It seems you can’t pick up a newspaper anymore without seeing a headline about sexual harassment emblazoned across the front page.
Since the 1991 confirmation hearings of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas set off a heated debate about the subject, the nation’s newspapers have given prominent coverage to allegations of sexual harassment against such well-known people and institutions as President Bill Clinton, former Oregon Sen. Robert Packwood, members of the U.S. military, the Federal Aviation Administration and executives of large companies like Mitsubishi Motor Manufacturing of America and Smith-Barney.
Graphic descriptions of inappropriate comments and actions by highly respected men, and women, fill the columns of our newspapers.
Ironically, interviews with more than 200 women reporters, editors, photographers and graphic artists at dozens of daily newspapers of all sizes across the country reveal that the very people assigned to cover these high-profile stories may, themselves, be victims of sexual harassment.
And that could be bad news for the millions of Americans who get their information from the daily newspaper.
Women make up about 52 percent of the U.S. population, but only 35 percent of the newspaper workforce, according to the book Taking Their Place: A Documentary History of Women in Journalism. Women hold only 15 percent of newspaper executive positions, the book says.
If the additional stress of sexual harassment in an already high-pressure occupation causes highly competent, top-performing women to leave journalism, there will be even fewer female voices to help set editorial policy and news coverage will suffer. Pervasive sexual harassment on the job may discourage even those women who don’t leave the profession from pursuing their careers with the same enthusiasm.
Women journalists in our survey reported significant sexual harassment by the men they cover. If women journalists are discouraged from working with otherwise highly qualified sources because the sources have a history of sexual harassment, readers may be denied the benefit of the best expertise on some stories.
Ultimately, an industry devoted to reporting about problems in other industries cannot do its job correctly if it does not have its own house in order.
When we began our research, there had been isolated reports of newsroom harassment, including claims against The New York Times, but there certainly were few headlines compared to what the national media were reporting from the world outside the newsroom. Our interest was piqued after the St. Petersburg Times, one of America’s leading newspapers, reported in 1991 that women on its staff had complained about overt sexual harassment in the newsroom.
As we began to research the topic, we found other surveys that indicated the St. Petersburg Times was not unique.
In a 1992 survey of 615 women and 615 men by the Associated Press Managing Editors (APME) association, 37.6 percent of the women responding answered “yes” when asked if they had ever been subjected to sexual harassment at their newspaper.
And a University of Maryland survey found that 60 percent of the women accredited to the Capitol press gallery in Washington reported they had been sexually harassed.
Another survey by the trade publication NewsInc. showed that 44 percent of the 199 newsroom women it surveyed had experienced sexual harassment on the job. That was more than twice the percentage of women in all fields reporting sexual harassment in a 1991 Newsweek/Gallop Poll.
Clearly these were not isolated instances.
After developing a random sample of women staffers at small, medium and large newspapers throughout the country, the three of us and a team of female graduate students spent the next 18 months conducting lengthy telephone interviews with 227 respondents and analyzing the results.
Before we even had a chance to analyze the data we collected, we were struck by two observations: First, an unusually high percentage of women agreed to participate in the survey; only about 11 percent of the women we contacted refused to participate. And second, most of the women who agreed to participate did so enthusiastically. It wasn’t uncommon for women to tell us, “I’m so glad you called. I’ve been waiting years to tell someone this story.”
The survey addressed five major issues:
- How commonly do women journalists face sexual harassment, and to what degree do women journalists perceive sexual harassment as a problem for themselves personally and for women journalists in general?
- Who harasses women journalists?
- Do personal or work environment characteristics affect the likelihood that women journalists will experience sexual harassment?
- What do newswomen do when they are sexually harassed?
- Do newspapers have written policy statements about sexual harassment, and are all employees aware of these policies?
The interviews revealed that 60 percent of the respondents believe sexual harassment is at least somewhat of a problem for women journalists. More than a third said harassment has been at least somewhat of a problem for them personally, and two-thirds said they had experienced nonphysical sexual harassment – meaning any kind of harassment that didn’t involve physical contact – “at least sometimes” on the job. About 17 percent had experienced physical sexual harassment “at least sometimes.”
Who were the harassers? News sources were named as the most frequent violators, committing abuses ranging from making degrading comments to actual physical sexual assault. More than 44 percent of the women reported that news sources at least sometimes subjected them to non-physical sexual harassment, and about 6 percent reported physical sexual harassment by sources at least sometimes. More than one-fourth of the women had at some time experienced physical sexual harassment by a news source, and more than 70 percent of the women had experienced non-physical sexual harassment by a source.
Ironically, many of the worst incidents of source harassment involved men employed in public safety. One reporter who agreed to interview a highway patrolman in his cruiser on a rainy night found herself fighting off a sexual assault. A photographer reported having to fend off sexual advances while on assignment with the local fire chief. And another police beat reporter recounted two instances in which a local district attorney watched confiscated X-rated videotapes while she attempted to interview him.
“It just didn’t make sense that he would put them in the tape player,” she said. “It was disturbing and uncomfortable.”
The study demonstrated that many women journalists feel powerless to do anything about harassment by sources because they depend on these people for information.
“I was sexually harassed by a source who was often valuable,” one woman said in the APME survey. “When I weighed the consequences of addressing this situation directly or simply trying to avoid him, I chose the latter. I decided it simply wasn’t worth it to make waves.”
But the harassment women journalists face isn’t restricted to news sources. At least one-fourth of the women said they experienced non-physical sexual harassment at least sometimes from those in positions of authority over them and from co-workers at their same level, and nearly one-fourth experienced such harassment by subordinates. Almost 5 percent had been physically harassed at least sometimes by supervisors or co-workers.
Women harassed by co-workers, particularly supervisors, often expressed the same feelings of helplessness as those harassed by sources.
“When your job is on the line, you’re powerless to do anything about it,” one said. “And I’m not sure if you cried sexual harassment that you would have a job where I am.”
There were reports, however, of women who dealt with harassment aggressively. A business reporter who was sexually harassed by a bond trader reported him to her supervisor, who backed her in her decision to stop using the man as a source and to tell him specifically why she no longer would seek his opinions for stories.
Another woman from a midsize New England newspaper reported that her male co-workers once put up a poster showing a woman surrounded by 10 men, with the headline “Put an end to rape. Say Yes.” She said the poster was up “for about five seconds” before she got the managing editor to make them take it down.
Having clearly established that harassment is an issue for women newspaper journalists at America’s newspapers, there are still many questions to be answered. Among the issues we hope to address as we continue this line of research are:
- Does sexual harassment in newsrooms influence coverage?
- How do male co-workers in the newsrooms we studied view the issues of sexual harassment and discrimination?
- How do newsroom managers perceive and respond to harassment issues?
Women journalists have come a long way since APME published guidelines in 1969 that cautioned male managers to “provide the reason, the authority and the security to direct a woman in the use of her constant emotional drive” and urged women to “do your best to do everything the way a male boss wants it done.”
But as our survey and others like it indicate, they still have a long way to go before they are treated with the respect they have earned.