Journalists and Harassment

Among the many risks journalists face, they are often targets of harassment and aggression. While harassment is a concern for all journalists, female journalists in particular are more likely to be targets [Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), 2011]. Despite increasing awareness of the issue, little is known about journalist-specific risk factors and consequences. This fact sheet summarizes key information on sexual harassment in general, as well as harassment of journalists, specifically.

What kinds of harassment are there?

Sexual harassment

Sexual harassment can take many different forms, and researchers often organize sexually harassing behaviors into three categories: gender harassment, unwanted sexual attention, and sexual coercion (Gelfand, Fitzgerald, & Drasgow, 1995). 

  • Gender harassment: behaviors that convey hostile attitudes towards an individual due to that person’s gender. 
  • Unwanted sexual attention: both verbal and nonverbal behavior of a sexual nature that are considered unwelcome or offensive. 
  • Sexual coercion: bribes or threats affecting an individual’s employment status, which are based on the sexual cooperation of that individual. 


Interpersonal aggression is defined as “any form of behavior directed toward the goal of harming or injuring other individuals” (Neuman, 2012, p.15). Workplace aggression specifies that these behaviors occur in a work-related context. This definition encompasses a wide variety of behaviors from incidents of physical violence to name calling to sabotage.


What is the prevalence of sexual harassment in the general population? 

  • Approximately 50% of women and about 10-20% of men report having experienced sexual harassment in the workplace (Berdahl & Raver, 2010). 
  • Given the increased frequency of sexual harassment among women, many researchers have chosen to focus specifically on women targets, specifically. 
    • 35-42% of women report having experienced gender harassment.
    • 15% of women report having experienced unwanted sexual attention. 
    • 1-6% of women report having experienced sexual coercion (Berdahl & Raver, 2010).  


What is the prevalence of sexual harassment among journalists? 

  • 62% of female journalists report having experienced verbal sexual harassment.
  • 30% of female journalists report having experienced non-verbal sexual harassment.
  • 22% of female journalists report having experienced physical sexual harassment.
  • 20% of female journalists report having experienced environmental sexual harassment (Flatow, 1994).

It is important to note that these numbers are drawn from convenience samples rather than through random sampling methods. This might imply some inaccuracy in rates reported, making them higher (if journalists who have experienced harassment are unwilling or unable to share their experiences) or lower (if journalists who have experienced harassment are coming forward to share their experiences). However, it is reassuring that data is consistent across studies, and consistent with statistics regarding workplace harassment more broadly.  


Who harasses journalists?

According to a study on female journalists (Flatow, 1994), among those who reported experiencing sexual harassment:

  • 60% were harassed by a coworker.
  • 40% were harassed by a source.
  • 29% were harassed by a supervisor.
  • 23% were harassed by another employee in the organization, with the harassing person’s position not specifically identified.


What is the impact of harassment?

People who experience violence or harassment in a workplace context are likely to suffer from a number of work-related, psychological, and physical consequences (Chan et al., 2008; Collingsworth et al., 2009; Cortina & Berdahl, 2008):

Work-related consequences

  • Derive lower satisfaction from their work
  • Less committed to organization
  • Decline in job performance
  • Work withdrawal (e.g., being late, missing work, avoiding work duties, considering leaving job altogether)

Psychological consequences 

  • Anger and hostility
  • Lowered self-esteem
  • Humiliation
  • Self-blame
  • Relationship distress
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Substance abuse
  • Posttraumatic stress

Physical consequences 

  • Suppressed immune functioning
  • Heightened inflammation
  • Headaches
  • Gastrointestinal disorders
  • Sleep disturbance
  • Respiratory complaints
  • Pain
  • Weight loss/gain

Other characteristics that have a negative impact on psychological distress involve the frequency of the harassment and the power of the perpetrator.


What is the impact of harassment on journalists?

In addition to the impacts on well-being listed above, there is another dimension to the effect of harassment on journalists. Harassing journalists may be used as a mechanism to suppress free speech or push a particular agenda. Unfortunately, there is no information currently available that sheds light on how often this occurs. 


How do people cope with harassment? 

According to Cortina & Berdahl (2008), common coping methods include:

  • Avoiding the harasser or the harassing context. (This is the most common method of coping.)
  • Tolerating or enduring the harassing treatment.
  • Denying that the harassment is happening.
  • Denying the seriousness of the situation or its effects.
  • Seeking informal social support from colleagues, friends, and family.
  • Confronting the harasser. (This is rare.)  


How do journalists cope with harassment?

According to a recent study of journalists conducted by the International Women’s Media Foundation (IWMF) and the International News Safety Institute (INSI)(INSI; 2014), journalist-specific coping behaviors include:

  • Avoiding certain stories that would require them to come in contact with their harasser or avoiding reporting on particular beats.
  • Seeking comfort from other journalists who have experienced something similar, both to cope and to alert others of people who pose a threat. 
  • Giving up working in journalism entirely.


Do people generally report harassment? 

Most incidents of harassment go unreported for one or more of the following reasons: (Berdahl & Raver, 2010; Cortina & Berdahl, 2008)

  • They believe their complaint will not be taken seriously.
  • They believe their complaint will not be acted on appropriately. 
  • They don’t want to be involved in something potentially controversial. 
  • They don’t want the harasser to be punished in an official manner. 
  • They want to avoid having a harassment complaint on their formal employment record.
  • They want to avoid secondary victimization or retaliation.
  • They fear they will be blamed.
  • They fear their career might be damaged.


Do journalists report harassment? 

Female journalists reported being reluctant to bring incidents of harassment forward for several reasons: (IWMF & INSI, 2014)

  • The reporting authority (e.g., boss, police, government official) may be the perpetrator or otherwise not trustworthy 
  • They wanted to avoid facing future discrimination or not being considered for opportunities available to male colleagues (e.g., certain assignments, promotions, training opportunities)
  • They feared negative consequences (e.g., retaliation and demotion)
  • They didn’t know who to report to
  • They were discouraged from talking about the harassment by a supervisor, colleague, or union representative.
  • They were told to “grow up”, “forget about it,” or “reject or ignore inappropriate behavior” 


Future Directions

Sexual harassment and aggression against journalists have a range of negative consequences and implications for individual journalists and news organizations. While awareness is increasing, there is still much to learn.

The Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma’s Research Lab at the University of Tulsa is currently conducting a study to examine the impact of working conditions on journalists. One important aspect of the study concerns harassment and general stressors on both male and female. We look forward to sharing the results with you once the study has been completed.



Berdahl, J. L., & Raver, J. L. (2010). Sexual harassment.  In S. Zedeck (Ed.), APA Handbook of Industrial Organizational Psychology Volume 3: Maintaining, Expanding, and Contracting the Organization (pp. 641-669). American Psychological Association: Washington, DC.

Chan, D. K-S., Lam, C. B., Chow, S. Y., & Cheung, S. F. (2008). Examining job-related, psychological, and physical outcomes of workplace sexual harassment: A meta-analytic review.  Psychology of Women Quarterly, 32, 362-376.

Collingworth, L. L., Fitzgerald, L. F., & Drasgow, F. (2009). In harm’s way: Factors related to psychological distress following sexual harassment. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 33, 475-490.

Cortina, L. M., & Berdalk, J. L. (2008).  Sexual harassment in organziations: A decade of research in review.  In C. L. Cooper & J. Barling (Eds.), Handbook of Organizational Behavior (pp.469-497). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. 

Flatow, G. (1994). Sexual harassment in Indiana daily newspapers. Newspaper Research Journal, 15, 32–45. 

Gelfand, M. J., Fitzgerald, L. F., & Drasgow, F. (1995). The structure of sexual harassment: A confirmatory analysis across cultures and settings. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 47, 164–177. 

International Women’s Media Foundation & International News Safety Institute (2014). Violence and harassment against women in the news media: A global picture. Washington, DC:  Barton, A. & Storm, H. 

Neuman, J. H. (2012). Gender and sex differences in the forms of workplace aggression. In S. Fox & T. R. Lituchy (Eds.), Gender and the Dysfunctional Workplace. (pp. 14–28). Northampton, MA US: Edward Elgar Publishing.