By Danielle Chemtob
UNC-Chapel Hill

In the wake of the New York Times Harvey Weinstein investigation and the Me Too movement,  female media leaders tackled the issue of sexual harassment and the systems that enable such behavior at the spring conference for the Society for Advancing Business Editing and Writing in Washington, D.C., Saturday.

The conversation largely focused on employees who are particularly vulnerable in newsrooms, especially interns.

“For all the years that we did dress for success and get your portfolio ready and, ‘do a good job kids,’ we never told them here’s what you do if someone treats you inappropriately, says something wrong,” Jill Geisler, Bill Plante Chair in Leadership and Media Integrity at Loyola University Chicago and the institute fellow in women’s leadership at the Newseum.  

Media leaders discuss sexual harassment in news organizations.

In the past, Geisler said companies were reluctant to talk about sexual harassment because it would suggest that it was an issue within their workplace culture that they had not yet addressed.

Geisler heads the Newseum’s Power Shift Project, an initiative promoting workplace integrity on behalf of women in the news industry, and in that role, she led a training session last month titled “Power to the Interns.”

The federal law that prevents employers from discriminating against employees based on sex, race and other characteristics — Title VII of the Civil Rights Act — does not apply to unpaid interns, according to the Newseum’s website. But the website says universities are supposed to protect students from employers at unpaid internships under Title IX.

Traci Schweikert, vice president of human resources at POLITICO, said the company is training its interns to be active bystanders, a concept borrowed from college campuses. This means that those who witness harassment should say something about it.

“The actual person being harassed usually over thinks it — ‘oh, I’m young, I’m new, it’s no big deal,’” Schweikert said.

Someone who has been told about the harassment or who witnesses it is in a better position to recognize the seriousness of the behavior, she said.

Karen Testa, East region editor for Associated Press, who was assigned to be the sexual harassment editor after the Me Too movement took hold, focused her team’s coverage on explanatory reporting, exposing the culture and systems that allow for harassment to go unchecked.

“Otherwise, it just becomes simply like white noise — another guy, another accusation,” she said.

POLITICO has a succinct unofficial policy to curb harassment before someone even joins the company: “a no-asshole rule,” said Schweikert.

This is important, Geisler said, because bullying and intimidation are often signals of a potential harasser. Once they are in the company, she said it is difficult to fire them.

Panelists said that harassment affects a company’s bottom line. In 2015 alone, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission recovered $164.5 million for workers alleging harassment.

Geisler said companies often brush aside claims of harassment because they want to keep their talented employees.

“It was how we worked around behavior because it was the price we thought we had to pay for that person’s gifts,” Geisler said. “What ultimately has clearly been determined — and it’s why the term ‘power shift’ has come — is that the power does not necessarily reside with a high performing person who abuses others. And it doesn’t necessarily reside in just the law. It resides in what is right, what’s moral.”