Reporting on Journalist-on-Journalist Sexual Harassment is a Proxy for Dealing With the Trust Problem (and can make it worse)

Like many adjacent to the world of national journalism and big media, I’ve been watching this horrendous accounting of terrible acts—in some cases shocked by the names, and in other cases, not shocked at all.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s hugely important to hold these men to account. We need to know that at some of the biggest news organizations in the world, those that still hold tremendous power to shape our view of the world, newsroom leaders have harassed, demeaned, marginalized, and even assaulted women. And their fellow newsroom leaders have been complicit.

And while this cleaning house matters, it also is a proxy for the kind of transparency we really need to see from national news organizations. And if done wrong, the rush to bring these stories to the public eye may well further damage already fragile trust in the news industry.

Let’s talk about the transparency problem first. News organizations are pretty bad at internal transparency. The kind of “mirror” journalists purport to shine on others to bring truth to power they rarely bring on themselves. Right now, with the stories emerging out of the nation’s leading news organizations and the testimony from women and men who have seen some of this nastiness taking place, either in the shadows or in the open, we indeed see a step forward.

But journalistic transparency in light of wrong doing and crisis is not the same as journalistic transparency in ordinary newswork.

Journalists, particularly those at national news organizations, are particularly bad at showing how they do what they do and who they are. David Fahrenthold won a Pulitzer this year, in part because he was doing investigative reporting in the open and this was totally unusual. Step-by-step, he showed his day to day work on Twitter. Yet, recent research shows that when journalists post documents online, it’s almost always about other organizations in support of journalists’ reporting, not about themselves.

It is fair to say that for most people, how news gets made at national news organizations is akin to the same kind of black box algorithmic mystery that results in what they see on their Facebook news feed. Input — a news event — happens, and then output — content, results. The comparison is not quite fair, but the fact that it’s a mystery — how news gets made — is indeed of the same order of magnitude leaving much to the imagination.

Just try finding a staff list of the New York Times online to try to figure out who works in the DC bureau, much less an email directory (you can do this for much smaller newspapers and for some online startups, like Vox, and be successful). My google search for a staff email list from the Washington Post got me to a Website with 1998 print circulation numbers.

I can keep going about the paltry number of ombudsmen to negotiate reader concerns, or the frustrations I have with marketing impulses that result in “how I got the story” writeups.

What merits a correction is often unclear as is when a story is corrected. Tracking changes to online stories and updates is nearly impossible for the mere mortal (check out the independent bot Editing TheGrayLady, or @nyt_diff for insight into headline changes).

News associations aren’t necessarily better. I’ve been bugging a higher up at the White House Correspondent’s Association for a list of WHCA members, but this person won’t give me a membership list; it isn’t public. (I understand we live in a time of doxxing and death threats, but transparency and ease of availability of the contact info itself makes this significantly less exciting for trolls). And for academic research designed to make some of this more visible, getting access to do fieldwork at top flight newsrooms is not easy, as I can tell you (my book plug here).

There are some signs of life, for sure, of journalists dedicated at helping people understand journalism. There is a burgeoning field of media reporting and criticism; Brian Stelter is close to a household name; about 2.9 million people spend their Sunday morning watching a media criticism cable TV shows (I am not one); and even my students at GW started their own media criticism news startup, MediaFile.

But as a whole, self-examination of news practices happens at extreme moments, with little lasting lessons learned. We’ve had a few of these crises in the Trump administration. When national political journalists failed to predict the outcome of a presidential election, the open conversation about elitism in journalism has been useful and refreshing. A real conversation about false equivalency emerged after it became clear that Trump’s falsehoods evicerated the form of stenographic he-said, she-said journalism. And now, we’ve got the Harvey Weinstein effect come to Shitty Media Men.

And here we have it: a chance for the news industry to show that it takes itself as seriously as it takes every other industry. And we are seeing these stories trickle out, and so long as the names are prominent enough, the stories will continue to get published. Perhaps moving the stories forward is a competitive impulse; The Washington Post scooped NPR on its own sexual harassment scandal — and knowing another news organization better than it knows itself is the ultimate coup D’etat.

So let’s talk about the trust stuff then. Why does this inward looking approach stand to hurt now? Let’s take NPR for a moment. For the past year, NPR staffers around town have been insufferable, touting their record audiences and a nod by the 2017 Harris Poll that they were the most trusted brand in news. Despite accusations of liberal bias, NPR had come to the rescue in the election and the Trump administration, or so staffers liked to say.

And here, NPR is exposing its own dirty laundry, or having it exposed first by The Washington Post. This is brand that inspires people to wear their tote bags as a statement of their identity; a brand viewed as honorable, nerdy, and forthright, and now it has a massive public relations scandal that has nothing to do with its journalism — but how its journalists treat other journalists.

This is not good, to say the least. NPR is trusted, in part, because we like to think we can trust the journalists who work there. Unlike the other news organizations I’ve mentioned, NPR, while not transparent (clearly), has at its core a public service and public engagement DNA. And now the journalists we trust have failed us.

It’s one thing to say journalists are biased. It’s another thing to say that some newsroom leaders are actually also terrible people, while other journalists remain complicit. Journalists don’t have to be paragons of morality, for sure, but journalists cannot let the powerful do wrong in their own institutions. When we focus on these stories and these newsroom leaders, we see how powerful the hypocrisy is when journalists hold others accountable and don’t keep their own leaders honest. With trust in journalism already on the fritz, the last thing newsrooms need is a full airing of this glaring inadequacy.

These stories need to be told. But tread very carefully and do this well. What can be done to try to make the best of this situation? I have a few suggestions.

  1. Don’t publish or air a story unless a woman steps forward willing to use her name. This doesn’t mean that these accusations cannot be handled internally. Consider the impact that comes from naming as far as public accountability, versus the need for the victim to have support and validation that might be received in other ways than a news story. *** (Addendum: worth noting that some of these stories have been blown into the open w/o standard of named sources. As long as source is validated and harasser admits guilt, naming names is NOT necessary. Perhaps standards have changed).
  2. Hold back on the competitive desire to air another news organization’s dirty laundry. In New York and Washington (and LA), the media circles are small, and the secrets are known, to some degree. Maybe it’s worth letting NPR come out in front of this, rather than have NPR’s own journalists argue that they are being kept in the dark about the problems in the place they work (and doing so on the AIR). Kudos to NPR’s Mary Louise Kelly for grilling NPR CEO Jahl Mohn today. She’s right, most news organizations would not do this.
  3. Have important journalists continue to stand up and #metoo for complicity, (Kudos Dana Millbank), but also commission op-eds from top male leaders in other fields that have similar issues. Journalism is not unique.
  4. Make this a story about more than just individual journalists at individual news organizations. Stories that tackle cultural problems help create change and also raise public consciousness.
  5. Draw links across industries, and try to figure out what kinds of structures and disclosures would be necessary across all industries to make sexual harassment and sexual assault a no go in any organization

The culture of transparency in journalism needs to change. Doing superb, aggressive reporting about sexual harassment and assault in the news industry is important. But journalists, do not let this be the check mark for having been transparent about how news gets made, or a reason for pride. Let this be a starting point for telling us who makes the news and how it gets made.