The story behind the #UsToo training: Why harassment is about power and how we can help prevent abuse

October 15, 2019 and
Category: Business & Work

Kelly McBride is Poynter’s senior vice president and chair of the Craig Newmark Center for Ethics and Leadership at Poynter. She oversees all Poynter training, including our women’s leadership programs. Carolyn McGourty Supple is co-founder and co-leader of Press Forward, a nonprofit start-up dedicated to creating healthy newsroom environments.


Shortly after journalists began blowing open story after story of systemic harassment and assault in workplaces across America, from Harvey Weinstein in Hollywood to the halls of Congress, reporters discovered their own profession was prone to similar abuses of power.

In fact, at times over the last two years, as journalistic icons were dropping left and right, it seemed as if journalism might be more disposed than other professions to sexual harassment in the workplace.

Carolyn was a working mom who co-founded a non-profit to address workplace harassment and find solutions in journalism, while Kelly was providing ethical leadership to newsrooms nationally. Though we were still operating on separate but parallel paths, we each noticed a striking similarity in the collateral damage that sexual harassers had inflicted on this profession that we love. 

Women described to us how they sacrificed their own career advancement, endured emotional turmoil, and avoided reporting (and thus missed out on great assignments). Men told us they wish they’d known how they could have helped.


This article originally appeared in an issue of The Cohort, Poynter’s newsletter for women kicking ass in digital media. Join the conversation here.


Although we’d never met before the spring of 2018, we’re both earnest, responsible people who cannot walk away from a problem if we think we can make a difference. And the more closely we investigated, the more motivated (read: enraged) we became.

Courageous reporting had exposed a massive fault line in the news industry: Nearly two-thirds of female journalists will be harassed sometime during their careers, most likely at work, and it won’t be reported, according to the International Women’s Media Foundation and the International News Safety Institute. This is coupled with the fact that nearly two-thirds of journalism students are female yet they are entering an industry that is only one-third women.

These numbers are not just sobering, they are unacceptable.

Press Forward (Carolyn co-leads as chief visionary officer), the nonprofit launched by current and former journalists to address harassment and find workplace solutions post-#MeToo, teamed up with Poynter (Kelly’s the senior vice president) to help newsrooms address the problem holistically. Existing training programs clearly weren’t working — so we developed our own. 

 

The challenge 

Some of Press Forward’s co-founders experienced harassment by powerful men in the news. Through our individual experiences and also by interviewing others, we learned that many women who told their stories in the news business say at first they didn’t understand they had been harassed until it had been characterized for them in news stories. Many felt they had somehow navigated a moral dilemma in their careers (issues surrounding dignity or advancement), not realizing that the behavior was illegal and that they were entitled to workplace rights.

Many women who identified past experiences as harassment were also unaware of their company’s policies or resources. Freelancers were even more vulnerable because they were often ineligible for company resources or training. Some women who experienced harassment reported incidents to their managers and colleagues, who in turn did not know how to be effective allies or file official documentation. 

Systemic harassment in some places had been normalized and accepted for decades.

 

Why training is broken

Training is an important step to eliminating harassment and creating awareness of the law. And we wanted to understand why existing training around sexual harassment has been so ineffective. 

Through months of research and interviews with experts, we discovered most sexual harassment training focuses on legal compliance as opposed to behavioral awareness. This became the foundation of our training. In addition, journalists told us they found generic training designed to apply to any workplace inadequate for newsroom scenarios.  

We set out to create workshops that addressed an underlying condition of harassment in many newsrooms: an inherently coarse environment that can bleed into outright incivility. An Equal Employment Opportunity Commission Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace reached the same conclusion: “Workplace incivility often acts as a ‘gateway drug’ to workplace harassment.” 

Fostering civil and respectful environments by leadership and management is critical.   

 

The solution

We designed our own training program, specifically for newsrooms. #UsToo: Building Trust in Newsrooms was built in a way that emphasizes the intersection of ethics, values and power. 

There’s one workshop for all employees that defines harassment and encourages everyone to own their own roles in recognizing potential harassment. And there’s a separate workshop for managers to learn how to foster an environment of safety and civility. We’ve been test driving the training in Poynter leadership workshops. It gets more powerful every time we teach it.

Through our research we found that the best way to ensure that power is not abused is to share it with those who have less power. After all, that’s one of the reasons journalism exists: to serve as a check on power and to give voice to the vulnerable. How can we be expected to do that job well if we are creating our own unequal systems within our newsrooms?

We’re pretty excited to launch this new training in newsrooms around the country. As two people who couldn’t stand to just walk away from a problem that affects so many, we’re eager to help journalists start a new, better and healthier conversation about how we use our power to make newsrooms more equal and ultimately to do better journalism.  

On this journey we also learned a little about our own power as women. If you see a problem in the world, go fix it. If you don’t, who will?


For additional insights, inside jokes and ongoing conversations about women in digital media, sign up to receive The Cohort in your inbox every other Tuesday.