September 14, 2022

A big part of teaching journalism is sending students into the community to conduct interviews, take photos and otherwise practice their skills. These kinds of real-world assignments have clear benefits to fledgling journalists and, in many cases, local information ecosystems.

But fieldwork also carries risks.

Journalism educators have grappled with this in recent years as journalism students have become more vocal about the threats, intimidation and other forms of harassment they face. Students are also increasingly concerned about the vitriol and violence directed at seasoned journalists such as Jeff German, the investigative reporter who was stabbed to death outside his Las Vegas home earlier this month.

To better understand the intersection of anti-press behavior and journalism education, we spent part of last year asking U.S. student journalists about the harassment they’ve experienced and how it impacts them personally and professionally. This research convinced us that teaching student journalists about on-the-job harassment is a crucial step in reshaping journalism’s overall professional culture into something more inclusive, accessible and supportive of new practitioners.

As our research confirmed, a journalist’s gender and race influence the type of harassment they face — a reality some of the students who participated in our survey said their professors never addressed. This raises questions about how harassment may be deterring future women journalists and journalists of color from entering a field that is sorely in need of more diversity.

If journalism educators (and the institutions that employ them) don’t do more to help students anticipate and cope with on-the-job harassment, the impact on the field could be enormous. As one study participant said, “We … need to be building a social justice lens into our journalism education, so that … journalism students are more empowered to say, ‘No, this is harassment. I am being targeted. This isn’t what the industry should look like anymore.’”

Our full paper is still undergoing peer review, but we want to share some of our findings now in hopes of helping journalism educators as they prep their classes for the fall.

Here’s a quick summary of our research process: During the summer and early fall of 2021, we conducted a national, anonymous online survey of 218 current U.S. journalism students and recent graduates. We then conducted a series of lengthy interviews with eight survey participants. It’s important to note that these samples are small, and there are limits to our work. We can’t, for instance, calculate the overall prevalence of harassment targeting journalism students. Still, our findings are a sobering snapshot of what happens when we send our students out into the field.

In perhaps one of our most disheartening findings, university officials were the most common source of harassment, with 18.6% of study participants saying they faced harassment from faculty, staff or administrators affiliated with their own universities and an additional 12.3% pointing to faculty, staff or administrators from other universities. The second most common source of harassment (19.2%) was community members.

As for the types of harassment students experienced, roughly one-third reported receiving non-sexual insults, name-calling, or abusive comments either online or in person. The second most common form of harassment, reported by roughly 22% of participants, was sexual insults, name-calling, or abusive comments. Roughly 19% of students surveyed received threats of physical violence. An additional 10% described threats of sexual violence. About 15% of study participants, meanwhile, were threatened with professional or academic retaliation.

We also found that a student’s race and gender influence the type of harassment they experience. For instance, Black students who participated in our study were most likely to have been targets of sexual violence. Asian respondents, meanwhile, were most likely to have received threats of academic or professional retaliation. Women, meanwhile, recounted incidents of sexual harassment and described how those experiences sometimes made them question pursuing careers in journalism.

“I have faced harassment both from the subjects of my stories and from professors/editors within the industry,” a participant said. “I decided that emotional labor was not worth it, and when I graduated, I found work in a journalism-adjacent field.”

(Our study doesn’t address how anti-press harassment compares to other trends in workplace harassment. That kind of behavior is a problem in any context, but we’re journalism professors, so that’s our main focus.)

Another woman described how she was sexually harassed while working in a campus newsroom during her first year of college. The harassment persisted despite her efforts to get help. “I just felt like I was screaming under a cage and no one could hear me,” she said.

Most of the students surveyed reported the harassment to a newsroom supervisor, a professor or other university employee, but the response was often lacking. Roughly half of students surveyed said their university either took no action or briefly investigated the situation and never followed up. About 40% of survey participants stopped the harassment themselves by quitting their reporting job or dropping their journalism class. Others were motivated to look for work outside of journalism.

“I don’t want the constant negative adrenaline rush of worrying that something’s going to happen,” said one participant.

Perhaps the most common theme that emerged in our research, however, was students’ desire for journalism educators to do more to prepare them for on-the-job harassment. By not advocating against harassment or teaching students how to deal with it, journalism educators risk normalizing it. As one study participant said, “Everything is a learned behavior. This is a microcosm of the news world. If this is how you practice news in your (campus) newsroom, that is going to transfer over.”

We can’t, of course, magically make on-the-job harassment disappear, but journalism educators can do more to help their students feel better prepared — or at least a little less surprised — when it happens to them.

For starters, talk about harassment the same way you address other on-the-job challenges. Most of us are well-versed in helping students navigate public records laws, reticent sources and even inclement weather. Add harassment to your list of topics to discuss as you prepare students for work in the field, and tell them their grade won’t suffer if they have to end an interview because a source is acting inappropriately.

If you’re not sure where to start, check out anti-harassment resources from TrollBusters, the Committee to Protect Journalists and the DART Center for Journalism and Trauma. Guest lectures from professional journalists might be useful here, too. The Society for Professional Journalists is a good resource, as are organizations for journalists from historically marginalized groups. The students we interviewed also desired more training in how to handle online threats and harassment when they do occur, so consider adding modules like this one to your syllabus.

If your journalism school is big enough, think about appointing a faculty member to field harassment concerns — and be sure that person receives proper training and, perhaps, additional compensation for that work. If students don’t know where to turn after they’ve been harassed, they’re more likely to keep it to themselves and pass it off as unimportant. It’s also a good idea for student journalists to have access to emergency legal help like what’s offered by the Student Press Law Center.

Still, awareness and coping skills can only go so far. Institutions — universities and news organizations alike — must start taking anti-press harassment more seriously, especially when it’s aimed at young practitioners. Journalism schools also need to examine the culture they’re creating for their students. The traditional notion that reporters need to have a thick skin can discourage students from disclosing when they are being harassed or struggling in other ways.

Failing to address these challenges will have lasting consequences for our students, the field of journalism and democracy itself.

(The authors are faculty members at Northeastern University’s School of Journalism.)

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