Sexual Harassment of Women Journalists

By Walsh-Childers, Kim; Chance, Jean et al. | Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, Autumn 1996 | Go to article overview

Sexual Harassment of Women Journalists


Walsh-Childers, Kim, Chance, Jean, Herzog, Kristin, Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly


A survey of 227 women newspaper journalists revealed that more than 60 percent believe sexual harassment is at least somewhat a problem for women journalists; more than one-third said harassment has been at least somewhat a problem for them personally. Two-thirds experience nonphysical sexual harassment at least sometimes, and about 17 percent experience physical sexual harassment at least sometimes. News sources were the most frequent harassers, and harassment ranged from degrading comments to sexual assault.

In the summer of 1991, the St. Petersburg (Florida) Times broke a significant local story about charges of sexual harassment and sex discrimination at one of the city's larger employers. Women at the company charged that less qualified men were paid more, promoted sooner, and given better assignments. Subtle and even blatant sexual harassment was tolerated.

What made the story particularly significant was that the company in question was the St. Petersburg Times itself, and many of the women who had crowded into Chief Executive Andrew Barnes' office to voice their complaints were reporters, editors, and photographers. Some of the stories the women told Barnes in that meeting and in a written report would have competed for sheer rudeness with the comments Anita Hill claimed Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas had made to her. One man had said to a pregnant female staffer, "Your breasts are really getting huge." Another, a senior editor, had been talking with other editors about a company called TMS and the problems it was causing the newspaper. He turned to the female editor in the group and explained that TMS should "not be confused with PMS, which is worse for the company."1 The story attracted attention from other newspapers statewide, as well as national trade journals, and demonstrated that sexual harassment and sex discrimination are issues newspaper managers must be prepared to deal with within the newsroom, not just in stories about other organizations' problems.

The term "sexual harassment" is a relatively recent addition to our vocabulary. Psychologist Julia Wood suggests that such harassment has existed for most of history but remained unnamed; the absence of visibility, which resulted from the fact that harassment had no negative effects on the men who held power, made it difficult to recognize, think about, or stop.2

Today courts have recognized two categories of sexual harassment, known as "quid pro quo" ("something for something") and "hostile environment" discrimination. The former refers to situations in which an individual promises a subordinate employee some sort of tangible job benefit, such as a raise, in exchange for sexual favors. This category also likely would include more negatively stated interactions, such as a supervisor's threat that the victim will lose her job if she refuses the supervisor's request for sexual favors. The latter, "hostile environment" discrimination, reflects circumstances in which an employee is subjected to a pattern of behavior - such as unwanted sexual advances, degrading sexual comments about the employee, or similar problems- that interferes unreasonably with an employee's ability to perform his or her job or makes the workplace environment inhospitable, intimidating, or offensive.

Many scholars argue that sexual harassment of women is widespread throughout academia3 and the workplace4; however, a review of the communications and journalism literature suggests that relatively little research has been done on sexual harassment as a problem facing women journalists. Most earlier studies of women journalists focused almost entirely on sex discrimination and the likelihood of women achieving rank and pay equity with men.5 A review of that list also suggests that not much attention has been paid recently to studies of either discrimination against or harassment of women journalists.

One exception, the Associated Press Managing Editors Association harassment study in 1992, opened some eyes, according to Pam Johnson, managing editor of the Phoenix Gazette and chairwoman of the APME Newsroom Management Committee. …

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