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Panel: Gender-Based Issues in Reporting

An uneasy but appreciative silence fell over the students and faculty of Columbia Journalism School on Tuesday, October 6th, at the start of a panel entitled “Navigating Gender-Based Issues in Reporting, Online and Off.” The event featured a group of academics and journalists speaking about their experiences with gender-based harassment over the course of their jobs. Speakers included Rachel Dissell, a criminal justice reporter with The Plain Dealer and Cleveland.com; Elana Newman, McFarlin Professor of Psychology at the University of Tulsa and research director for the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma; Lam Thuy Vo an interactive editor at Al Jazeera America. Professor Susan McGregor moderated the discussion.

Newman began by sharing research showing that while harassment does happen to men, it affects substantially more women. Newman spoke about how the new battlefield for gender-based intimidation is the Internet, but that for journalists, sexual harassment – as legally defined – tends to come not from sources but from colleagues. Furthermore, there is a potentially wide margin of error in the data collected about this topic because a large portion of harassing behaviors and incidents are not reported.

Beyond the facts and figures, the most compelling moments came from the stories panelists shared. Dissell discussed a range of interactions that seemed directed at her gender. Some were off-handed remarks made by colleagues, while others were the implications of being invited to chat with a source “over a drink.” Another was Dissell’s experience after becoming a mother, when absent facilities made finding a place to breastfeed a prominent part of her working life. While none of these constitute harassment in the official sense, Dissell discussed the challenge of dealing with these subtle yet noticeable indicators that her gender was affecting her professional interactions.

Vo brought into the discussion her experiences as a woman in technology (a field with a huge gender disparity), a woman in journalism, and as a woman of color. Coupled with gendered experiences were those she shared as a woman of color – for example how her features are sometimes seen as “childlike” to sources and colleagues. She stated that the best way to combat this issue is through robust efforts to hire more women.

The two questions that seemed to hang in the air above all these remarks were stated clearly by Dissell: “Why is this part of what I do?” – articulating the sense that gender-based harassment is not seen as a problem, but simply “part of the job” of being a woman in journalism. And when harassment moves to online platforms, Dissell wondered: “Who has the time to make these comments?”

Perhaps the question that set the room alight was McGregor’s question of whether it ever made sense to use a source’s potential sexual interest to get a story. The panelists’ response was an unequivocal “No,” with Dissell asserting that no one using such an approach would last very long as a professional journalist.

While the panel did not seem to have any conclusive solutions to addressing gender-based intimidation and harassment, seeking a supportive community where one can safely describe these incidents was an important coping mechanism the panelists described. And all agreed that while these incidents aren’t a rare occurrence, the only way forward is through constant evaluation and day-to-day efforts.