How WAN-IFRA WIN is using data to break the silence on sexual harassment in newsrooms

WAN-IFRA Women in News and City, University of London collaborated on a first-of-its-kind study into the scale of sexual harassment in newsrooms in 20 countries in Africa, Southeast Asia, Central America and the Arab region, as well as Russia. 

The study built on existing research that identified a gap in the information available on these regions. Lead Researcher Dr Lindsey Blumell provides insight into the results, and highlights what media organisations and leaders can do to make the workplace safe for all.

Why was this research important?

I’ve been working in this area around gender inequalities in the newsroom for the last five or six years, and a question that emerged was: how can we have equality in the newsroom if we can’t even guarantee personal safety?

When #MeToo emerged in 2017, it became very apparent that some of the journalists reporting on it worked for organisations guilty of sexual harassment and abuse. I decided to focus on this with my co-researcher Dinfin Mulupi, who is from Kenya originally. We went to Kenya and in all the newsrooms we were in, we found sexual harassment was a huge problem, yet people didn’t want to report it – and even when they did, there wasn’t much done. 

When we were approached by WAN-IFRA Women in News to collaborate on a study, we thought it would be a good project to be on because if sexual harassment was happening in the country we were studying, it would probably be happening in other countries. And it is.

This research was a combination of surveys and interviews with media executives. What surprised you most about their responses?

We are seeing a shift from the men in top management. We are seeing them take sexual harassment a little more seriously and becoming a little hip to the lingo. Because of movements like #MeToo, I think most managers know it’s not really kosher to say, ‘there’s no sexual harassment problem’ – but they’ve shifted from saying there’s no problem to, ‘there’s no problem in our newsroom’. Obviously, it can’t be a problem everywhere else, so there is still a lack of self-reflection. 

What does the data show us about what needs to be done to stamp out sexual harassment in newsrooms?

The most consistent pattern in all the countries is that reporting is low, so when higher management say they do not have any reports on sexual harassment, they may not be lying.

We now have the statistics showing sexual harassment is happening but people are not comfortable reporting it because they’re worried about the backlash, about losing their jobs, about having a negative label put on them. Or they don’t even know how to report.

It’s sad when you’re a victim of sexual harassment to then worry that instead of your organisation protecting you, it’s going to further punish you. We know this is true because those who did report sexual harassment saw action taken less than 50 per cent of the time, and even then, the most common reaction was a warning. So why would you risk your reputation if it’s just going to end in a warning? 

Were there any rays of hope you identified from the surveys and interviews?

Yes, there is hope because when we asked people whether they had a policy or not, and if it increased their chances of reporting, it did not – but if there was a policy and they were trained on it, then it was more likely that an organisation would take action. 

What concrete steps can media organisations take to break the cycle of silence?

Journalists know how to comply with ethical standards when they have to – if they make up sources, they know they will likely be fired. So if the atmosphere in a newsroom changes to zero tolerance on sexual harassment and implements consequences, then it won’t be tolerated anymore. But managers are not going to act unless they have a policy or the organisation on their side.

The other issue highlighted in our research is the boys’ club – the men at the top who socialise together. They are less likely to take action against their friends in the club, so we need to break down these networks. We need to have accountability and better training. It’s not going to happen overnight, and that’s why knowledge training for journalists is so important, because most of the problematic ideas we have around sexual harassment are normalised by the wider culture.

We have established that sexual harassment is a global issue in the media industry and happens pretty much everywhere. We are now gathering policies against sexual harassment and analysing them so we can go to organisations and say: ‘We have this data. Sexual harassment is happening. You’re not reacting to it. People don’t feel comfortable reporting it, and your policies are failing. It’s time to change policies or enact them effectively, which means better training.’ I think the research results have been a big wake-up call

How can media leaders walk through defining sexual harassment in their newsrooms? 

This is a gendered issue because if knowing what sexual harassment is were so confusing, we wouldn’t see the same pattern, which mostly involves a male perpetrator and a female victim – of course it happens in all sorts of ways, but that is generally the case. Perpetrators have an M.O., they know who to target, they know what to do.

To what level can we extrapolate these research results?

I started my research looking at one country, expanded to three, and now we have 20. Yes, there are slight differences between countries, but they aren’t huge. We know the pattern is there and I think it will continue. But that’s not to dismiss the importance of gathering data in every country. It’s also useful to know what the different experiences are because even though the results are usually the same, the way sexual harassment happens can be different. But so far, we haven’t been surprised.

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