By Bethany Barnes
A few months into my first journalism job, I met a source at a bar. I’d met sources at bars before, including this particular source, who was decades older than me. To my shock, he kissed me. In the moment, I froze and went numb. I extracted myself without commenting on what had happened.
The next day, I woke up, went to the courthouse and did my job. I attended the sentencing for a man who’d bitten off a chunk of his girlfriend’s lip. I went back to my tiny, windowless courthouse office, filed the story and sobbed. My editors had no idea anything was wrong.
That night, I called a former professor for advice on the source. She shared similar experiences she’d had reporting, which made me feel better. I asked her if she thought I should tell my editors. No, she advised. It was possible my editors could see me as not tough enough to handle the beat or, worse, decide I had somehow been asking for it.
This advice might sound shocking or bad, but I have never regretted not telling my editors. What I have regretted is a world where sometimes that truly is the best advice.
One male journalist I told about the issue at the time responded, “ Why were you at the bar?” I could have stopped reporting in bars. I could have stopped talking to that source. But those choices felt deeply unfair.
What I decided to do was call the source and tell him his behavior was unacceptable and that I needed him to do better. In this case, that worked.
Back then, I had just graduated and moved for a job to a city where I didn’t know a soul — the path so many of us take. That time period was an achingly lonely navigation. What should I be doing to avoid a problem? How do you avoid becoming the story and still get the story? What was being scared and what was being cautious? Should behavior be called out? Redirected? Ignored or brushed off? And how did you know which move was the right one?
Later that year, I went to my first IRE conference. I was both vindicated and confused by the number of panels I went to that urged reporters to get sources by meeting them at the bar.
We can’t eradicate sexual harassment, but we can reduce the shame and fear of talking about it.
In 2017, as women began posting #MeToo with stories of harassment, I anguished over if I should share an experience on social media. I feared I would be viewed by other journalists as biased. Ultimately, I took that risk and posted about an official who’d touched my hair. When I asked him to never do that again, he refused and said, “Red is my favorite color.”
That post sparked a conversation with mentor Matt Apuzzo, who reached out to tell me he was proud of me for calling out these issues. I told him about my experience all those years ago at the bar, and he encouraged me to pitch an IRE panel, which I did.
I’ve learned so much from the journalists who shared their thoughts: those I spoke to while researching the panel, those who gave their time as panelists, those who shared tips during the Q&A and those who reached out privately in response.
One of the sinister aspects of harassment on the job is how these issues often leave journalists with the fear that they should have handled a moment differently, that there was a right solution they failed to find. But there aren’t right or wrong ways to do this. What I’ve found from talking to others is the best approach is one that matches your style and helps you maintain the power in the dynamic, which is different for everyone.
Women journalists who have participated in IRE’s conference panels on
Shoshana Walter of Reveal, who co-planned IRE’s harassment panels with Bethany Barnes, helped compile these tips.