Sociological & Journalistic Approaches to Workplace Sexual Harassment

Stories of workplace sexual harassment and assault have dominated news headlines over the past year, as investigative journalists have focused on the high-profile cases with which we are now familiar. In the spirit of Herbert Gans’ recent ASA featured essay comparing the disciplines of journalism and sociology, we asked several journalists and sociologists how they approach this pertinent topic and whether and how closer ties might be mutually beneficial.

Read below to see about how sociologist, Christopher Uggen, and journalists, Gayle Golden and Vicki Michaelis, navigate these challenges, what they feel is being left out of public conversation, and what they hope results from the current public discourse.


Sociological Viewpoint


Christopher Uggen is Regents Professor and Distinguished McKnight Professor of Sociology and Law at the University of Minnesota, as well as a Fellow of the American Society of Criminology. His research focuses on law, crime, and justice. His research on sexual harassment has been published in academic journals such as Gender & Society, American Sociological Review, and Law & Society Review, and has been cited in various media outlets from The New York Times to The Economist and NPR. Most recently, his co-authored study with Heather McLaughlin and Amy Blackstone, on the economic and career effects of sexual harassment on working women, was highlighted on the Gender & Society and the Work in Progress blogs.

1.  What challenges arise in studying or reporting on sexual harassment in the workplace?

Many! There are practical, ethical, and analytic challenges on all sides. For example, my project with Amy Blackstone and Heather McLaughlin involves both a large survey and intensive interviews – and reporters seem equally interested in both data sources. Going into the interviews, we knew from the survey responses that many people who reported harassing behaviors had never told anyone about it. So, one big practical concern for us and for the reporters involves protecting the confidentiality and well-being of our research participants – who were often sharing their stories for the first time. Fortunately, Amy is a brilliant interviewer, with the knowledge, sensitivity, and training to respond appropriately to anything that arose in the field.

One big analytic challenge concerns the difference between behavioral and subjective measures of harassment. The upshot is that researchers can’t give reporters simple estimates of the prevalence of sexual harassment without carefully describing our measures and operationalization. Most workers reported at least one of the behavioral indicators of harassment on our surveys (e.g., offensive jokes, unwanted touching), but far fewer actually defined the experience as sexual harassment. This is partly an issue of legal consciousness regarding sexual harassment, which varies by sex, age, education, and other factors. And, as we’ve seen in the #MeToo moment, “consciousness” is a moving target.  We first looked at the behavioral indicators in combination to test for a latent “syndrome.” Depending on the project, we also use subjective reports, behavioral indicators, scales, and sometimes a subset of the “core” indicators that tend to be more serious.

2.  How well do you think investigative journalists present these complexities?

Well! I’ve been impressed by many recent pieces, especially when they are informed by interviews with great sociologists like Lauren Edelman, Heather Hlavka, Justine Tinkler, Frank Dobbin, Abigail Saguy, and others. Social scientists can bring a much-needed historical perspective on the issue, reminding the public of earlier waves of attention that followed the Clarence Thomas / Anita Hill case (1991) and the Bill Clinton / Monica Lewinsky case (1997-1998). Sexual harassment was a Time cover story back then, too, but we saw little lasting institutional change in the wake of these cases. Sometimes the stories are oversimplified, which can reify conceptions of sexual harassment as powerful male bosses harassing vulnerable female workers. This is a vitally important scenario, of course, but we find that female supervisors are actually more likely to be harassed – and often by clients and subordinates seeking to undermine their authority, in addition to lecherous bosses. I also worry that journalists are so eager to provide in-depth personal stories that they underestimate the likelihood or consequences of retaliation against people reporting harassment. And they sometimes ask for information we cannot share, such as the names or voices of research participants.

3.  What is currently being left out of the public conversation?

Solutions, gradients, and sometimes, the perpetrators. Academics and lawyers are now discussing new technologies to help address the reporting and retaliation issue. For example, some apps allow targets of harassment to submit an embargoed confidential report, while retaining the option to lift the embargo and make a formal report in the future. In raising consciousness and facilitating mobilization, the #MeToo moment also presents real challenges, for social scientists as well as journalists. In my view, it is not the right time to make sharp distinctions or to tell anyone who comes forward that their experiences don’t “count” as harassment or fall short of some definitional threshold. Yet moving the policy needle will require serious thinking about such questions, including the “severe or pervasive” legal standard, state criminal codes, and appropriate organizational and state sanctions. I’ve advocated for graduated intermediate sanctions that lie somewhere between “nothing” (which for too long has been the modal response to harassment) and the “death penalty” of termination (which can be arbitrarily or selectively imposed, particularly on racial and sexual minorities and less powerful workers).

4. What distinguishes sociological and journalistic investigations of workplace sexual harassment?

The best social research is more rigorous and systematic, connecting harassment to broader theories of work, gender, sexuality and inequality. But the best journalistic accounts show real synergies between social science and journalism. For example, Heather McLaughlin’s recent Marketplace interview with Lizzie O’Leary takes a deep dive into our Gender & Society finding that harassment drives financial stress by forcing women out of their jobs. We couldn’t share recordings of our participant interviews for broadcast, but the journalist and the sociologist discussed particular cases as well as the broad patterns observed in our mixed-methods research. Such coverage helps opens up new avenues for communicating social research to audiences beyond the academy. Also, journalists often have the staff and resources to improve the data visualization presented in our articles – though we’re often terrified they will move too quickly and make an error. I get the howling fantods when journalists say, “we did some math with your data.” Such math often involves untenable assumptions (e.g., about stability over time, or equivalence across groups) that social scientists would never make in a peer-reviewed article.

5. What new research questions does the recent coverage raise for scholars?

Whenever old distinctions are blurring, there’s a need and opportunity for scholars. Who is a “public figure” in the age of social media? Where, exactly, is the workplace in the gig economy? Are we putting related phenomena like sex discrimination, sexual harassment, sexual misconduct, and assault in useful conceptual buckets? For me, the biggest frontier reflects a longstanding asymmetry in the literature: we have generally studied sexual harassment as victimology rather than criminology, so we know far more about the targets of harassment than we do about the perpetrators. The few studies of male harassers, like Beth Quinn’s classic piece on “girl watching,” have proven really valuable. Also, we don’t know enough about prevention and control. In criminal sentencing, judges often start with a grid that arrays the severity of the current offense on one dimension (e.g., five degrees of criminal sexual conduct)  and the defendant’s prior history on the other (e.g., from first-timers to those with more than five prior convictions). But this presumes that some internal or external decision maker has the will and capacity to enforce real sanctions – and, as Frank Dobbin and others have pointed out, human resources departments are often ill-suited for such tasks.

6. Does this coverage open new avenues for communicating research insights?

I hope so. There are now more U.S. journalists working in digital publishing than in newspapers, but the total number of jobs has fallen. Yet the quality of science journalism is truly impressive. They seem better informed, better able to absorb new material quickly, and more willing to go deep on our work than ever. As sociologists, we’ve got the coolest jobs in the world. But science journalism might be a close second.


Journalistic Viewpoint

GGGayle Golden is a senior lecturer and a Morse-Alumni Distinguished University Teacher at the University of Minnesota’s Hubbard School of Journalism and Mass Communication whose teaching interests include literary journalism, magazine writing, and in-depth news reporting on community and health issues. She is also an award-winning freelance writer with stories published in local and national magazines and online publications, including The New York Times.

Faculty_MichaelisVicki_2016Vicki Michaelis is the John Huland Carmical Chair in Sports Journalism & Society at the University of Georgia’s Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication whose teaching focuses on sports media, including social media as it relates to sports. Previously, Michaelis worked for 21 years as a sports journalist, the last 12 as the lead Olympics reporter for USA Today. She is also a past president and chairperson for the Association for Women in Sports Media.

1.   What are some of the challenges of reporting on sexual harassment in the workplace?

Gayle Golden (GG): The challenge of reporting on sexual harassment in the workplace is the challenge of reporting on any sensitive issue where victims face retribution or risk as a result of their disclosures: finding credible sources who are willing tell their story on the record. Journalists rely on sources to verify reports and must have those sources on the record. Anonymous sources won’t do in most, if not all, cases. The stories of harassment victims may be true, but the source must be willing to step forward by name or identifier and with sufficient verification that the journalist is certain the allegations are true. In the case of Harvey Weinstein, who was more than a harasser but is a good example for this purpose, the sheer number of victims lent a weight of evidence against him that created a kind of tsunami, provoking named victims to come forward. Victims of harassment have stories to tell, but of course the stories have no force of action unless they are presented in the form of an internal claim or a public claim, such as a class action lawsuit or the EEOC claim against Ford Motor Company in Chicago. At that point, journalists can take up the reporting more assertively. But because of difficulty getting access to internal reports or the use of anonymous references in class action suits, a journalist has to pursue reporting further to find those victims and get them to agree to on-the-record accounts. That process can be painstaking as well as delicate for victims, but it is really important in two ways. It lends credibility to the story by giving direct voice to the victim. And it makes the story more compelling, more human, and more real for the reader. One other big challenge journalists have is overcoming their biases so they don’t fail to probe when, in fact, it’s warranted, such as the case of male models facing victimization when the assumption is that sexual harassment victims are women.

Of course another challenge is to give voice and fair comment to those accused in these situations, which is always an important journalistic value. We’ve seen that practice consistently done, but it’s been a bit more problematic. It’s been obligatory and cursory. Al Franken is a good example. He issued lots of statements. The press reported it. All that was fine. It was the minimum standard. Many journalists did not go further, maybe out of worry that it would look partisan to do so. I’m not saying more needed to be done necessarily. I’m just pointing this out as another challenge: to remain dispassionate. Journalists need to keep seeking comment and not condemning before the evidence is in, although in recent months the rush to judgment (by the public, not journalists) has been striking, so I think the challenge remains clear. We need to maintain as dispassionate a view as possible, despite any outrage about the longstanding problem of harassment, and to keep the report focused on evidence and facts.

And that brings me to the final challenge, which is to report beyond the “he said, she said” aspect of the story. Journalists need to go beyond that quote-only model into the circumstances surrounding the charges if they are to report responsibly and effectively about sexual harassment. As we’ve seen with Weinstein, so much reporting focused on the role of his staff in providing opportunity and complicity to these encounters. Getting those details was challenging for reporters because it involved multiple interviews with multiple people to establish timelines, but it was very important to our understanding of the extent of his abusive activities.

Vicki Michaelis (VM): I imagine for many reporters these allegations come from within an organization the reporter regularly covers as part of a beat assignment unrelated to sexual harassment. Overall, that’s an advantage because the reporter likely has multiple sources within the organization. But if the alleged harasser is a key source for the reporter — and that relationship is well-known within the organization — that could make everyone reticent to talk with the reporter. They might be concerned that the reporter’s relationship with the source/alleged harasser would, at the least, compromise the reporter’s objectivity. Worse, they would worry that the reporter would tell the source/alleged harasser about the allegations and — if the alleged harasser is a manager/supervisor — expose accusers and corroborators to repercussions. An ethical reporter, of course, would not tip off the alleged harasser. But it might be difficult for accusers and corroborators to judge that. Another challenge lies in the public backlash that all victims must endure. Social media has amplified that backlash and made it much more personal. That would make any victim or corroborator more hesitant than ever to speak to a journalist.

2.  What do you think has helped journalists to overcome some of these challenges in recent months?

GG: Having more reporting done on the issue has made journalists more ready to find and report such stories, which is great. In turn, institutions and businesses are now more ready to discuss the issue (maybe mostly for fear of litigation or, in the case of Congress, because some are jumping at the chance to get long-needed reform). So I think the public’s willingness to hear the issue has been a big factor in making it easier for journalists to ask questions and to convince people to go on the record about such cases.

VM: The combination of the sheer number of victims speaking out and the sanctions being imposed on harassers undoubtedly has empowered more victims to go public. The space likely feels safer to victims right now, which makes the job of a journalist digging for the truth easier.

3.  Is anything currently being left out of the public conversation? Why do you think this is?

GG: What I said above about the rush to judgment regarding those accused. That’s not a very popular sentiment, and it angers feminists (and I call myself a feminist, so don’t get me wrong). Consider the current flap in France about the 100-plus women, including Catherine Deneuve, signing the letter denouncing the #MeToo movement because it had gone too far in victimizing men. I think journalists are talking about this pushback as a topic. The trick is how this affects sourcing and article decisions when a story comes into play. For many female journalists, myself included, it’s a real relief to see victims of harassment finally being believed and not dismissed. Our task is to stay journalistic as that happens. My hope, and truly my expectation, is that journalists have continued to report with dispassion and fairness, reaching out to all sides that have a stake in allegations and seeking full and fair comment. Facts are usually the best way to air any dispute, and sexual harassment is no exception. Any story will include not just comment from both sides but verified facts related to those stories, which is where the hard work comes in, as discussed above.

VM: I haven’t seen nearly enough coverage of what companies and industries should be doing in the areas of better training and more accessible and effective reporting procedures.

4. ​In general, what distinguishes journalistic investigations of workplace sexual harassment from those of academics (i.e., norms around confidentiality of participants/sources)?

GG: The goal of a journalist is to determine what’s true in a situation and to hold people accountable, not necessarily to discover some root cause about why something has happened. In the course of reporting, a journalist certainly can talk to enough people who shed light on the ‘why’ of a situation, but it would not be a journalist’s job to recommend next steps or future studies that might be useful. As for confidentiality, journalists do negotiate confidentiality with sources. Although it’s obviously preferred to have sources use full names on the record, that’s sometimes not possible for a source. So a journalist will assess how important the information is and how important it is to use that source’s information in the story because, if used from the source, it must be attributed unless it can be found somewhere else. If it is critical information and the source is unwilling to go on the record, then there are some options. Sometimes vulnerable people ask that just first names be used. Sometimes journalists refer to sources as “an investigator familiar with the case.” However, and this is important, in all cases, the journalist must tell the reader why the story does not include the full name. In the case of a reluctant vulnerable person, it might be because the person fears retribution. In the case of the investigator, it might be because of the sensitivity of the information. It’s important to be transparent about why readers don’t see that source’s name. In general, unnamed sources are discouraged and sparsely used among most credible news organizations, despite the public’s impression that they’re used frequently.

VM: I cannot speak to the academic approach, but a journalist’s goals would be to discover and expose the truth and give voice to the voiceless. Journalists would grant confidentiality if they judged it was needed to protect a source from emotional, physical, social and/or professional harm.

5. ​To what extent do/should journalists incorporate academic research into their reporting? How might academics make their research more visible or available to journalists?

GG: I would say they do and should. Maybe the reality is that it’s ‘should’ a little more than ‘do.’ Studies are useful, and they provide the context the journalist needs. Deadlines often rule the day, so you would find references to studies more in weekend or longer form material that’s designed to be reflective and enlightening. I think it would be useful for academics to get the word out to journalists by writing for sites like The Conversation or Vox’s The Big Idea, which allow academics to write about newsy topics but incorporate their own research into those pieces.

VM: When I was a journalist, I always considered sound academic research a valuable source, but just one among the many perspectives an adequately reported story should contain. It was difficult to find reliable databases/clearinghouses of academic experts and research. Perhaps that has changed since I changed from journalist to professor five years ago. If I were an academic researcher, I likely would reach out directly to journalists who cover beats and/or produce stories relevant to my research.

6. The issue of workplace sexual misconduct has clearly become more prevalent in public discourse. What do you hope comes from the conversation? How do you think the increased attention might affect the work of journalists reporting on the topic moving forward? ​

GG: I hope we continue talking about it and that it becomes normalized as something to report on openly. I don’t want it to fade away into something our culture dismisses again, where victims aren’t listened to. But I do think it’s up to journalists to keep the conversation going. We are a little like battering rams. That’s why folks get tired of us after a while. We will keep this going. There will be more [journalists reporting on the topic], I think. At least for now.

VM: I hope it results in better workplace training and reporting procedures, so that workplaces feel uncomfortable for harassers and safe for potential victims instead of the other way around. The prevalence [of reporting], obviously, will not continue, but its aftereffects will make it easier for some time for journalists to report these stories. How long that time will be, I think, will depend on whether proven harassers continue to be punished.


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