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Explosive Report on Abuse of Women Photographers Stirs Both Anger and Pride

An investigation published this week was painful reading for many. For one advocate, it was also inspiring.

On Monday, the Columbia Journalism Review published a nearly 10,000-word investigation of sexual harassment and abuse in the world of photojournalism. The investigation took five months and involved interviews with 50 people.

The findings were dark.

“Photojournalists described behavior from editors and colleagues that ranged from assault to unwanted advances to comments on their appearance or bodies when they were trying to work,” the article said.

“Many women in the industry say the behavior is so common that they have long considered it simply one of the realities of working as a woman in the profession,” the investigation found. “They say the problem is rooted in a number of factors: The field has historically been male-dominated with a culture that glorifies macho, hyper-masculine behavior; there is an increasing reliance on freelancers, which affects accountability; workshops and other events for young photographers are often exploited by older, established photojournalists.”

Elisa Lees Munoz read every word of the article with recognition and rage. Munoz is executive director of the International Women’s Media Foundation, and in 2013 the organization published its own report, “Violence and Harassment against Women in the News Media: A Global Picture.” The report, based on an international survey of women in journalism, found that harassment and violence against female journalists was widespread — both in the office and in the field.

ProPublica reached out to Munoz to discuss the CJR investigation and her organization’s prior report. Munoz, who holds a master’s degree in international relations, has done work in the field of war crimes and election monitoring during her career.

What did it feel like to read the CJR investigation?

Regretfully, a number of the cases were familiar to us, and we were happy to have them made public. Even so, it was distressing to read the CJR investigation, because we have relationships with so many of the women who were brave enough to come forward. The details of the harassment are difficult to read, and it’s quite sad to think about these remarkably talented and strong women being put through these horrendous experiences. It takes a lot of courage for women to come forward with their stories of sexual harassment. There is always a risk to be calculated, even when these assaults happen in the public eye, in front of their colleagues, supervisors and friends. We know how much they risk in their personal and professional life by going public.  Often, the women who dare to speak out have either attained a level of security in their industry that makes the risk acceptable, or they have decided that an industry where this is allowed to take place is not for them. There was also general dismay about how many stories it takes for outrage to set in, if indeed it has. How many stories do we need? How many more women need to risk their livelihoods? 

What comes across most starkly is that these women were truly let down by the industry as a whole, and that needs to change. 

When your organization did its report in 2013, what most surprised you about what it turned up?

Two things surprised us about the report’s findings. The first was the scope of the problem: Two-thirds of respondents reported experiencing some form of harassment or attack. The second surprising finding was that of those who reported experiencing attacks or harassment, 40 percent reported that it was perpetrated by those with whom the women worked. The reports we are hearing now confirm those findings. Who would have thought that a female journalist is in greater peril at the hands of her colleagues and supervisors than she is in the field? 

What most disturbed you? 

It was truly disturbing to hear that most of the abuse took place in the workplace and was almost always a direct abuse of power — a supervisor attacking someone with less power within the organization. At the same time, we were a bit naïve and thought that if the abuse happens in the workplace, it can be addressed. You don’t have control over sources or mobs or wars or corrupt government officials, but you should have control in your newsrooms over your employees. 

That report came out before the issues of sexual harassment and worse were as front and center as they are today. What was the reaction/reception? Did it hearten or disappoint you?

I believe that the journalism community was surprised by the extent of the abuse that was reported; however, there was no outcry at the time of the report, or soul-searching about what needed to be done to protect female journalists in the workplace. There was a lot of attention paid to attacks and violence that was being reported, but the focus was on attacks that happened in the field. 

Perhaps because it is an international study, despite our statements that the results reported were universal, I believe that most people in the U.S. and Europe thought the numbers did not apply to them. The report also stated that most abuse was not reported, so I think many simply did not believe it was happening in their organizations. 

The reaction, or lack thereof, was really disappointing. We published numbers, but the information we collected was detailed and disturbing. Knowing how deeply women suffered and feeling no outcry from the industry was disappointing. 

Have you yourself experienced either the violence or harassment testified to in the survey? Are you comfortable sharing it?

I am not a working journalist and have not experienced anything like the attacks and harassment that I have heard from our community of female journalists. It never ceases to astound me despite having heard these stories for the past 14 years; for example, women have reported going into the field with the morning-after pill, because there is an acceptance that being raped is a real possibility. We have received calls from women who have been attacked by fixers, drivers, hotel managers, friends, colleagues, supervisors, sources, and the list goes on. I’m not sure that people understand the prevalence of gender-based violence. Why is it different for journalists? All journalists take risks. That is the nature of the profession. For women, those risks often are gender-based. Women are targeted both for being journalists and for being female. 

Why do you think the widespread environment of hostility or worse for women in the journalism industry has taken this long to fully surface? 

Women photojournalists often do not hold positions of power in the industry, and often their positions are precarious if they are staff and even more precarious if they are freelancers. So, the place of women in journalism is already precarious. The IWMF’s report on the status of women in the news media documents the disparity between male and female journalists around the world and the gross under-representation of women in the industry. We have heard a generational divide in how women approach the problem. Many women who entered the industry in the 1960s and 1970s felt fortunate to be able to work as journalists and so took it as a given that they would have to put up with this kind of behavior. Women who entered the industry later do not accept this behavior, but they have been unwilling to speak out for fear of retaliation, fear of not being believed, and because they are not willing to risk their careers to expose the abuse. 

Who if anyone do you most hold accountable for that?

We hold leaders in the photojournalism industry accountable. Women in the photo industry are undervalued, under-recognized for their talents, underpaid for their work and undermined when they share their stories of harassment and inequity. This behavior has been allowed to fester in the industry for years. These incidents were not a secret. As I mentioned, many of us already knew about many of these incidents and a number of them were observed by others. The few women who have made it in the industry have been left to fend for themselves, and when they were brave enough to report incidents, they were dismissed, attacked by friends and colleagues, shunned and threatened with lawsuits. Perpetrators have been excused, hired and promoted. They have won awards and risen to the highest ranks, even as their victims and colleagues looked the other way, leaving those women who stay in the industry to conclude that putting up with the harassment is “part of the price they have to pay to pursue their dreams.”

What’s the best advice you would give to a young woman entering the world of journalism given the reports you’ve now collected?

Being aware that sexual harassment is a pervasive problem in the industry is important. They should be prepared to address it when it happens. Taking hostile environments and self-defense courses helps journalists to react when these incidents rise to that level. If you are fortunate enough to work on staff, develop relationships with women at higher levels and look for mentors who you trust to have your back. It’s important to call out behavior when it happens, whether it is happening to you or to a colleague or friend. Role-playing is really helpful as it prepares you for those occasions where you may normally be so taken aback that you cannot react. I would even tell them to have a buddy system at professional events that happen after-hours. I also would tell them to believe the stories they hear and support those who tell them.

Would you be optimistic for them?

I am heartened by the courage, strength and tenacity of the women in the industry who will not let these incidents push them out. Some are creating their own spaces and working to promote their colleagues. Ultimately, the power dynamic needs to shift and women in the industry need to be supported in order for that to happen. I am optimistic that the women who are demanding change will make a difference. I just think it is taking too long.

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