News from the Field

Press Forward is ready to address the issue everyone’s been talking about but no one has fixed: Newsroom harassment

Job scarcity, unpredictable hours, power imbalances on staff, deadline pressures. For decades now, the fast-paced, high-stress culture in newsrooms has created conditions in which abuse of power and sexual harassment may occur. But it’s only recently that the bad behavior is getting the attention it deserves. Thanks to a landmark 2014 study by the International Women’s Media Foundation (IWMF), we now know that nearly two-thirds of female journalists will face harassment, most likely in the workplace, and it won’t be reported. Coupled with a recent survey of journalists showing that most news organizations are failing at onboarding their staff with awareness of sexual harassment policies, one organization is dedicated to finally changing this dynamic.

Launched in March 2017 by current and former journalists, Press Forward is an independent nonprofit initiative whose mission is to eradicate sexual harassment, elevate women in the workplace and foster civil, equal and safe work environments. Though Press Forward has received small donations from the McClatchy Foundation, the Wall Street Journal and Atlantic Media, the work right now is largely self-funded. Here, we talk to Press Forward’s co-founders, Dianna Pierce Burgess and Carolyn McGourty Supple, about harassment in the workplace, why current training is ineffective, and what funders need to know about supporting this work.

Media Impact Funders: Press Forward came about from a Facebook page called Silver Linings, where women impacted by men in the media were sharing stories and networking. What was the particular moment when it was decided that this group would turn into a full-fledged organization?

Press Forward: The moment came in November 2017, after speaking with newsroom leaders at the organizations where we experienced the behavior. They thanked us for sharing, but they didn’t explain what they were doing to rectify the past or how they would improve things in the future. As story after story broke across networks and newspapers and radios, we felt the response was insular.

Speaking with newsroom leaders and colleagues in the business, we realized there were no standards or industry guidelines around harassment or equality in the workplace. The lack of safety in reporting still existed and we continue to hear from inside organizations that the powerful are being protected, women who come forward are being retaliated against, and the culture and morale is still the same (bad). We felt the deck was stacked against women and good men.

We also felt strongly, after telling our stories, that those who were the most impacted should have a role in the solutions. We aren’t “victims” or “out for revenge” or “hysterical;” we are lawyers, management consultants, CEO’s, working journalists, professionals,  mothers, wives and daughters. And we felt the need to do something about it once for all, unifying women, men and minority groups for a common goal of creating civil, respectful and equal workplaces.

Media Impact Funders: Why is a harassment-free newsroom essential to a healthy democracy?

Press Forward: How can a female presidential candidate be accurately covered when the person writing the narrative is a serial harasser and degrader of women? How can the immigrant crisis at the border be a complete story without a producer able to ask questions from diverse viewpoints and perspectives? How can any journalist or news organization ask for full transparency by politicians, corporations, governments, when they will not be fully transparent themselves?

Two-thirds of graduates from journalism schools are women and yet they make up only one-third of the workforce in the newsroom. Diversity—socioeconomic, ethnic, religious, sexual orientation, age, gender—in a newsroom means the newsroom represents the American population.

Whether the average citizen recognizes it or not, unhealthy and singularly represented newsrooms affect how news is delivered into their homes, silently shaping their own perceptions on critical issues facing society. The press cannot be relevant nor effective unless those in power in the newsroom believe every voice in the newsroom matters. Every employee from the intern to the anchor deserves to be treated respectfully and with parity.

Media Impact Funders Why is current sexual harassment training ineffective, and what is your strategy to reverse that?

Press Forward: Study after study shows that corporate training programs are broken. Since sexual harassment laws were developed in the 1970s, training has been perceived as ineffective due to a focus on compliance and not on behavioral awareness or change. If the training is not tailored to a specific industry, it may not feel relevant to those receiving it. And any video content showed must be of high quality with realistic scenarios for trainees to absorb the information. The training must address the serious consequences of the behavior, but also not feel too threatening. In-person trainings are most effective, and follow-up exercises are needed to ensure the knowledge gained is imparted and leads to measurable change in workplace culture.

Our proposed training course—developed over six months with the Poynter Institute, experts on the topic of sexual harassment, lawyers, newsroom leaders and more—is an interactive course taught in three modules in one day by two trainers, led by the Poynter Institute in collaboration with Press Forward. It goes beyond raising awareness and aims to influence behavior through scenario-driven instruction. Video production will be of high-quality to establish credibility with audiences, and special focus is paid to newsroom leaders and managers, who set the tone and culture of an organization. After a journalist participates in the training, they should have an understanding of the law and behavior characterized as harassment, be able to respond to multiple scenarios where power may be abused, and describe the elements of respectful and civil workplace cultures. Our goal is to address a variety of issues: equality, discrimination, bystander scenarios, bullying, and go beyond abuse of power and sexual harassment.

Media Impact Funders: On a recent call among members of our journalism funders network, Elisa Lee Muñoz of the IWMF mentioned the severe lack of research on sexual harassment in the newsroom. What little research there is shows what’s happening, but not much on how to stop it and prevent it. How are you working to advance research on this topic?

Press Forward: It’s hard to truly know the extent of harassment because newsrooms are notorious for closing their doors tightly. Only one U.S. broadcast organization participated in the IWMF study, for example.

We feel here is where we might be able to make a difference. We’ve engaged the networks and they are receptive to participating and our powerhouse advisory board is 100 percent supportive.

Our next step is finding the right partner to conduct the study. We’re in discussions with a leading consulting firm that has worked with multiple industries and companies to survey the status of women in the workplace—including the likelihood of experiencing harassment during their careers. The study would be tailored specifically to the news industry, where in addition to the data, the report will offer recommendations for newsroom leaders and managers.

Industry studies like this are huge lifts and normally cost millions of dollars, including companies charging hefty consulting fees for those who want access to the data. We want to provide it to news organizations for free. Otherwise, it won’t get done.

Media Impact Funders: What do funders need to know about this work? 

Press Forward: We feel we are positioned to make an impact as conveners, working alongside the industry, bringing together leaders from academia, research, journalism schools and the industry to effect lasting change. Yet despite the support and enthusiasm from many, we recognized how little funding there was for these issues. To us, healthy newsrooms mean a healthy democracy. We also found that despite their sympathy for the cause, the networks are operating at a loss and don’t give philanthropically.

It’s surprising how little the news business invests in its own people. They give each other Pulitzers for covering these issues, but then viewed the women who told their stories with skepticism. They all want us to talk about our experiences with salacious details, but won’t write about what we say needs to change and how to do it. They all think they can handle their issues internally, but time and time again research shows that institutions will protect themselves. You have staff at PBS and NPR who have been freelance working full-time with zero benefits for decades; 96 percent of whom say they have never seen corporate policies on harassment.  And the same leaders who led the industry to the brink are also the ones who were either harassers, or allowed harassment to happen on their watch.

In the next phase after #MeToo, it’s important to invest in those who were impacted and are seeking solutions.

Press Forward is a fiscally sponsored fund of the Greater Washington Community Foundation, a public charity in Washington, D.C. Go to thepressforward.org to learn more.