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


Ann Cooper: I was looking up some articles you wrote about this for CJR years ago. This was pre-Lara Logan and pre-Lynsey Addario. I think one of the things that you said then or perhaps later was this is going to continue  to be under-reported until we remove the stigma. Do we still have a stigma?

Judith Matloff: We still have a stigma. I do safety training and about 75% of my trainees are women. When we get to the sexual assault prevention section I'm  always staggered by the number of women who have not reported to their employers. It’s really hard. Likewise, it's hard for men to report. In some ways it's harder for men, but obviously numerically there are  more women than men who experience harassment or assault.

Ann Cooper: When you’re doing a training session is that a safer space?

Judith Matloff: Yeah. When  I do training session it's definitely a safer space so that people will talk. The sexual assault segment comes at the end of a four day course, so there's been a lot of bonding and trust built up at that point. As a professor, I also get emails from people or phone calls from people in the field, former students, all the time about situations they are in and they ask for advice about how to navigate it. Anecdotally, I think it's happening quite a lot.

Ann Cooper: What are some of the stories that come up? Are there certain trends?

Judith Matloff: There are probably three trends. There is the typical story of working with a supervisor who’s harassing you. Things are more advanced here in America than in a lot of other countries due to reporting culture. Here there are Human Resources Departments. In many other countries in  the world that isn't there. here was one French woman working with in a major television station, and there was no reporting mechanism. Her boss was harassing her horrifically, but she just had to put up with it. That's one thing, harassment from a supervisor and I could give some specific anecdotes in a minute.

Then another thing is harassment from sources, or assault from sources, and that's in some ways a trickier one to maneuver because you can't report and  go to the Human Resources Department, or go to another supervisor.  Reporters have to invest trust in their sources, and if they  suddenly start putting pressure on you how do you navigate it?

A lot of what we do in the training is help people navigate the boundaries, and seeing the signs from the very beginning. This gets to the third pattern, which usually starts very subtly so you're not quite  sure where the guy is going with this, and you put up with it. Then it begins to escalate. Part of what we do in the training is to try and orient people to spot the signs at the beginning, and try to shut it down at that point, while maintaining the professional relationship, which is not always possible.

Ann Cooper: In terms of harassment by supervisors, I mean, when you start talking about this in a training session do you find that some women are like, "Oh, I didn't even realize?"

Judith Matloff: Yes. I can give an example from my own career. Now I'm an old hag and I don't get this stuff anymore, or I get it very very rarely, but when I was younger I was very vulnerable because I was was in my early 20s and I was junior. I also was less assertive than I am now. I'll give you an example.

I had a supervisor who would comment on what I was wearing and then suddenly the buttons seemed skewed to him and he would say, "Let me fix your dress in the back." Then the questions about my boyfriend started getting more and more personal, and then he would reveal things about himself. It seemed sort of innocuous, but it made me a little uncomfortable. I didn't like when he touched me, but he didn't touch me in any weird way, it was my hair, or again, the button, or a brush on the shoulder. It wasn't anything that I could say, "Oh, my God, this is harassment."

Then it  escalated, and the way it escalated got bad. This is another thing we talk about in training, that women have to try to avoid situations where they can't escape. I don't want people to get paranoid, but you have to think of any source or supervisor as a potential rapist.

What happened with this particular boss was we went on assignment together. I wasn't quite sure why I was there, because there really wasn't much to do, but whatever. The assignment ended and we had a long drive back to the city where our office was based, and he took a circuitous route. We stopped at an isolated, very beautiful, scenic hotel, and he said, "Let's have lunch." I said, "Okay." We had lunch and he kept encouraging me to drink, and again, I just didn't feel right about it so I said, "No. I don't want anything to drink." Then he asked me if I was tired and I said, "It was a long trip and I'm kind of eager to get back home." He said, "Well, we can just get a room and go upstairs." I said, "I really want to get back."

Meanwhile, I'm thinking “How do I handle this?” I'm stuck in the middle of nowhere at this hotel with my boss. I felt quite agitated so I went into the lady's room to try to think about what to do, and I heard footsteps. He followed me into the lady's room into the next stall and starts talking to me. I left the lady's room and I didn't know what to do. At that point I sat at the table and we didn't talk, and there's a limit to how long you can sit at a table not talking with your boss. He finally realized nothing was going to happen and we sat in the car, there was no conversation. After that he made my life miserable.

Ann Cooper: How?

Judith Matloff: Just nasty, everything I did was wrong. Fortunately we did have a reporting mechanism at the organization I worked for so as soon I got back on base I reported what had happened. Even though it was a foreign posting, home office had to know what had happened.

Ann Cooper: What did the home office do?

Judith Matloff: Nothing. This was in the '80s. Did they confront him? No, but they were well-aware of the fact that this was probably not going to be helping my evaluation and whatnot. Whatever he wrote they sort of dismissed and my work was taken on merit.

Would this happen today in America? I would hope not. I don't think so, but the situation that I got into often times happens to women pre-assault or pre major harassment, which is they are brought to an area where they are isolated with the person, and there  is no escape.

I hear this all the time. "I was in a car with the source and he was taking me to the site of a massacre," or, "He was going to take me to the factory to show me whatever," or, "We were going to look at the scene of hurricane," or whatever. They're alone with a source in a car going to a fairly isolated place. The only advice I can give to young women, or any women, is don't go alone. Bring a colleague, bring a photographer.

I'm not blaming the victim, but when I heard about the submarine I could only imagine what happened. You can't get off a submarine under the sea. Let that be a cautionary tale, don't go into submarines alone with men. Even if they are public figures who have taken journalists in the past.  As a safety mechanism women should try whenever possible to avoid going alone off site like that. When you're in an office you can just get out of an office. That's not where most of the assaults and the really severe harassment take place, it happens when they're isolated.

Ann Cooper: Well, I'm sure this is part of the training that you do, but you published a list of tips, and one of them is about, "Always stay on the edge of crowds. Deploy an idling car nearby for a quick getaway. Always plot an escape route." That's just what you've been talking about.

Judith Matloff: I didn't have an escape route when I went on assignment with my boss. I suppose I could have gone to the desk of the hotel and said, "Call me a taxi," but we were five hours away from where we were supposed to be. What was going through my mind, this is something I hear from women all the time,  was “What are the repercussions going to be?” I have to somehow stay neutral without pissing him off too much, without him feeling rebuffed, but how can you help but rebuff the person if you don't want to go to the hotel room with them?

Ann Cooper: Right. When you're hearing these stories from students, or whoever, in the training classes are most of them about workplace harassment? Are most of them about being harassed by sources?

Judith Matloff: It's 50/50. The actual physical assaults will be by sources, or fixers, or translators. It's very unusual for an editor to rape a reporter, but the level of harassment and insinuation and pressure would obviously be fairly high.   In the field it's more a direct kind of thing.  For instance, very recently I got a really freaked out phone call from a former student who  was on assignment. She was a freelancer at that point,  and  she was assigned to go with a correspondent. He started coming on to her and telling her how beautiful she was and wanted to sleep with her, and blah, blah, blah, and they still had another month of reporting ahead of them. She said, "What do I do? What do I do?"

What we worked out together, and it eventually was successful, was she wrote him a  very neutral email, because emails can always be forwarded.  She wrote an email saying, "Dear, John, I really respect your work, and I really believe in this project we're working  on, but I felt very uncomfortable about what you said last night. I want this to be as productive a trip as possible. If we can just keep our future conversations purely professional so that I can do the best work possible. I just want to stress again, I really respect you." What's he going to do after that? He's going to persist? It's in writing, she can forward it, he knows she can forward it, and he backed off at that point.

Ann Cooper: Okay. An email can be a tool. There's an implicit, not technically a threat, but this could be seen by others.

Judith Matloff: Yeah, so yay, email. The other thing is to shut things down if you have that uh-oh feeling in your stomach that it doesn't feel right. I'll give an example. I don't really get harassment these days, but there was a source who was acting inappropriately and this is somebody I was negotiating a contract with so I  wanted his money for a project I was working on. He has the position of power, and these things are often times about power.

I flew to his town, we were going to talk about going to some negotiations and he kept saying we had to meet to talk about the agenda for the meeting the next day with the real funders, and he kept saying that he wanted to go out drinking with me. I didn't see the point of that, plus I go to bed at 9:00 at night. I didn't see why he kept insisting, I'm not going to name the drink because that would locate him geographically, but he kept on insisting on a certain drink.

Part of me is thinking, "Okay, maybe it's just hey, I want to show somebody around my town, and we all drink this," but it just didn't seem appropriate. What I did was I followed my advice to other people, which I don't always do, which is I gave him alternatives. I  said, "I'm really sorry, I can't go out tonight. I have a deadline I have to work on. However, we can meet at this time, this time, this time." It's a way to negotiate the situation. I don't feel comfortable with the terms you're setting, I am now setting terms.

In that message I also made clear that I would pay, because I also wanted to make clear that I had to be in a position of power. It worked, I didn't get the money for the contact, but it wasn't related to that, I don't think.  Was this  guy coming onto me? Probably not. He's young enough to be my kid, but I just didn't feel it was professional. That kind of thing can escalate, you go out for a drink with the guy, and then he gets the wrong idea, or everybody gets drunk, and your defenses are down. It's just better if you feel somebody isn’t being totally professional just stop it right there before it could escalate. That would be my advice to people, just make it really clear.

Ann Cooper: Okay. You were saying there's the supervisor problem, there's the source problem, likely the source of real violence or rape is with sources. Let's talk about that. Let's talk about some your own experiences, or some of the things you are hearing from the students you're training, or from former students.

Judith Matloff: Nearly all the rape cases I heard about, or assault, were with people they knew. It was a fixer, it was a source, it was a driver. It's virtually never random. One really vulnerable place is going down in a submarine, one vulnerable place is a car and somebody is driving you. You need to be really careful with taxi drivers, or a designated driver you've been hiring for a while.

One thing to always stress, again, if it's somebody you're hiring is that you're in control and you are paying them. Is it going to stop them from raping you? Maybe, maybe not, but always assert your authority, the little authority that you might have. If it's somebody whom you're hiring and they're coming on inappropriately, and if it's somebody you hire you can just say to them, "I don't really like the way you're talking to me, and I'm paying you so stop it." It's a little bit harder with a source because you want something from them.

I'll give you an example of something that happened to me. I'm in Burundi, and there's a curfew, and the military spokesmen, I don't remember his name, some colonel. He was  a sleazebag. He kept saying, "Oh, Judith, we must have dinner, we must have dinner," and I said, "Well, look, the hotel here has a really nice restaurant in the lobby," you know where there are one million people, "So let's have dinner here and I will treat you." He goes, "No, there's this amazing French restaurant. I want to take you there, because you're my favorite journalist," which I'm sure I wasn't. I said, "Wait a minute there's a curfew." "No problem. I'm in charge here because I'm the colonel. No problem, I can get us through the road blocks." I'm thinking road blocks? We're going to go through road blocks and have dinner? How is this French restaurant open?” I said, "How is this French restaurant open," "They're opening it just for us."

Obviously I don't feel really good about this. Again, there was this negotiation and I said, "Well, I have to be back at the hotel," we didn't have cell phones in those days so I was like, "In case my editor calls." He said, "No, no, I'll talk to your editor." That's a kind of an absurd case, but there was no way in hell I was going in that guy’s car for dinner after curfew. I burnt the source. He didn't want to talk to me the next day so I lost my source.

If If we had been where my office was based,  I would have gone to my boss and said, "Look, this guy is being a real pain in the neck. Put a guy on this story." But you know what it's like, you're a correspondent, you're out in the field, you're alone in a war-torn city, you can't call back to the head office and say, "Can you send somebody else out to Burundi?" That's a pretty typical-type situation.

Women have another problem, which is we're socially conditioned to please people. I think we sometimes don't work on our instincts. This doesn't really feel right, but I don't want to insult him because I don't want to be the ugly white women from America. There's a certain dynamic that can come into play there, and I think we just have to remind ourselves that we have a right to be really, really assertive.

Ann Cooper: Well, there's also that power thing that women correspondents have talked about. If I refuse to take an assignment then what are they going to think of me, and what's that going to do to my career?

Judith Matloff: I think that's one reason why people don't report rape. There was one woman I knew, a friend of mine, who went through incredible lengths not to tell her editors, but she had to get Antiretrovirals. She had to get that day after pill so she flew to another country, but she didn't tell her boss, and she flew back the same day. These contortions that she went through, but she just didn't want them to know.

Your relationship with your boss is not always intimate. Then if you tell people everybody in the newsroom is looking at you in that vulnerable way, and I would imagine it's very, very awkward. But I do encourage women to follow Lara Logan's example and come out. She came out and she said what had to be said, and she was able to get the help and the support that she needed.

Ann Cooper: We've had a few very high profile, Lara Logan, Lynsey Addario saying it was an attack. Women who have come out and said, "I'm going to talk about this publicly." In fact, Lynsey Addario said, "I wanted to talk about this because I wanted to shame the Libyan men who were groping me. I figured that many other men in that society would be deeply offended by it, and ashamed," and she said they were. She heard from fixers and translators and lots of other people, " That's not how we are. I am so sorry this happened to you," and that sort of thing. If you go back and you read about that you almost feel like, well, maybe that was a watershed. It doesn't sound like it was necessarily, I don't know.

Judith Matloff: I think it's better than it was when I wrote that article, which was what? 2007-2005. 

Ann Cooper: 2007.

Judith Matloff: Okay, so 10 years ago. I think it is better in some countries. After Lara Logan came forth there were four other female journalists who had experienced almost identical assaults, the same pattern of assault in Tahrir Square and they came out. I don't know if they would have if she hadn't come out first. I do think it's better. I also think newsrooms are more sensitive in the United States and Britain. I think people are talking about it a little bit more.

What worries me most are my former students who are freelancers. because they're out on their own in these places. It's so hard to get assignments and sell your stuff. They don't have the institutional support that could provide free counseling, or could provide the medication, or could even do a forensic investigation into what happened and try to get some justice. They don't have those resources and they're really vulnerable.

I can't stress enough, like that thing with my boss in 1984, which was a  long time ago, I would react to it very differently as a 60-year-old woman, because I'm coming from a different place mentally and socially and societally. When you're a young woman and you're in your early 20s and you're starting out in your career, you're unsure of yourself and you're vulnerable. You're also more likely to be targeted, just precisely for those reasons, because you are so vulnerable.

I do hope the discussion is being had in newsrooms with younger women. And this doesn't just happen abroad. It happens domestically. Somebody just approached me about doing training with investigative journalists, and apparently a lot of the women are facing problems getting into people's cars, being alone when they report. This is stuff in rural America, where they're getting harassed by sources.

Ann Cooper: When you're doing the training is this part of a larger security training?

Judith Matloff: Yeah. We have a women, who is a rape survivor, who takes people through very basic physical moves, to flick a hand away or stick your fingers in somebody else's eyes, but the most critical thing is the psychological, emotional, verbal negotiations at the beginning to set the boundaries.

I really do think it helps to set boundaries really early on: "I'm not going to drink those drinks with you, let's meet for breakfast in the hotel lobby." That type of thing is really critical.  Teach people that they can provide the harasser an alternative whenever possible. Like I don't like your terms, I'm going to set new terms. That's really critical, and that's more of a psychological leap than “I'm going to get you in the jugular.”

Ann Cooper:  What's the worst thing, or the worst question, or situation you have every been asked by a former student?

Judith Matloff: Related to sexual harassment?

Ann Cooper: Yeah.

Judith Matloff:  I'm trying to think of the worst. This one woman called me, she was in a remote area, really remote, rural area of the former Soviet Union. She was staying in somebody's house, and the house was in the middle of nowhere. She wakes up, she feels something in her face and it's a penis. It's the penis of the owner of the house so she screams and she runs out of the room, and then the wife says something to the effect of, "Well, you're just a slut and just give him what he wants." It was such a nightmare. You'd hope at least the wife would be on your side, but she was not very sympathetic, or maybe she blamed the young woman for what happened.

I can't imagine a worse situation. You're stuck in somebody's house, it's late at night, who are you going to call? They're outside cell range. That's pretty disgusting, that's awful. She stayed until daylight, and then she just decided she had to get out of there. That was the end of that. She didn't complete the project, and she was really freaked out afterward. She called me. She was so freaked out she wet herself right on the spot, which also hopefully made her seem more repulsive to this guy.

Then that was pretty bad. Then I heard of an incident where a woman went to a police station, she was investigating a crime. She should have had somebody with her, and she was gang raped by all the police in the station.

Ann Cooper:  Where was that?

Judith Matloff:  That was in Russia, Siberia. That was not a former student. That was a colleague. That was really grim. That's kind of like going down in the submarine. That's the sort of story that I'd advise that you have somebody, preferably male, with you, even if he's not doing anything, just holding a Polaroid camera. That was horrid. She was gang raped. I think those were the two worst cases.

Ann Cooper: These tips that were also published in CJR, I just want to ask you about a couple of them. I'm wondering, this is probably part of the training program, "Dress like a frump. Wear a thick belt, laced boots, loose pants, and a pullover shirt slows down attackers."

Judith Matloff: Yeah, that would be in a crowd. If you're in an office situation I don't think it’s going to help.

Ann Cooper: Do you get any pushback?

Judith Matloff: If you're in a crowd what do you care what you look like, right? If you're doing a crowd reporting thing you're probably wearing something against tear gas, that was more of the crowd attack Lara Logan type situation.

Ann Cooper: Okay. “If surrounded at close quarters fight with everything you've got.”

Judith Matloff: At that point, yeah. You shouldn't be in a situation where you're surrounded at all corners. You want to avoid getting into that situation at all.

Ann Cooper: Under harassment you say make clear that you will not tolerate inappropriate touching, or comments from support staff sources, or colleagues. You've talked a lot about that kind of negotiating. Like steer away from this situation that they want to get in, but this is more direct.

Judith Matloff: When we do the training, this is where the woman trainer comes in. She has these two sleazy co-trainers. They're actors,  they play  creepy, sleazy men. They're actually lovely, delightful men. They're like, "Hey, hey." (Matloff gestures pawing). She'll put the women through the exercise of taking the hand and putting it away. Now that seems so unnatural, but simply by virtue of being unnatural the guy is like, "Wait a minute, she took my hand off her breast." Do that. Step back, say to the person, "I don't feel comfortable," just say it neutrally, politely, "I don't feel comfortable about you putting your hand there, please take your hand away."

Ann Cooper: That sort of standing up to this power thing.

Judith Matloff: Yeah. It's like get your hand off. Ick.

Ann Cooper: It surprises them and maybe even humiliates them to have their hand there.

Judith Matloff: Yeah. It's a very unnatural gesture. Somebody puts his hand on your shoulder and you take the hand off. It's not  normal, people don't do that, and it breaks the momentum. You want to break the momentum so that they're startled. It's like what they teach you in counter surveillance, when you're being followed a very effective technique often times is you look the person in the eye and you say, "Can I help you," because they don't expect you to react like that, or when you get a threat on the phone you actually engage them. They don't expect you to do that. It breaks the momentum, it throws them off guard. Same principle.

Ann Cooper: I wonder what Trump would have done if Hilary had done that in the debate. Anyway. Moving right along, yes, rape. "Soil yourself with vomit, feces, or urine."

Judith Matloff: Yeah, it's hard to defecate on command, but you might be scared enough, you're pretty repulsive when that happens, or start screaming like an idiot, or pretend you're having a convulsion. It may not work, but it might slow them down. Try it.

Ann Cooper: "Say you are HIV positive, menstruating, or pregnant."

Judith Matloff: That has worked in some cultures with some women I know. If he ends up saying , "I don't care," and pulls out a condom, but at least he's using a condom so you're not getting the HIV from him. Wedding ring.

Ann Cooper:  Wedding ring, yeah.

Judith Matloff: Does it stop anything? I don't know, but it's just like one more barrier. If I feel a source is getting a little bit too, yech, I spend a lot of time talking about my husband. I spend a lot of time talking about my kid. Does it stop them? I don't know, but subliminally it's sending a message. I don't think it's going to save you from rape, but I think it just adds another layer of respectability, or maybe unattainability.

Ann Cooper: What’s the deodorant spray trick?

Judith Matloff: It works temporarily like Mace, but it's legal.  Bear spray is very good, too. Keep it by the bed. A couple instances I heard in Iraq and Afghanistan women would wake up and there would be men on top of them in their hotel room. Well, if you could just reach over and get that bear spray, or that deodorant spray and spray it in their face you're going to blind them temporarily, and you can hopefully elbow your way out of the situation.

What I  recommend for anyone working in a dangerous place is  one of those door alarms. They emit the most God awful noise, nobody is going to want to put up with that just to rape you. They will run away. It will alert everybody in the hotel. You put it on your door knob so if somebody moves the door knob the alarm goes off, or you can put it at the doorjamb, under the door so if they try to force the door this crazy noise explodes. It's awful, but better be deafened than raped.

Ann Cooper: Okay.

Judith Matloff: I think one point I want to make is that, and I think this is a particularLy critical when you're dealing with sources, you don't really, really know who they are and it's hard to fully trust them. They may seem like decent people, but I think that phrase, "Every man is a potential rapist," it should be in rotation in your head. It's not that women are inviting these attacks. Look how common rape is in society anyway. Why would it be any different just because we're journalists? It's a societal problem that maybe it gets intensified due to the nature of our proximity with these strangers, or proximity with people that we work with. I think women have to be aware of the fact that we live in a world where women get raped, and we are often times in situations that make us particularly vulnerable to it.

Don't give them the benefit of the doubt. I think that's my lesson to women, if it's feeling somewhat uncomfortable, and you're not sure whether you're reading it wrong, just assume you're reading it right, and try to shut it down at that point. Don't give them the benefit of the doubt, because it could escalate.

Ann Cooper: How do you define sexual harassment?

Judith Matloff: I would define sexual harassment as any unwanted, unwelcomed, and unsolicited advance. That could be verbal, that could be physical, of a sexual nature. Even somebody commenting on your body and saying, "Wow, you look really fit," as a boss of mine used to. I felt that was harassment, because it wasn't his job to talk about my physique, or when he would ask me who I was sleeping with, like he would say, "What's the bed situation Matloff?"  That  was an unwanted question of a sexual nature, even if he himself was not coming onto me. We consider that harassment. Inappropriate touching is clearly, clearly.

I'll give you another one, which is kind of borderline. I was talking to a source and he kept putting his hand on my shoulder, so not anything intimate, and leaning in too close. Then I would back up, and sort of wiggle away from his hand. Then after about 15 minutes we did the whole interview of me walking backwards and we walked around the room. I would consider that sexual harassment. Maybe it was just physical harassment, but it felt sexual. He was just leaning in too close, and what right did he have to touch me? Even if it was just my shoulder.