Most Female Journalists Have Been Threatened, Assaulted, or Harassed at Work. Here's Why We Don't Talk About It.

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Dec. 3 2013 2:20 PM

Most Female Journalists Have Been Threatened, Assaulted, or Harassed at Work. Here's Why We Don't Talk About It.

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Journalist Lara Logan is one of few woman reporters who have seen their experience of harassment go public.

Photo by Chris Hondros/Getty Images

This week, the International Women’s Media Foundation and the International News Safety Institute released the results of an online survey asking female journalists around the world to detail the abuse they’ve experienced on the job. Sixty-four percent of the 875 respondents said they had experienced “intimidation, threats, or abuse” in the office or in the field. Most of the abuse was perpetrated by the journalists’ bosses, superiors, and co-workers. Forty-six percent of female journalists said they had experienced sexual harassment at work, including “unwanted comments on dress and appearance.” That harassment was also overwhelmingly perpetrated by colleagues. Twenty-one percent said they had experienced physical violence—including being pushed, pinned down, or threatened and assaulted with weapons—in the course of their work. Thirteen percent had been sexually assaulted on the job—again, mostly at the hands of co-workers.

If you’re a female journalist, these numbers are unsurprising. Pervasive sexual harassment and violence against female reporters, editors, and writers is rarely aired publicly, but it is an open secret in the field. The majority of incidents of sexual harassment and physical assault detailed in the IMWF survey were not reported to employers; 76 percent of women who met physical violence on the job did not report the assault to police. That’s partly because bosses and cops are the ones responsible for threatening and assaulting us. A small portion of abuse and intimidation reported in the study came from government officials (7 percent of reported incidents) and police officers (3 percent); 23 percent of women who said they had experienced physical violence on the job were assaulted by cops. The majority of these cases involved men we work with. When we do hear about harassment and assault against female journalists, it’s generally in the context of incidents perpetrated by people outside of the business (see: Lara Logan and Erin Andrews).

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That doesn’t mean that female journalists are not forthcoming about the issue. We talk among ourselves, naming names in private email threads, drinks outings, and anonymous blogs. This is our “sad coping mechanism,” as Ann Friedman put it this year. Female journalists keep these discussions at a whisper because we know the men responsible are “too professionally powerful, too entrenched to really be held accountable for their behavior.” This year, the IMWF found that men make up nearly three-quarters of journalism’s top managers and nearly two-thirds of its reporters. The percentages are roughly the same in American journalism. Some sectors, like sports writing, are almost exclusively dominated by men. In 2012, 90 percent of American sports editors were men. If we ever hope to join their ranks, it seems safer not to challenge our superiors or our prized male colleagues. Sometimes, we are harassed while applying for these jobs.

Female journalists don’t want to be abused in the course of our employment—the majority of abused journalists said the incidents had a "psychological impact" on them—but we’d also like to remain employed. Calling out these men publicly (and submitting ourselves to a “he said, she said” situation with a more powerful colleague) means that reporting the abuse could become a “defining aspect of the accuser’s professional life, very likely wrecking it,” Friedman says. The stories we tell each other may help us stay on the lookout for repeat offenders, and to be more wary of working with them—but of course, that calculation also affects our career opportunities. When most female journalists are abused, threatened, harassed, or assaulted at work, there are few outlets we can run to where we will not be forced to work with these men, or their friends and supporters. Some of the journalists who responded to the survey were assaulted by journalists with whom they did not directly work, but the news business is an erratic one. We could be working with them soon. And then we could be working beneath them.

So we keep whispering. The survey is still live; female journalists can report their experiences anonymously here.

Amanda Hess is a Slate staff writer. 

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