. Meanwhile, in the United States, several high-profile male journalists have lost their jobs in the last year over allegations of inappropriate behavior toward their female colleagues, part of the broader #MeToo movement.

But, overall, newsrooms continue to fail to take seriously the threats female journalists face on the job, both in their own workplaces and in the field. While newsrooms conduct risk assessment and deployment discussions regarding journalists in the field, where women can be particularly vulnerable to unwelcome advances from male colleagues, contacts or strangers, they rarely account for the specific threats women face, at least not in a sufficiently nuanced way.

This may be partly because, for major news organisations, these assessments are often handled in consultation with safety advisers, usually former military men, who may not fully appreciate the particular risks women face. Sometimes, the safety advisers turn out to be perpetrators of sexual harassment. Anecdotally, I know of several journalists who have been sexually harassed by safety advisers. Depending on where this takes place, such behaviour can have significant security implications.

As if that were not enough pressure, female foreign correspondents who are assaulted in the field often find themselves at the centre of debates about whether women should be deployed on certain stories at all. Male correspondents are never the subjects of such debates.

This macho myopia reinforces the damaging imbalance in perspectives shaping the media. It also carries significant economic costs. As the Harvard Business Review put it, “we all pay the price” when sexual harassment continues or is covered up. By impeding women from advancing within the industry or compelling them to change jobs, harassment diminishes their earning potential and deprives society of the best use of its talents.

The fact is that journalists of various genders, ethnicities and backgrounds experience different environments differently, in terms of both the risks they face and the rewards they can reap. Any assessment of a story needs to account for that nuance, with managers choosing the best journalist for the job, and providing the support needed to keep all journalists safe.

To change the organisational culture that has enabled harassment and other forms of abuse against women, a moral obligation, as well as a legal and economic imperative, newsroom managers must lead from the top. Change will not happen overnight, nor will it be driven by a single actor. Leaders should listen to the women in their ranks, and invite diverse perspectives to help effect change.

The goal is not to pit young against old or women against men. It is to rectify the media industry’s failure to protect its most vulnerable workers. We all pay when that failure prevents women journalists from achieving their full potential.

 

Hannah Storm is director of the International News Safety Institute. Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2018. www.project-syndicate.org

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