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Sources and Sexual Harassment: Advice for Reporters and Editors

September 1, 2020

By Bethany Barnes

Editor's Note: This story originally appeared in the IRE Journal Quarter 3 issue. Members can download and read the full issue here. Non-members can purchase for $20.

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.


Women journalists who have participated in IRE’s conference panels on harassment have tips for dealing with unwanted sexual advances.

For Reporters

Set the tone early. Too often, the advice we get is to cut off communication with a sexual harasser. You’ll find many sources are not repeat offenders, and if you set the tone early, you’ll have a good, reliable source of information.

Different sources call for different strategies:

• Does this person seem like they don’t understand your role as a reporter? Because you’re asking very intimate questions, they might feel a closeness to you. Explain your role to them. You’re here to learn and ask questions. That could be enough to stop the behavior and carry on.

• Are they testing the waters? A single response will tell them all they need to know. Try ignoring the comment or laughing extra loudly. You can also be direct. “No.” Another option is to flat out ignore it and steamroll ahead. Whatever your tactic, follow up with a question that brings it back to the reporting. A line Sarah Stillman suggested in a great video made by DART: “That’s not going to work for me.” This shifts the problem to being about you, not them (saving them some face) and is clear, direct and easy to remember.

• Is this person a predator? Are they trying to make you uncomfortable, take advantage of you or cross the line? Cut them off. Inform your editor or a trusted person in the newsroom.

For Editors

• Don’t dismiss the reporter’s experience by trying to reason out or explain what happened as the source being from an older generation. Don’t justify the source's actions.

• Be a good listener. A well-intended impulse can be to try and protect a reporter by advising them to cease contact with the source or to offer to call and chew out the person, but often this takes agency away from the reporter. It can be tempting to want to solve the problem, but reporters need a trusted and patient ear to be a sounding board about what happened.

• Be present. Ask yourself: If one of my reporters were being harassed, would they be comfortable telling me?

Shoshana Walter of Reveal, who co-planned IRE’s harassment panels with Bethany Barnes, helped compile these tips.

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