Sexual harassment in newsrooms needs to end now
By Tracy Everbach
The 20-year-old intern called me. “I don’t know what to do,” she said.
At her internship, she wanted to learn extra skills. I suggested she shadow another, older journalist. She had spent the day with him.
“When we were back in the newsroom editing, he touched my legs,” she said. “I think he thinks I am interested in him romantically. I’m not.” The man also tried to touch her face.
Oh, no, I thought. Here we go again.
As a young journalist in the ‘80s and ‘90s, I experienced numerous incidents in which male co-workers, sources and others apparently “misunderstood” my interest in learning, interviewing, chatting, and basically doing my job. I had thought back then it was my fault. Now, years later, I knew better.
After talking to the intern and reassuring her she did nothing wrong, I called the human resources department of the company and reported the sexual harassment.
This is one of the dirty little secrets of the workplace. Many journalism students don’t realize that newsrooms still are heavily male-dominated. And many–not all–newsrooms still carry the stigma of that male-dominated atmosphere.
I feel an obligation to alert students, particularly women students, who make up a majority of journalism majors. The facts are that newsrooms are about two-thirds male, with leadership positions even more male-dominated. The opposite is true in journalism schools, in which two-thirds of students are women.
I’ve done a lot of research in this area and there are multiple reasons why women start out in journalism, then choose to leave, usually after the first five years. It stands to reason that the way they are treated in newsrooms is a major factor.
I reviewed the scholarly literature on sexual harassment of women in newsrooms. No significant surveys of women journalists on this topic have been completed since the 1990s. But at that time, studies found that between 60 percent and 80 percent of women journalists had experienced some kind of sexual harassment in newsrooms, either from co-workers or sources.
Definitions of sexual harassment in these studies included unwanted physical contact, making uninvited sexual jokes, unwanted date invitations, uninvited sexual references, unwanted flirting, degrading comments, or display of sexual images in the workplace.
Back then, we rarely if ever, reported these incidents. I think we simply assumed they were another hazard of the job, or that we could handle them, or that we might be shunned or thought of as the “bitch” in the newsroom if we reported them. Many of us simply kept our mouths shut about it, assuming we had either misled a co-worker or source, or that that was just the way the journalism world worked.
Although it appears to be time for new research, anecdotal information shows these kinds of incidents still occur in the workplace. Recently I informally surveyed several women journalists I know, ages 30s through 50s. All reported having experienced one or more of these types of harassment, either from co-workers, supervisors or sources.
Years after a married co-worker had showed up at my house several times before work, asking to have an affair with me, I learned that he also had harassed another woman in the newsroom.
What if she and I had bonded together back then and reported him to supervisors?
What if every woman reported every incident to human resources?
My point is, the problem is not ours as women. The problem is the men (and yes, it is primarily men) who harass. It’s also the company’s problem for failing to enforce its own sexual harassment policies.
Back to the intern: The male employee who harassed her was reprimanded. The intern learned that she doesn’t have to put up with such treatment in the workplace.
We all need to work on halting this kind of behavior. I intend to continue warning both female and male students about it and reporting any incidents. But ultimately it will only end when harassers stop thinking that this is acceptable treatment of women.
Tracy Everbach, Ph.D., is associate professor in the Mayborn School of Journalism at the University of North Texas. She worked for 14 years as a newspaper reporter at two different newspapers.