Let's Talk: Personal Boundaries, Safety & Women in Journalism


Sarah Stillman: What drew you to this line of work and what are the things that make you feel the most alive about being the kind of reporter that you are?

Marcela Gaviria: I love the sense of adventure and just getting to meet people from all walks of life. From the powerful to the indigent. And I'm curious about the world. So it's just incredibly fun to go out there and do my job. I'm also a storyteller. As a reporter, it's just so interesting to learn about things firsthand, and not just read about it.

Sarah Stillman: I’d love to get a little bit of your thoughts on what sexual harassment is. I'm wondering if you might be willing to try to define it for us?

Marcela Gaviria: I guess we all know there's a line somewhere. And it's a line that defines where you're comfortable and where you're uncomfortable. And sexual harassment is when somebody crosses that line.

So I think it can be as broad as that. We all have different boundaries and we all have a different sense of what's appropriate and what isn't. There's not a really clear definition. It's just a sense that something isn't right and it doesn't feel right to you, and you shouldn't accept it.

Sarah Stillman: That's really helpful. It's nice to be reminded of how personal those boundaries are. What is uncomfortable for one person may not be the same as what's uncomfortable for another.

I mentioned to you one of the reasons that we're pursuing this video is how often we hear students, or people of the school talk about times when sources have crossed boundaries with them that made reporting very difficult or just made it tough to do their jobs. And so I'm wondering if you might feel comfortable sharing times that that's happened to you in the field, if anything specific comes to mind. Even an instance where you felt you were up against that.

Marcela Gaviria: I've been thinking about it, and I feel like I've felt in more danger than I have actually felt imminent threat of somebody doing something inappropriate to me.

You always get into these situations where, for instance, I had landed an interview with a father of a certain person that's behind bars. And he started writing me inappropriate letters and calling me at odd hours. And I needed to maintain this relationship with him, because he was central to the story I was working on. But it was really uncomfortable and a bit of a catch 22, because he didn't want to talk to anyone else in the office.

Luckily I work for television so I'm often with a team and I can always bring my associate or my colleague or my cameramen. So, I don't necessarily have to insert myself in a place that makes me feel uncomfortable or dangerous, because I'm often with a team of two or three or four.

But on the other hand, this was crossing the line at times. When it was after work, or he would say, "I need to talk to you, I've discovered something." And then I’d have to call him back and it would be like great. So there's a guy talking about how horny he's feeling, and you just have to be really direct. And if you lose the source, that's what happens. There are certain things you shouldn't tolerate.

Sarah Stillman: Can you walk us through how you did handle that circumstance? Like, when this guy, who you do recognize as critical for the story, starts making those comments. How did you think about that?

Marcela Gaviria: I think I'm known for being very blunt. And so I just said, you know "I really appreciate you participating, you're somebody that's crucial to this story. I need your point of view, but I don't feel comfortable with what you're doing and it has to stop."

And that was it. So ...

Sarah Stillman: That's so helpful, actually. It's nice to be reminded that being extremely direct is an option, sometimes.

Marcela Gaviria: Right. I guess it doesn't always work. I was listening to Harvey Weinstein the moment in the hallway of some hotel and the person on the other end was being quite direct about what was making her feel uncomfortable. And yet, sometimes you get in that situation where even when you're direct it doesn't work.

Sarah Stillman: Are there times when you've gone to colleagues or editors to talk it through? Or other people that you work with?

Marcela Gaviria: I think I joke about it. For a while there, I had something that I thought was quite fabulous, which was a Waziri Tribal Lord wanted to make me his third wife. And I thought that would be just phenomenal because it would improve my autobiography.

But it was obviously inappropriate, but I thought it was sort of hilarious. And so I bragged about it for months. So, as I was saying, that is the line. You know, sometimes you feel quite comfortable with something, and sometimes you don't. And I guess it all depends on whether you find it intimidating or scary or creepy or, whatever it might be that makes you determine how you feel.

Sarah Stillman: We've been talking through with people about the different contexts in which this unfolds. And some of these things feel very context specific, such as online harassment. I'm not sure if that's something you've faced at all.

Marcela Gaviria: No, I haven't had any instances of that.

Sarah Stillman: The example you just gave might be one where there might also be cultural divides that are being experienced. And I wonder, given that you’re a news reporter in all this different terrain, if you've ever been up against times when there were just maybe different cultural expectations in a given circumstance?

Marcela Gaviria: Well, I think what's difficult about being a woman is that clearly sometimes your feminine attributes are an asset in the field. And it can be because you're more nurturing and someone will identify with you because you are a woman. So you do kind of put yourself in a funny position where you know that being a woman might get you something you need to get, and yet it's a fine line between using it and kind of crossing this invisible line. Where suddenly those attributes get you in trouble.

Sarah Stillman: And can you think of any time when it felt helpful?

Marcela Gaviria: All the time. I mean, I, I often think because I work in television a lot of the times the colleagues I work with, they'll be two guys and me and we discuss who has the best chance of getting something. And sometimes we determine for sexist reasons that perhaps I would. I don't want it to sound so, but I'm trying to be honest. You think well should I put a little more lipstick on when I'm going there. I guess that's me being quite honest because it's the unspoken truth.

We are all human beings and we will use whatever advantage we have. Either because we're gregarious, or we're charming, or we're stern. Or whatever those reasons might be. You know, we're trying to figure out how to, how to get the news. 

Sarah Stillman: I'm wondering if you could describe what advice you have for younger female journalists, or female journalists in general who find themselves in situations where they might feel threatened? Or uncomfortable when they're out reporting in the field?

Marcela Gaviria: Well, my advice is a little bit more the kind of advice that would, I think help you not get into trouble from a predator or somebody that's going to kidnap you. Or, you know, there all those sort of same kind of techniques.

Sometimes I show up early to a location and scope it out. Just get a sense of if there are people that seem to be threatening, or menacing. I show up at a time that's unpredictable. So I'll either show up early or late. I try to always go with somebody if I feel like it's going to be a problem. And I'll just make up an excuse. Like I'll say “my diver wants to use the bathroom. Oh and please don't leave, you know, just stay there." So I come up with decoys that that might help out.

It’s often important to just check in with people, even in the middle of an interview. Just break every 20 - 30 minutes and say "I'm still here, I'm okay." And make sure they're checking in on you. Common sense sort of stuff. Make sure if the person scares you to meet in a place that's open, like, have coffee with somebody in a location where there's lots of people coming in and out.

Don’t meet with people in dark corners. Always find a place that's fully illuminated and makes you feel safe. Simple things. I think, when danger happens though, there's no sort of soundtrack for that that can cue you in and, and let you know that something really bad is going to happen. Often, you are in a lot of danger, and you don't even know you are. Things will happen out there, and you can't always predict, and you can't always prepare. And, it's part of the job.

Sarah Stillman: What are some of the tools you have come upon to help you navigate the less predictable dimensions of this stuff? When you do feel like you've arranged things the way you've hoped to arrange them, and maybe you showed up late to throw people off, but then things come out of the blue that you weren't anticipating. Are there any best practices beyond some of what we've already talked about?

Marcela Gaviria: I've only been in circumstances where I've been retained by the FARC and taken and I wasn't quite expecting it. I think you just have to be calm, try to figure out if there's any way that you can talk to the person in charge. Look them in the eye. Make them know that you want to communicate. You want to be rational, and just show leadership. I might be deceiving myself, but I've always thought that if you act like you're panicked and things are going badly, you lose an edge.

So I just believe in keeping calm and, and showing strength. I've been in a position where they've held guns at us, and everybody in the car ducked and I didn't. And afterwards everybody was like, "Why didn't you duck?" And I was like "I didn't want a sudden movement to alarm anybody." So I just stood there, paralyzed. And, I think we would have all died if they fired. So, anyway, that didn't happen.

Sarah Stillman: Do you feel comfortable saying more about what happened with FARC?

Marcela Gaviria: It was a very difficult moment. I was a very young journalist. I think it might have been '94. I didn't have a lot of experience. I drove down a mountain looking for poppy fields to tell a story. I got out of the car with my cameramen and my sound man. And I realized that the whole village was empty.

I thought there had been a massacre because it was just so eerie. It was too quiet. And all of a sudden 12 men jumped out from behind this house and pointed guns at us and said "We're the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia and we are taking you under our command. Please walk this way, you have to go see the chief." And I was like "Like around the corner? Or, where are we going?" And they said "No, you must get on this donkey and, we're, we're going into the mountain."

And this was at a time where people were being held for 8, 10 years, sometimes. So, I have a physical limitation, which is I had cancer in my leg. I think that actually saved me because the fact that I wasn't physically able to put up with the requirements of being on a donkey day after day. They let me go after three days, but my cameramen and soundman lasted a lot longer.

So guilt about being a woman. But I think they let me go partly because I wasn't as strong as the other ones.

Sarah Stillman: Wow, and has that posed other complications you've had to navigate in the field? Like, the combination of being a woman and having scenarios where you felt that you were being judged physically with different terms?

Marcela Gaviria: Well, the cane I think is a bit of a lucky charm. It sort of disarms people, so wherever I go, it's kind of like "Oh, take her in, make sure she's sitting down, give her some extra tea." So I think people aren't expecting somebody in Iraq or Afghanistan to show up with a cane. And, I think it's helped me in life, but it also slows me down.

Sarah Stillman: I'm so curious, it was interesting hearing that story from a younger moment. I think, even though I'm only- what am I, 33? I feel like there's already a lot of ways in which my approach to reporting has changed from the way it was when I was in my early 20s. Partly based on some of these experiences of negative boundary crossings. I wonder if there's any ways that you feel like your judgment is different now and tools and tactics that you've acquired over time that maybe you didn't have originally?

Marcela Gaviria: I'm a lot more cautious. When I was young I thought nothing could happen to me. And you'd get yourself into situations and you weren't really reading the cues.

Did people smile when I entered the town or were they sort of looking at me with suspicion? You just don't quite know how to read that sort of situation. Now I sort of think about things twice. Like just last week I was at the border and I needed to film late at night, and I needed to film something on the Rio Grande. And I happened to be with a camera woman, and it would be the two of us, at 5:00 a.m. in pitch black. Maybe a coyote would show up, I have no idea. But it, it did sort of feel like "What am I doing? Maybe I can find a piece of the river that's not as beautiful, but where I'll be, feel a little safer." So, we opted for the latter.

Sarah Stillman: It sounds like some of it is just learning to trust your gut and intuition.

Marcela Gaviria: Right.

Sarah Stillman: Sometimes having to not do things that you might otherwise.

Marcela Gaviria: Well, I feel like caution is important, and you should learn to read your gut. You don't always know, but if someone seems a little creepy, he probably is creepy. And, and that's what we do as journalists. We read people, you know? We look at who they are. We profile them. We make decisions based on whether we think they're kind, or, bad, or corrupt, or evil. And hone in on those instincts and just trust yourself.

Sarah Stillman: That's a very helpful lesson. I just have a few more questions. What you think the profession could do? Journalism, journalists and journalism as a profession to discourage this type of unwanted behavior? Hopefully that's a conversation we can help to provoke.

Marcela Gaviria: I guess the more that we report on what's inappropriate and actually shame the perpetrators of these acts, people will realize that these things are inappropriate. I guess it's so present because the Harvey Weinstein scandal just broke. What you realize is that a lot of men when I was talking to friends at lunch the other day at work, it was odd that certain behaviors didn't seem that inappropriate to men. They weren't sure, whereas the women in the table were like "Yeah, that's really inappropriate." So, I think we have to talk about these things more openly and really just educate both sexes. And be part of that conversation.

Sarah Stillman: Were there other things that you wanted?

Marcela Gaviria: Well you don't want to become paranoid. I think we all know that unwanted advances happen all the time. It's sort of part of biology. I mean, I don't know much about nature, but I'm sure if you look at any animal in the planet, this is part of who we are, you know.

When something feels uncomfortable, just address it head on. And, I think your boss will end up respecting you for it.  I've had situations that I don't even want to describe on camera. They gross me out. And it was a man in power who was my boss, who put me in a situation that, it wasn't even that I was uncomfortable, it was completely inappropriate.

And they think they can get away with it, and then the incident is over and you wake up the next day and you say "I'm really sorry, but I can't work with you because what happened last night wasn't cool." And so I lost my job. You know? It's okay.

Sarah Stillman: I'm really sorry to hear that story. That's devastating and completely unacceptable, you should have to lose your job in that kind of arrangement.

It seems like you have a real gift with being direct. I think that's one of the biggest things that so many of the women I care about, and certainly myself. I really struggle with that. I'm wondering if you could coach us on how you've managed to. So, maybe we can take that in two parts. One is how do you think about navigating the workplace stuff that's come up in situations like what you've just described? I think you just gave us some really good language, but is there anything else you would want to share about that?

Marcela Gaviria: Well, it's a risk, but you can't put yourself in a place where it's going to continue to happen, or you are then undermining who you really are and the value that you have, just because somebody thinks they can take advantage of you.

I mean I've never lost that battle. I feel like I've always been up front, direct, and they're like "Whoa, okay, don't mess with her." And I still, I'm flirtatious, I'm loving ... and if it feels good on the other side and appropriate then it's fine. And if it doesn't, then be direct.

Sarah Stillman: So my mom actually has this phrase that she taught me that I tell it to all my friends cause I find it's the single most helpful thing. And it's so simple. It's just um, "I'm sorry that's just not going to work for me."

Because I realize you often think that you have to explain. And a facet of directness I did not learn as a child is that you can just say what you need, and say what's not okay. And so I'm wondering if you might be able to give us any other examples of language that you use or any tips you have on just directness, given that you seem able to have marshaled that. I don't mean to put you on the spot but how do you think you've done that? Or are there other examples or just terms that come to mind? Or exchanges where you were able to find those words? Or what would you say to young women who don't feel that they can be direct or worry about the consequences of it?

Marcela Gaviria: Yeah, I don't think one has to explain. It's not like you have to sit there and say "I think you're really attractive, but um you know." Or "I really admire you." I just think "Look, this makes me feel really uncomfortable and I want it to stop."

What are they gonna say? If they tackle you and do other stuff at that moment I'd be sort of stunned. But I can't think of anything other than being direct.

Sarah Stillman: That’s very helpful and it's nice to be reminded that that really is an option.

Marcela Gaviria: Yeah, I think a lot of people sit there and they're like "I'm so sorry." "Don't take it personally." You know, like, no. You have to stand up for yourself.

Sarah Stillman: Is there anything that you would want to say about men's place in this conversation on the record? Just about where you see them fitting into the equation when it comes to talking about sexual harassment?

Marcela Gaviria: Well, it's all about power, right? I mean these things happen when somebody thinks they have power over you and you won't tell anybody because you're afraid of losing your job. Or you're afraid of not getting the job.

If you put yourself in a position where you're willing to lose these things and because you lose your job, or not get the job as a result, I think that is a consequence and, and I think men should talk about how they feel putting women in that situation.

Sarah Stillman: Yeah. So often it's the people who don't want to have that conversation or even know that's a conversation being had, or one that should be had. Those are the ones who most need to have it, and it feels like a vexing paradox.

Marcela Gaviria: You know and you read a Harvey Weinstein's letter of apology and it's sort of like, "Well, I grew up with a different sort of, in a different society. I didn't know these things were wrong." And I do feel like it's the older guys that are using this excuse more often.

I've never, ever had a situation with somebody that was my age. It's always the older guy. So I don't know what that means. Maybe they didn't learn something back then.

And maybe it happens to women all the time with somebody that's younger. But it would be interesting to figure out. I just don't have a sense.

Sarah Stillman: I feel like maybe some of that is also the power dynamic thing. So, maybe, I would like to feel it's phasing out generationally and hopefully we're moving in better directions. But I also fear it just gets more nuanced. Like the ways people act and the manipulations that they try to pull off.