#MeToo Makes Media Report on Itself, Says Prerana Thakurdesai
- Unlike office jobs, women journalists can find themselves to be the target not just in office spaces, but also in the beat they report on.
- Journalism thrives on intimacy of sources, physically exhausting assignments and emotionally challenging stories.
- In these times, the only antidote to this brazenness against women journalists seems to be this movement, which, at least, has democratized the issue.
Earlier this month, from its office in New York, the Women’s Media Center released a report on how the #MeToo movement had affected press coverage of sexual assault. The non-profit found that, among all categories examined, “media had the fewest number of stories overall, when it came to sexual assault and harassment in its own newsrooms.” The same day, 8000 miles east, informal groups of women journalists in India began sharing, with each other, their own stories of sexual harassment at the hands of prominent editors and newsmen. This downpour finally resulted in a deluge on Twitter and other public forums, exposing the misogynistic foundations of Indian journalism.
For the uninitiated, here is an abridged compendium of some of these stories.
- K R Sreenivas, Editor, ToI Hyderabad
- M J Akbar, MoS External Affairs, Former Editor The Telegraph, Asian Age, The Sunday Guardian
- Gautam Adhikari, Founding Editor, DNA
- C.P Surendran, Former Editor, DNA
- Mayank Jain, Reporter, Business Standard
Once the closet started emptying out, with some stories dating back 30 years, the obvious question being asked was, “why so late?” While that one W of journalism was thoughtfully applied by citizen journalists, what was ignored was that big bulky H in the room – How could newsrooms, the upholders of a country’s moral mantle, allow this to happen?
Journalism is an onerous profession. It thrives on intimacy of sources, physically exhausting assignments and emotionally challenging stories. Many times, it involves being on the field, out in the sun, 18-hour stressful shifts on newsroom desks, or interacting with people removed from one’s sensibilities. It’s not unheard of to find oneself in situations that one’s family might find worrying. Many women who enter the profession feel the constant burden to ease their families’ worries. Making a “big deal” of harassment, then, feels like an unnecessary addition to the already stressful environment. For others, when being ‘tough’ becomes a prerequisite for the job, complaining about “a little harassment” brackets you into the ‘weaklings’ department. This further hampers growth prospects in what is, anyway, a masculine workforce.
Many women who enter the profession feel the constant burden to ease their families’ worries. Making a “big deal” of harassment, then, feels like an unnecessary addition to the already stressful environment.
Unlike office jobs, women journalists can find themselves to be the target not just in office spaces, but also in the beat they report on. The entire world is our workplace. As a fledgling crime reporter in Mumbai, and then covering politics, I had learned not to complain about ministers, politicians, police officers, and other sources routinely asking me to sleep with them, or blow vulgar kisses at me, or use a handshake to flagrantly pull me towards them. I had also learned to obey my bosses, who sexualized my body, when they asked me to wear a dupatta, on-air, lest someone got aroused by my fully clothed bosom. Navigating through these everyday happenings, one had to find a story, report, shoot or write it while competing with male journalists for better salaries and assignments.
So, the names might have been taken now, but sexual harassment of women journalists has always persisted. A global study by the International Women’s Media Foundation had revealed that a whopping 47.9% women had experienced sexual harassment at their jobs. The report further details that 80% of these women didn’t report their harassment to authorities. The reasons, as some journalists pointed out in the report were, “My boss didn’t believe me and said I was overreacting and told me to grow up.” Another journalist from India said, reporting harassment “only made sure you were never given plum assignments. One is expected to take it as an inevitable part of the job.”
A global study by the International Women’s Media Foundation had revealed that a whopping 47.9% women had experienced sexual harassment at their jobs. The report further details that 80% of these women didn’t report their harassment to authorities.
Today, as I write this from New York, we’re celebrating the one year anniversary of the #MeToo movement that gathered momentum after Pandora’s box opened on Hollywood kingpin Harvey Weinstein. As the movement spread, it forced resignations of several high-value assets of the news industry. “Stalwarts” like NBC’s Matt Lauer, Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly and Roger Ailes, CBS CEO Les Moonves, talk show host Charlie Rose and many others were forced out of their networks. This, along with other over 400 prominent names from other industries who were outed.
But even now, the task is far from over, especially when the President himself lauds his Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh – accused of violent sexual assault – as the real victim. “A man’s life is shattered,” said President Donald Trump while mocking the accuser. “These are really evil people,” he added. Kavanaugh, of course, was duly confirmed on the Supreme Court bench.
Back in India, the government has stayed clear of issuing any statement in the case of M J Akbar, who himself hasn’t responded to the allegations. The provisions against sexual misconduct aren’t clearly laid out in many organizations. A Columbia Journalism Review study says 80% of freelancers wouldn’t know how to report instances of sexual misconduct even if they wanted to. The process mandating requirements of The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013, becomes bureaucratic in bigger organizations. In smaller organizations, one hears sniggers even by well-meaning male bosses on the actual implementation of the Act. This moment begs that organizations abide by the demands of their women employees, like the ones laid out by the Network of Women in Media, India.
When the Women’s Media Center released its findings earlier, it also revealed that the #MeToo movement had driven up the articles on sexual assault by 30%. When articles about just #MeToo are added, the total coverage is up 52 percent. This is why we can’t let this #MeToo period pass just yet. It is clear that, in these times, the only antidote to this brazenness against women journalists seems to be this movement, which, at least, has democratized the issue across family WhatsApp groups and initiated some action against perpetrators by those in power. This period is equally empowering as it is distressing. We are still a wide distance from shifting patriarchal power structures that carry these diseases, but we can be one step closer to, at least, according to women journalists, the conditions to simply do the job they love.
Prerana Thakurdesai is a filmmaker and journalist based in New York. She is the President of South Asian Journalists Association (SAJA). Prerana has worked in national newsrooms in India as a reporter and news anchor.
The views expressed are the author’s own.