It’s the stuff that makes us all cringe.
Whether you’re a man or woman, you’re likely familiar with the banter: Vulgar jokes, inappropriate touching, pornographic texting, and discrimination that can happen — or may have happened — in your newsroom.
The #metoo movement has reached nearly every facet of society.
“People who were powerful in the news organization — maybe we would say ‘Oh, he likes the ladies’ or ‘he’s handsy,’” said Jill Geisler, the newly-appointed Newseum Institute Fellow in Women’s Leadership. “Handsy is such a cute word, but what if we used molesty? We used to think creepy was something we had to deal with.”
A solution is brewing for the future of news organizations, and Geisler is helping to lead the charge.
In January, the Newseum invited more than 130 newsroom leaders, editors, reporters, and advocates to its Power Shift Summit, which helped identify problems and generate solutions to the problem of sexual misconduct in the newsroom.
Recently, the summit released a 21-page report: Ending Silence and Changing Systems in the Media Industry. The report identifies seven key principles and calls for the repair of systemic failures, including the ability to report misconduct without fear of retribution, harassment training for employees at all levels of an organization, and a human resources process free from apparent and inherent bias.
Houston, we have a problem
Columbia Journalism Review recently reported about the turmoil to hit US newsrooms, from layoffs and unionization efforts to the mishandling of sexual harassment claims and unequal pay gaps and diversity within newsrooms.
It called out the “almost universal mishandling of sexual harassment complaints in media over not months, not years, but decades.”
“WNYC, the beloved New York radio station, revealed years of accusations of abuse by hosts including Leonard Lopate, Jonathan Schwartz, and John Hockenberry; the station’s employees interrogated executives for tolerating creepy behavior and ignoring complaints,” said Heidi Moore, in her CJR piece.
“NPR had to overhaul its entire human resources structure after repeatedly failing to address complaints about former executive editor Michael Oreskes; an independent report found that a ‘high level of distrust’ in management to handle sexual harassment issues.”
Geisler knows all about these cases. She spent 25 years in a newsroom. She’s served as a newsroom manager and has created training programs in newsrooms worldwide.
The Newseum report established that some of the most vulnerable people in newsrooms — interns, freelancers, contract folks, and temporary employees — basically those with the least clout and also least likely to report harassment and discrimination — were in desperate need of training material and people on their side.
“We dealt with this through whisper networks,” Geisler said. “You didn’t want to lose your job. You talked with other people about it, and you talked about it with other women.”
Shifting power — and more to come
Newsweek recently was in the news with editors accusing owners of firing staffers over a story about an investigation into the company.
An outside legal review also detailed harassment at NPR, citing a “high level of distrust” of management.
And, we’re all familiar with the story of former Today host Matt Lauer leaving NBC.
The news permeating some newsrooms put into sharp relief the crisis at hand.
Issues of equality, diversity, and inclusiveness for women and people of color or those who have been marginalized always have been part of the Newseum’s mission, said Jan Neuharth, chair and CEO of the Freedom Forum, the principal funder of the Newseum in DC.
It’s why Geisler was asked to stay on as a fellow: To help launch a series of live events and interactive trainings for newsroom employees.
The first was a 90-minute event held March 2. It was called Power to the Interns.
“We have to make people comfortable with bringing forward their legitimate concerns,” Geisler said. “No more of that ‘That just comes with the newsroom.’”
While trainings still are unfolding and being charted, Geisler already has a full calendar, conducting sessions for specific news organizations, namely the Society of American Business Editors and Writers and American Society News Editors.
Also, this summer, she’s participating in a workshop with the Radio Television Digital News Association.
“This is so important,” Geisler said. “And this isn’t just about women. There’s an abundance of men who want this done as well. Men and women who want to take this on and put an end to this.”