Author-journalist Jill Geisler is in charge of the Freedom Forum Institute’s Power Shift project at the Newseum in Washington DC, which engages journalists and editors to have conversations on the gender imbalance in newsrooms. The project was launched in the wake of #MeToo revelations in newsrooms in the United States. Geisler, who is part of the Communications faculty at Loyola University in Chicago, speaks in this interview of the lessons learnt so far.
The #MeToo movement seems to have shattered the myth that newsrooms are one of the most liberal, and, hence, one of the safest, workspaces for women.
I don’t know if it has been spoken about as a safe space. But it has been spoken about as a space in which women have been under-represented in leadership roles and often had to fight to get equal pay and opportunities to lead. With the eruption of sexual misconduct stories, it seemed surprising to many people that this could go on for so long in organisations which hold others accountable. Here’s what we learnt in the United States. That the way we looked at harassment and the spectrum of misconduct is limited. It looked at what is illegal, when it is actually about the misuse of power. We found that disparities in power caused many people to be especially vulnerable to discrimination, harassment, and incivility. These three things are inextricably woven together. Where you find incivility, you will find a breeding ground for harassment and discrimination against the least powerful people, i.e. women, part-timers, freelancers, temporary employees, young or new employees, and employees who are minorities.
Considering that the perpetrators are most often serial offenders, would you say that had the women, who were relatively senior, spoken out against them, the younger lot in newsrooms would have been enabled to speak out?
A significant number of veteran female journalists said they had no recourse, there were no laws to protect them back then. In the 1970s, when women in my TV station were asked to dress up as Playboy Bunnies for a client party, they didn’t have any recourse. They had to be a good sport, right?
A woman had to get along to get ahead. There were no people you could complain to. They would tell you just to deal with it. I remember telling my boss about an experience in which a colleague, a married man I was on a story with, would keep running his hands through my hair. But this was the 1970s and he just laughed it off. Nothing ever happened to this guy — until ultimately after I became news director, we took a long look at his behaviour with women. And he was let go.
When it comes to reporting on #MeToo, how does one ensure journalistic due diligence and, at the same time, sensitivity, especially when the survivors want to stay anonymous?
The reporters who have broken the stories here have worked diligently over time to get as many people as possible on the record. When we talk about #MeToo, it means I’m going to believe you and there are more people than we’ve ever imagined that have been victims; people come forward as they feel less threatened because they’re part of a larger group. So, when you get a sufficient number of people on the record, you can then offer off-the-record status to those survivors who still might not feel safe, because you can break the story based on sufficient collaboration. If you can’t get anyone on the record, you have to get a paper trail, contemporaneous notes, texts, calendar entries, any such documentation. But the first course of action is always to try for corroborated on-the-record stories.
From the time #Me Too movement hit newsrooms in the United States a year ago until today, what have been the systemic changes, if any, in the newsrooms?
Shortly after the Harvey Weinstein story broke, allegations of sexual harassment emerged from newsrooms against big names such as Charlie Rose from CBS, Matt Lauer from NBC, Mike Oreskes who was the head of news for NPR, Garrison Keillor from A Prairie Home Companion, Mark Halperin who was at ABC News. The list goes on. And one name begat another as people felt emboldened to come forward. So shocking was the roster of those names that a woman named Jan Neuharth, whose father had created USA Today and who is head of the Freedom Forum Foundation, said that people who care about journalism must do something. She challenged her team at the Newseum to put together a summit and that’s where they brought me in, to bring in those who were either covering those stories or dealing with the repair that they had to do internally. The systemic change we have seen are changes in our anti -harassment training as it was found to be ineffective since it was compliance-based and not directed toward newsrooms and the culture. Journalists are having a conversation for the first time on what behaviours have to change if we want to be known for a culture of respect and trust. When we are evaluating an employee, we have often done it on the basis of their journalistic skill. Now we have to add ‘How do they treat their colleagues?’ and make that substantive and not give a pass to people who are incredibly talented jerks.
For some people, #MeToo means that ‘I am a victim or have been a victim’; for someone else, it means ‘I am an ally to victims’; for someone else, it says, ‘In the face of doubt, my inclination is to believe’. You can be an ally, you can be an amplifier, you can become an advocate.
Has the movement in newsrooms managed to be inclusionary in terms of race? We see a parallel in Indian newsrooms when it comes to caste.
When we put the power shift summit together, it was essential that we not let this become a focus on heterosexual white women. Every minority journalism organisation was involved and helped co-lead the conversation. The head of the Black Journalists Association, a woman, and the head of International Women’s Media Foundation, a Hispanic woman, were co-facilitators with me. It was critical. The National Gay Lesbian Journalists Association spoke at the event which was also attended by many victims as well as the National Women’s Law Centre and US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
It may be difficult for a woman, it is more difficult if you are a woman of colour, a woman of subordinate caste, a woman of a different generation. And so in all the culture change programmes we have designed, we focus on intersectionality and to respect the fact that the #MeToo movement did not start in 2017. It was started in 2006 by an African American woman named Tarana Burke who was working to empower young African American women and her legacy has been picked up by the current #MeToo movement. She’s still active in it and deserves every bit of respect.