Which sexual harassment and assault stories should you cover? Here are some guidelines

Editor's note: This story was originally published Nov. 17, 2017.

The Harvey Weinstein story set loose an avalanche of related stories. That leaves newsrooms everywhere sorting through allegations of sexual harassment and sexual assault. News judgment on these stories is subjective. There’s no getting around that.

Some stories are clearly news. Multiple victims reporting improprieties or intimidation by a powerful CEO or hypocritical politician deserve investigation. But what about allegations against a local businessman or a retired politician? Those are tough calls — case-by-case situations that require careful editorial judgment and newsroom discussion. Here’s a step-by-step process to guide you through a discussion of which stories to report and how to report them.

What is your journalistic purpose?
How would telling this story serve your audience? Does it expose a system that touches a large number of people? Does it tap into a gross imbalance of power or an ongoing pattern of behavior? Can you devote the appropriate resources to providing a thorough, well-documented report?

When thinking about specific investigations, these figures merit consideration:

  • Elected or appointed politicians, past or present
  • Other public figures that have power and influence
  • Powerful public servants like police chiefs or school principals and superintendents
  • Doctors, counselors, teachers and others who have access and influence over children or vulnerable people

What is the potential scale of the harm alleged?
Journalists have a greater obligation to investigate stories that potentially involve many victims.

  • How many accusers can you track down?
  • How much access did the accused have to other potential victims?

Is this sexual harassment or sexual assault or both?
Sexual harassment and assault are related but distinctly different. Sexual assault, by powerful people, is clearly newsworthy. As we’ve seen with the allegations against Weinstein, Roy Moore Al Franken and others, sexual harassers can morph into assailants. In journalistic investigations we have been more concerned with assault, which is clearly defined in the criminal code, than with harassment. Yet harassment is most prevalent, and is also an abuse of power, and closely related to unequal systems in which women are paid less and unable to break glass ceilings.

  • In the case of harassment, how can you convey context around evolving standards of behavior that managers may have tolerated decades ago that they won’t tolerate now?
  • What expertise do you need to convey the impact of harm caused by harassment or assault?
  • Does an allegation of harassment represent a pattern of abuse or a culture of intolerance that possibly contributed to other inequities?

What are your standards for sourcing & verification?
While the threshold for publishing a story accusing an individual of harassment or assault has shifted, vetting sources and their claims is critical.

  • How many sources do you have? Are they on the record?
  • Have you verified everything about their story that can be verified? While it is often impossible to verify specific claims of sexual harassment or assault, it is important to verify as much as possible about the story including:
    — If the source says she shared her story with friends or family, can you confirm that?
    — Can other facts around the story be checked, including employment dates and times, travel events, emails or text messages?
    — Are there any documents or evidence that support the general story?

How will you make use of anonymous sources?
Victims of both sexual harassment and sexual assault often have legitimate reasons for requesting anonymity. It is important for journalists to understand those reasons, and work with sources to give audiences confidence in the information reported.

  • If you are using all anonymous sources, how many do you need before publishing?
  • Do your anonymous sources know that reporters will seek a response from the accused, and in doing so will reveal the sources’ names?  
  • Are you following the standard best practices for use of anonymous sources? Have the names of anonymous sources been revealed to a senior editor? Do you have independent anonymous sources making similar claims?
  • Under what conditions would you break a promise of anonymity? If you determine your source lied?
  • Would your source be willing to be named if the news organization is sued?

How can you prepare to work with victims?
When listening to stories from victims, reporters must balance their need to verify details against causing more unnecessary harm.

  • How can you explain the reporting process ahead of time?
  • How can you assess a victim’s emotional stability or emotional support system?
  • Are you comfortable referring victims to counseling services?
  • Is your source emotionally grounded enough to consent to participating in a story?
  • Can you prepare to conduct an interview with sensitivity? (Hint: Ask open-ended questions, refer to our course on covering sexual assault.)
  • Does this victim have ulterior motives for making the accusation? If so, do those motives undermine the credibility of the story?

How can you demonstrate fairness to those facing accusations?
Journalistic principles are critical to credibility. If you are seeking a legitimate response from the accused, it’s critical to give the accused all the information you have for your story, and a reasonable amount of time to respond.

  • How much time will you give the accused to adequately respond to allegations?
  • How will you convey the breadth of the claims?  
  • Are you committed to ongoing follow-up coverage?
  • How can you demonstrate, to both the accused and your audience, all you have done to investigating a claim, including publishing documents?
  • Although you may not be naming a source in a story, in most cases it is appropriate to reveal accusers’ names to the accused. How will you do this?

What is the appropriate tone and language to use?
How you say it is just as important as what you’re saying. Overplaying or underplaying the story can hurt your credibility

  • How can you edit your work specifically for judgmental or sensational language?
  • Can you avoid code words and instead be as specific and precise as you can?.
  • Do the headlines, teasers, social media posts and other promotional material uphold the same values and the story itself?
  • If you have video of interviews, can you post entire interviews, as well as produced pieces?

How can you be transparent?
Communicating your reporting and decision-making process with audience is critical.

  • How can you explain this process and answer questions from your audience?
  • Can you describe how and why you reported the story?
  • How did the accusers come to be your sources?
  • What did you do to verify their stories?

What happens if your reporter is part of the story about sexual harassment allegations? Can your reporter write the story?
Consider a Vox.com story published Nov. 20 that reported on a pattern of allegations against a prominent New York Times reporter. The author of the piece, now Vox's editorial director, reported out details and evidence including texts and emails that bolstered the accusers' allegations, and also disclosed that she was subjected to what she described as unwanted sexual advances from the same reporter when they both worked at a previous workplace. A reporter from another news organization contacted us wondering if this was a conflict of interest and should have been written by someone else or labeled as an opinion piece.

Here is our response from Indira Lakshmanan, Newmark chair in journalism ethics:

The writer's personal experience is relevant to the pattern of allegations and the story she was investigating. In fact, it would have been improper for this author to write about other women's allegations against [the reporter] without disclosing her own experience. What's important is that the allegations are presented fairly. 

This is not an "opinion piece," and to label it as such would be misleading. This appears to be a carefully reported story detailing allegations by a number of women that includes the author's allegations of her personal history too. The author has provided contemporary evidence to bolster allegations — including text messages, emails, conversations with friends of the alleged victims, reference to an Uber time stamp and reports made to senior editors. 

To alleviate any potential concerns about bias, there may be value in inserting an editor's note at the top of the story disclosing that the writer herself is one of the accusers and detailing the steps Vox took to give [the accused reporter] the opportunity to respond. Being a part of the story doesn't disqualify someone from writing about it as long as they do so fairly, follow journalistic standards, and disclose their involvement.

How are you dealing with your own newsroom’s internal issues?
It turns out all industries have problems with sexual harassment, including journalism. Your own internal issues could become a distraction to the good reporting you do.

  • Are your HR guidelines adequate?
  • Are you having internal conversations about your culture?
  • Be alert to your own hubris:  If you’re a newsroom leader and you don’t get it, can you find someone to cover your blind spots?

These guidelines were written with input from several members of the Poynter Institute's staff. If you have more thoughts about the issues or areas of concern that we've missed, please leave your comments below.

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    When you see this byline, it could mean one of many things: several members of the Institute staff collaborated (such as when we issue guidelines or best practices); the story was based off a press release that required minimal reporting; or something was submitted to poynter.org for publication.

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