NASA has a Zero-Tolerance Harassment Policy, But it Doesn’t Protect Reporters Like Me

In the eight years I have worked as a member of the media covering events at NASA, I have been sexually harassed, assaulted, and discriminated against more times than I care to admit. Despite an agency-wide anti-harassment policy that has been expanded and touted over the last few years, my experiences have revealed a scary reality- the policy does not extend to me.

Reporting my harassment to NASA has revealed glaring policy gaps, all of which jeopardize my safety while working and result in little to no action when an incident does occur. I did not realize how ineffective the system for reporting was either until I needed to report.

Because of my experiences, I want NASA to consider adopting language prohibiting harassment and discrimination, communicate complaint procedures, and include repercussions into the existing media policy.

A look at the policies

As a reporter, my colleagues and I agree to a media policy each time we apply for credentials to work with the agency. This policy, and expansions made available to media, contain wording related to behavior, but at no point is sexual harassment or discrimination mentioned.

NASA has what they describe as a zero-tolerance policy on harassment, complete with procedures for dealing with all types of harassment and discrimination. In 2020, following the #MeToo movement, the policy was updated and expanded.

Vague wording in both policies makes it sound like anyone working at NASA, and its facilities, are protected and governed by these guidelines. But that is not the case.

How this impacts me

I am neither a NASA employee nor a contractor. Given my current and past experiences of being harassed, I feel incredibly vulnerable and unsafe going to work at NASA when this policy gap exists.

In the past, when I tried to report a case of harassment to NASA, they told me that because the individual harassing me was an employee or contractor working at NASA and I am not, there was nothing they could do. They did not even want to know the name of the individual I was trying to report. NASA partners, like launch providers, fall into the same category.

My most persistent harasser started harassing me almost as soon as I began covering space and attending events at NASA. By reporting and with the help of colleagues, I have been able to keep them at bay. But I recently found out they are being employed through a partner and will be able to attend launches and events that way, jeopardizing my safety again.

If NASA required and enforced a blanket anti-harassment policy across all employees, partner employees, and even media members working at NASA, a situation like mine would not be allowed to go on for so long.

Problems reporting harassment to NASA

There are several hurdles and little to no guidance provided to the media needing to report sexual harassment. From what I have experienced and seen, reporting harassment and getting the NASA press office to take it seriously requires dogged persistence.

Right now, the entire system of reporting sexual harassment consists of telling the nearest public affairs officer (PAO). That is it. You find the nearest one, and you tell the PAO what happened.

In the best-case scenario, pull the PAO away from the gaggle they are supervising to get their full attention and some privacy. What happens after that depends on the PAO. I experienced a wide range of reactions, and so have my colleagues.

Most complaints stay with the PAO, reports often go undocumented, and any attempt to follow up is futile. In my experience, PAOs acknowledged the harassment as wrong but then told me there was not much they could do. Female colleagues that have shared their experiences reporting harassment to PAOs at NASA have told me the same.

But I have witnessed and experienced troubling incidents that PAOs can remedy if they had better training and an actual system. I have seen PAOs ignore or avoid addressing harassing behaviors because they were overwhelmed or didn’t know how to stop it. I have reported my harassment to a PAO only to have them confide that the same person was harassing them too.

How is anyone supposed to feel confident reporting harassment when the response is inconsistent, and those responsible for managing complaints do not feel empowered enough to handle incidents effectively?

The fallout

These issues are not only harmful to victims, but the lack of action taken against even the worst repeat offenders fosters a culture of acceptance around sexual harassment.

Victims are discouraged from reporting or following up on their complaints, and current and potential abusers are confident they can get away with it. In essence, NASA’s way of dealing with harassment allegations abets further harassment and misconduct.

Currently, the best outcomes result when complaints can be made directly to an outlet- and this is only in cases of reporter to reporter harassment, not NASA employee/NASA partner to reporter harassment. Most major outlets have policies regarding harassment of their own, so if you report an incident to an editor, chances are good it will be investigated by the outlet.

But, there are a lot of small, niche outlets that are self-governing. Most of the harassment I experienced came from reporters credentialed in with these independent outlets. In my case, I had a hard time reporting and ending the harassment because my harasser enlisted several other colleagues at their outlet, including the editor. Their colleagues became proxy abusers, sometimes more aggressive and effective harassers.

With no help from NASA, and multiple harassers in-person and online, I no longer felt safe attending launches and events. I only went to events and NASA centers when I knew my harassers would not follow. And I never went alone when I used to cover solo almost exclusively.

Then COVID hit, and no one was attending events; I had a reprieve.

But my harassment has never ended, and several of the individuals responsible have never faced any consequences. Because of the policy gaps, there is nothing stopping them from gaining access to events and harassing me while I work.

I should not have to monitor their actions while I am working. I should not have to remain hypervigilant and rely on colleagues for help.

Potential for change

The culture of harassment in the KSC newsroom is a problem that everyone working in the press room shares responsibility for, not just NASA. But only NASA can put in place policies and repercussions that punish those that engage in inappropriate behavior while working on agency property.

These are five areas where firm policies and procedures from NASA would impact the culture of sexual harassment in the press office:

Communicate an anti-harassment policy to members of the media and the outlets they represent that is in line with NASA’s anti-harassment policy. Include specific anti-harassment wording to the list of unacceptable behaviors in the Media Policy. Encourage all credentialing outlets to adopt anti-harassment policies and procedures to address misconduct within their organizations.

Improve sexual harassment training given to Public Affairs Officers.

Create a secure, uniform, and confidential way for the media to report sexual harassment or unlawful and unethical behavior. Communicate this system to the media working at KSC or any NASA center.

Create a system for investigating complaints brought to the attention of the KSC, or any NASA press office that is fair, equitable, and responsive to all parties involved. Provide a degree of anonymity to prevent retaliation, especially to witnesses supporting the complaint.

Eliminate policy gaps that allow disciplined or banned journalists to return to KSC with a new outlet, switch to a different NASA center, or gain access through a NASA partner. Make it possible for the media, or anyone else that works at NASA but is not an employee, to report employees, contractors, and partner employees for harassment.

I have presented these policy suggestions to NASA because I need to know there is a system that will provide fair, equitable, and responsive action to support the next victim through the complaint process. I want my colleagues in this incredibly privileged community to feel confident enough to speak out against harassment without fear of retaliation or intimidation. And finally, the most selfish reason of all, I want to go back to work.

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Sophie Sanchez

Sophie Sanchez

Freelance space journalist, blogger, and writer. I cover the human side of spaceflight on Cosmic Chicago for ChicagoNow.