Alina Adams got one of her first big breaks covering the World Figure Skating Championships for ABC Sports in the 1990s. Hoping to score an interview with a famous skater, she approached the coach, whom she had met before. But before he would introduce her to the skater, he signaled for Adams to lean over to let him peer down her shirt.
“He wasn’t going to give me the information I needed unless I did what he wanted,” Adams said.
Many female journalists have encountered similar situations when a source, boss, or colleague acts inappropriately. And without a long-term contract or support from editors, freelancers can find themselves in particularly vulnerable positions. Adams, who was a freelancer at the time, never mentioned what happened to her editor, because she didn’t think he would care.
“There’s a stigma, especially for freelancers who want to be able to pitch the interesting stories,” said Courtney Radsch, advocacy director for the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). “They want to be seen as equals with their male colleagues. There’s a concern that if they report something like [sexual harassment], it could come to define them and then they wouldn’t be able to get assignments.”
But freelancers experiencing gender-based bullying, harassment, or violence are not alone. We’ve compiled a list of professional resources and personal tips for dealing with these situations.
When lines start to blur
Journalists need to build relationships with sources, and this often means establishing a rapport with those in positions of power.
I was once “building a rapport” with a press contact when he started to joke that I could be his third wife. I decided to play along because he was helping me secure an important interview, but the situation was uncomfortable, especially when he offered me a ride home—which I politely declined.
My dilemma is one that many journalists face in one form or another. You need to build a friendly relationship with your sources or they won’t feel comfortable talking to you, but you also need to draw a line. This applies not just to journalists, but any freelancer who needs to network and form amiable relationships with bosses, colleagues, and potential clients.
Unfortunately, these situations can get complicated when another person misinterprets cordiality as something more.
Adams advises freelancers to draw their own line when it comes to situations when your personal safety is not in danger. One of the benefits of freelancing is that you’re not stuck with colleagues like you would be in a full-time job. If a client is making you uncomfortable, you have the ability to move on and find a new client who respects you and deserves your work.
When someone crosses the line
Michelle Evans, a freelance writer from the Midwest whose name has been changed to protect her privacy, wanted to get a scoop on an influential local businessman. While the two were alone for the interview, he began to complain that he wasn’t “getting enough” out of his advertising with her paper. That’s when her internal alarms went off.
“I started thinking, does that mean he wants to have sex with me?” Evans recalled.
On a separate occasion, the source sexually assaulted Evans, who soon discovered the source was involved in a web of illegal activity. He began to threaten her when he feared she would expose him. Evans finally decided to tell her boss about the assault and threats, but he fired her shortly after.
“Know who you are dealing with,” Evans said. “Look up if the people you are dealing with have a criminal record, because I didn’t know.”
Freelancer unions, such as the U.K.-based National Union of Journalists (NUJ), can offer support in these situations. NUJ often acts as an intermediary for freelancers who are scared to approach their employers or simply don’t know how. In one successful NUJ case, a cyberbully was sentenced to six months in prison.
“Trade unions can help challenge bullying and harassment, but journalists must be a member of the union to get access to help,” said Sarah Kavanagh, NUJ’s senior campaigns and communications officer.
In April, CPJ will release its annual “Attacks on the Press” report, which documents abuses against journalists around the world. This year, the report has an extra emphasis on harassment and sexual violence, included to break the stigma and provide better resources for women and men in these situations.
In the meantime, Evans has a powerful piece of advice for anyone facing sexual harassment. “Writing gives an individual a voice,” she said. “When they try to take your voice away from you, fight. No matter what. Fight to keep your voice alive.”
More safety tips and resources
Safety Tips for Female Correspondents, from veteran reporter Judith Matloff