Why newsrooms are so ripe for sexual harassment

I am not at all sure that newsrooms are more inviting for sexual harassment than any other workplace, but the past month of weekly doses of public shaming gives us plenty of reasons to think about what it is about newsroom culture that protected harassment when it happened. I suspect there is a combination of toxic ingredients cooking in newsrooms. Here are some examples.

It is hard to land a job in news, so the person who holds the keys to the future has all the power. If jobs were plentiful and work was steady, anybody who didn't like the boss could walk out. But when there are only three or four stations in town and maybe one newspaper, when you are out of work at one place, you won't just have to change jobs you will have to move. When you are fresh out of school, that means you may have to go home. So unless a victim has confidence that she/he has a system that will take complaints seriously, bullies know the victim faces the impossible choice of enduring the harassment or giving up their career. Over and over in the past couple of weeks, we have heard victims say they didn't report their suffering for just this reason.

Journalism requires people to work closely together.  Photographers and reporters often spend more time with their colleagues than they do with their spouses. Pros can and do carry off the working relationship beautifully, but we all know of edit room affairs that ended badly, if they even started mutually in the first place. The nature of the business requires men and women to work together, which is why the next point is so important.

Newsrooms are not great at on-boarding and setting strong behavioral guidelines. A new survey from Columbia Journalism Review showed of 310 journalists questioned, only 66 percent believed their newsroom had clear sexual harassment policies and only about one in five of the respondents said they understood what the policies were. While most of the journalists who took the survey said they got some sort of sexual harassment prevention training when they were hired, that's where the training stopped for most of them. Hardly any of the freelancers said they ever got such training from the companies they work with, and even those freelancers who work on-site for the company say they never got training to prevent harassment. Half of the full-timers said they would not know how to file a sexual harassment report if they needed to. 

The news business is full of big egos. The anchors and executives who have landed in trouble recently were public figures, icons who were used to be catered to. Local news has its own version of such people, celebrities working on a smaller stage — but celebrities and kingmakers all the same. In his book "All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten," Robert Fulghum wrote, "Ignorance and power and pride are a deadly mixture, you know."

"But the audiences loves him." TV newsrooms sometimes suffer along with boorish male anchors because it is generally accepted knowledge that the public adores him and he would be impossible to replace. And yet, in the last few years we have seen nobody is irreplaceable and sometimes the replacement can outperform the legacy star. 

I know a lot of smart veteran news executives who are women. I asked a couple of them how they see newsroom culture now compared to when they started in the business.

Sandy Boonstra, news director at NewsChannel 5 in Nashville. She has been a journalist for more than 32 years:

For me starting in the business 30 years ago it was a different environment altogether. It was dominated by men. Men were certainly the bosses and in most of the powerful newsroom positions. You could smoke in the newsrooms. My intern interview was at a bar and I was only 19. To fit in you did just that — fit in.  I ordered a drink that afternoon. And I laughed and never blinked an eye at the inappropriate jokes and comments. I wanted to work there. I wasn’t going to be seen as a fragile flower who couldn’t take the gruff and graphic nature of a newsroom. I think when you give in and don’t say anything it is seen as acceptable behavior by you and everyone else. You give people permission to act badly when you don’t correct them.  I feel like that has changed. But it’s not completely gone. Powerful men in newsrooms are still intimidating to young female producers and interns. They don’t want to have that anchor not like them. They want to fit in too.  And though today women feel more comfortable speaking up, there is still a large number of them who are still staying silent. It takes a long, long time to truly change a culture. Another thing that has changed is no more company Christmas parties with alcohol!

Marcy McGinnis, former CBS News executive and a journalist for more than 40 years.

The kind of intensity that you go through in a newsroom is quite unique. When people work in a newsroom they go through a lot together. They go through very intense periods like covering 9/11 or a hurricane.  There is a lot of intensity and release when it all over so there is a lot of partying. There are very few people who understand people in the news business. I found it easier to date people in the business than out because people do not understand why you have to work crazy hours and so on.

In our industry we are dealing with huge egos, we are dealing with people who are looked up to or are very public. It is all kind of very visible very public.  You would think if you were that big, you could probably date whoever you wanted to, the men that are doing this are extremely powerful I guess it goes to their head, or something weird happens. They are all famous, constantly told how great they are. They are never told they are wrong, I guess they get this warped view of life that they can get whatever they want.  

I have worked with more gentlemen in the industry than I have worked with creeps, but I have worked with plenty of creeps. My intuition is that they are out in the open. All of this kind of nonsense happened to us but nobody said anything. 

Marcy, Sandy and I all started as journalists at around the same time. When I started as a reporter one of the things I loved was how loud they were. I developed a terrible habit of swearing. I didn't tone it down until I married a minister. The hollering and cussing and arguing became normal to me. But I am a guy. And I wondered now how women recall those days.

"It was a very big boys club. It was mostly a boy's atmosphere," McGinnis told me. "There was a lot of cussing, yelling and kicking trash cans. They had to tone it down. I don't think I would have classified it as harassment at the time but looking back on it now I think it was an intimidating thing. It creates an atmosphere that is not conducive to getting your work done. When I started in network news, the art department was covered with Playboy centerfolds. There would be naked pictures on the walls. This was a network art department. In those days the men didn't think there was anything the matter with it."

Boonstra added, "Swearing is still there but not like it was. Newsrooms, at least ours, have a much more respectful and professional culture. Not that there isn’t still swearing but it’s more likely out of frustration and in a private conversation.  It’s rare to hear someone swear loud enough in the newsroom for everyone to hear."

The single most important change that will make newsroom sexual harassment less common, Boonstra says, is when more women fill the newsroom leadership roles. 

"When it comes to NewsChannel 5, there are many women in positions of leadership," she said. In addition to Sandy being WTVF's news director, the assistant news director is a woman, so is the newly hired executive producer and assignment editor. The station vice president and general manager is a woman (and a Poynter grad).  "Having a good culture and a positive work environment is extremely important to us. I believe it is clear to everyone at NewsChannel 5 that any behavior that damages the good environment we have built will be taken very seriously," Boonstra said.

After working at CBS for more than 40 years, McGinnis has some advice to any man who wonders if his behavior is offensive. "What I used to say at CBS when guys would act up, 'You know what, let's do this. Let's call your wife and see if she thinks what you did was funny.  If she thinks it funny then maybe you are right, I have just lost my sense of humor. What do you say, should we give her a call and see what she thinks?'  My advice to men, 'Just behave like your wife daughter or sister was in the room.'"

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    Al Tompkins

    Al Tompkins is The Poynter Institute’s senior faculty for broadcasting and online. He has taught thousands of journalists, journalism students and educators in newsrooms around the world.

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