Maintaining Boundaries with Sources, Colleagues & Supervisors

This tip sheet, drawing on interviews with nine leading women in journalism and other sources, offers strategies for recognizing, mitigating and addressing sexual harassment and other predatory behavior while reporting.

Journalists work by building trusting, professional relationships with sources and colleagues alike. Sometimes sources or colleagues may challenge those boundaries with aggressions small and large, ranging from annoyance to assault, including unwanted sexual advances, sexual harassment or sexual violence. 

Under U.S. law and the laws of many other nations, sexual harassment includes unwanted verbal or physical attention or advances of a sexual nature; requests or pressure for sexual favors or quid pro quo; and derogatory, demeaning, or hostile talk about a person’s gender.  Given the gendered nature of society’s power dynamics, men have typically been the harassers, while historically marginalized groups — women, people of color, sexual and gender minorities — are the most commonly harassed. But sexual harassment and other boundary violations can happen to any news professional, regardless of gender or background.

This tip sheet, compiled by Professor Ruth Padawer of Columbia Journalism School drawing on interviews with nine leading women in journalism and other sources (see below), offers strategies for how to recognize, mitigate or address sexual harassment and other predatory behavior encountered while reporting. It is not exhaustive, and is not a substitute for discussing challenging situations with colleagues.


REDUCING THE CHANCE OF HARASSMENT WHEN REPORTING:

Choose safe meeting places. When you’re meeting a source you don’t know, consider opting for a public place, like a restaurant, even if a home or in a private location might seem more attractive for an interview. Avoid situations that the source may interpret as falling outside professional bounds, in terms of location or timing. For example, if pressed to meet over evening drinks, you can say you’re on deadline and suggest breakfast or lunch instead. That’s not only a safer setting - it also signals that you’re setting boundaries.

Avoid being alone with any individual you don’t know or trust. Avoid inviting sources – or your fixer, translator or driver – to your hotel room, and don’t go to their places unless you know and trust them. If necessary, have a colleague or friend accompany you under the pretense of being a photographer or a note taker. Having another “journalist” present makes clear this is a work meeting. If that’s not an option, ask friends or colleagues to call you every 20-30 minutes; when you answer, you can say, “Sorry, I’m conducting the interview I told you about.” It may interrupt the flow, but will also signal that others are aware of your whereabouts. If you must meet in a hotel room, ask room service to stop by every 20 minutes, to replenish your tea or water or to bring in fresh coffee, so your source understands he is not really alone with you.

If you’re going to a remote or private place to report, alert friends/colleagues. Let them know where you’re going, whom you’re meeting or interviewing, and what time you expect to return.

Use technology. If you’re going to be in a place that feels sketchy, or meet alone with a source who makes you uneasy, use location-tracking mobile apps (such as Find My Friends on IOS and Trusted Contacts on Android) that allow your friends to keep an eye on your whereabouts. Many phone systems now include emergency SOS messaging – know how to use it and make sure yours is activated. Journalists staying in dangerous settings sometimes use the Burglar Alarm app, where a cell phone is placed in front of the bedroom door. If the phone is moved, an alarm blares.

Dress and act neutrally and professionally. Especially when meeting a source for the first time, many journalists choose to dress conservatively or androgynously. Set boundaries right at the beginning, through your words, tone, body language, and clothing. Maintain a professional distance in relationships with sources – friendly but serious, and not too chummy.

Clarify intent early on. To avoid any potential misconceptions, especially if you’re reporting in a culture where you are unfamiliar with social signals and cues, be explicit at the outset that this is a work appointment – that you’re looking for X information for Y reason. Because of a cultural divide, you may have to underscore that message several times.

Network. Tap into or build a community of women in journalism, and trusted colleagues generally. Share information about colleagues and sources who are predatory, have poor social boundaries, or make sexist or sexual comments. Seek and provide emotional support.

Be an active bystander. Stand up for those you see being harassed, report these behaviors to supervisors, and press others – including men – to speak up when they see/hear sexist comments or harassment.

Evaluate risks versus benefits. If you have reason to think you could be in danger and you can’t find ways to sufficiently mitigate that risk, seriously consider whether this particular story or interview is worth it. Look hard for alternate ways to get the information: interview other sources, or when possible, rely on phone or video calls instead of in-person meetings. Err on the side of safety.

 

IF YOU’RE BEING HARASSED BY A SOURCE:

How you respond depends on how you assess the harassment. Are you contending with low-level comments and/or come-ons from an individual who’s unaware that he’s crossed the line? Or is this overt sexual predation?

Your response also depends on what you’re comfortable saying and doing, and/or on how much you need a particular source. Whether the harassment is intentional or not, try to shut it down early while still maintaining a professional relationship. Trust your instincts – there’s no right or wrong approach.

Here are strategies some journalists have used:

Be direct. Keep phrases of this kind in mind: “I appreciate you agreeing to be interviewed, but I’m not comfortable with [describe the offensive behavior], so please stop.” Or go for the simpler “I want to be clear: I’m here only to report on this story.” If you want one line to remember that could apply in many situations, consider: “That’s not going to work for me.”  If he’s moving too close to you, put your hand up and say: “Please don’t crowd me.” If the harassment is more insistent, give a simple, determined, “No” or “Cut it out.” Whatever you say, once you’ve succinctly made your point, move right back to the interview, so the conversation doesn’t become a debate about the concerning behavior.

Be indirect. Some journalists worry that being direct will rile the source, making the situation increasingly tense or potentially dangerous. They opt for deflection, like referencing a husband or boyfriend (even if none exists), and are both relieved and infuriated when that works. Others try a nonverbal approach, like smiling less or moving a bit farther away.

Ignore the behavior. Some journalists, when harassed but not endangered, choose to act as if they never heard the comment. Some men, after noticing their efforts are being ignored, give up – if not the first time, then soon after. ImportantIf the situation feels dangerous, ignoring it altogether is not the right response. 

* Be unyielding. If a source or colleague touches you in any unwanted way, such as a hand on your shoulder or knee, don't freeze: instead brush the hand away and continue professionally if it feels safe to do so. If you’re being followed, turn and look directly at the person, even point at them and say in a deep, loud voice, “Can I help you?” or “Stop following me!” This may throw off the harasser, and get them to leave you alone.

Try humor. Some journalists use humor in response to sexist or sexualized words/behavior, figuring it avoids confrontation but shows a line has been crossed. Just be mindful that your humor isn’t taken as a flirty rebuttal.

Cut the interview short: If you feel endangered or uncomfortable enough that you want out, get out. You can be blunt about why you’re leaving, or you can find an excuse: You have a headache, you have to meet someone else, etc. You also can always end an interview by calmly and professionally stating, “We have to stop now.”

 

AFTER YOU’VE BEEN HARASSED BY A SOURCE:

If you’ve experienced harassment but decide you need to maintain the source, here are some options:

Email him. Dispassionately tell him that you value his insights or information and would like to keep him as a source – but only if he stops doing [briefly describe offensive behavior]. Email is typically more effective than talking, because you can craft your words carefully, and he’ll know you have written proof of the exchange and attempted to address it directly, should you ever need it.

Ask an intermediary. If you’re not comfortable addressing the harasser directly, ask someone who knows you both to relay your discomfort, and reinforce the reasonableness of your stance.

If you are unconcerned about maintaining your contact with the source, you could:

Drop the source. Even if he’s articulate and plugged-in, find replacements, even if they’re not as good.

Report him. If your source is speaking as a company or government official or employee, write to his superior (though you might choose to wait until after you file your story). If his emails, texts or voicemails are inappropriate, send those along, too.

 

IF YOU’RE SEXUALLY HARASSED BY COLLEAGUES OR BOSSES:

Email the harasser. Let them know you find their conduct offensive and outline why. Perhaps they didn’t realize they were being offensive or making you uneasy. But if they did, calling them out – especially in an email you can forward to supervisors – might lead them to conclude their continued behavior isn’t worth the risk.

Create a paper trail. Every time the harasser makes an inappropriate comment/gesture, note the date, time, location, specific behavior/comment, and any witnesses. Even if you don’t want to expose him now, keep a diary in case things escalate, he retaliates or you change your mind. If you confront him verbally, include that in your documentation. If you feel your harasser is mistreating you after you told him to stop harassing you, document that, too. Save pertinent emails, texts, voicemails, social media interactions, or other notes to/from him.

Document your productivity. If the situation becomes litigious, you may need to show detailed evidence of a change – or no change – in your work performance or productivity before and after the harassment began. If you are nominally fired for a reason such as “low performance,” for example, you’ll want to show that your work quality did not suffer as a result of the harassment and that firing you is instead retribution for speaking up.

Protect your evidence. Keep your documentation somewhere your employer can’t reach. Don’t keep it on your work computer or in your office desk: If you’re fired, you might not be able to access it. Take screenshots of texts, social media interactions, and other messages so you don’t lose them if your phone crashes or is lost.

* Be on the lookout for other victims of this harasser. If you witness sexualized or sexist comments/behaviors towards others, document them, because it will be harder for him, or for the company, to dismiss more than one accuser.

Learn your rights. Read your company’s sexual harassment policies and your state’s laws on sexual harassment to understand your rights and protections against retaliation.

Report the behavior. Find a supervisor you trust and tell her/him about the inappropriate behavior, the steps you’ve taken to address it, and how that behavior has affected your ability to do your work. If you feel uncomfortable going to your direct supervisor, find another senior colleague.

Contact Human Resources (HR), preferably in writing. Be specific, based on the documentation you’ve collected. Indicate that you’ve read the law and the company policy, and state that this behavior violates that policy and/or the law. Be clear: You want the behavior to stop immediately so you can work in a safe environment. If you report it verbally, follow up with a written letter reiterating the information, starting with something like: “This documents our conversation on X date when I reported sexual harassment by Y person. I reported the following instances to you [list them].” If they verbally agreed to investigate and address this behavior, reiterate that in your letter.

Prepare for your meeting with HR. When you meet with HR, you can bring along a colleague or supervisor you trust. Write down what the HR representative tells you, not just for your records. You’ll want them to know you’re actively documenting their response. Let them know you expect them to conduct a full investigation. Ask HR what their next steps will be. If you feel resistance, say that if you’re not satisfied, you will begin looking for an attorney.

Contact the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). If your employer doesn’t intervene and succeed at stopping the harasser’s behavior, call the agency tasked with enforcing federal anti-discrimination laws. EEOC can provide resources and assistance even if you decide not to file an EEOC complaint. If you do want to file a complaint, you must do so within 180 days of the date of the discriminatory activity.

Anticipate potential consequences. Know that although retaliation is illegal, you can still be blackballed or fired under another pretext. Try, to the extent possible, to anticipate what the harasser or the company might do to protect itself.

 

IF REPORTING ON FOREIGN TURF:

Cultural differences with regard to personal boundaries, women’s right to public space, and acceptable forms of male/female interaction complicate a journalist’s determination of what constitutes intentional harassment and what can be chalked up to a cultural disconnect. Here are a few things to consider:

* Choose a fixer, translator and driver who’s been vetted by other journalists (including, when possible, women journalists).

* If a person you hired is crossing boundaries or engaging in harassing behavior, you can say: “I don’t like how you’re [behavior here]. If you want to work with me, you need to stop.”

* Educate yourself about local gender norms so you don’t inadvertently do something that’s viewed as inappropriate or offensive, which could unintentionally fuel animosity and endanger your safety.

* Consider if/when you want to address or ignore sexist comments in a culture that’s not your own. Some journalists conclude that if a comment or behavior doesn’t feel risky or interfere with their reporting, they ignore it because the fight is too big and the implications are too complicated, and their task is often both urgent and time-limited.

 

Additional Sources & Resources:

9 to 5: Sexual Harassment Fact Sheet

9 to 5: Resources to Combat Sexual Harassment

9 to 5: Real Talk & Resources on Sexual Harassment

AAUW: Know Your Rights at Work

CJR: Analysis of Sexual Harassment in Newsrooms

CJR: Tips for Dealing with Sexual Harassment

Dart Center: Journalists & Harassment Fact Sheet

Fast Company: Dealing with Harassment at Work

Find a Law: Defining Sexual Harassment at Work

Forbes: Dealing with Harassment at Work

Independent: Stories of Sexual Harassment at Work

IWMF: Sexual Harassment Survey

Journalist's Resource: Internet Harassment & Online ThreatsJournalist's Resource: Who Suffers & How?

Newsweek: Stories of Sexual Harassment at Work

Nieman Lab: Defining a Sexual Assault Problem in the News Industry