Thursday, October 22
Investigating sexual harassment in science
Platform: Zoom webinar ScienceWriters Plenary
Thursday, October 22
11:00 am - 12:15 pm



Authors: Rodrigo Perez Ortega; Lindzi Wessel

As the #MeToo movement continues to spread across the globe, science reporters too must be well versed in assessing, investigating and delivering high-stakes stories fraught with ethical questions. Science and research is not above abuse of power. In fact, science students and early career scientists can be left vulnerable by a system that often makes them wholly dependent on a single principal investigator, who controls their access to work, supplies, and funding opportunities, helps determine when they graduate or submit manuscripts for publication, and will likely serve as their primary employment reference for years to come. This power dynamic can become even more problematic when early career scientists find themselves isolated with their supervisors for long periods of time, as is common in remote field research.

Universities and other research institutions can confound the issue too, often being the sole arbitrator for victims who may have nowhere else to turn. When research institutions are unprepared to handle accusations of sexual harassment or assault -be it against supervisors or peers- that lack of protection creates a hostile research environment that can drive women and other vulnerable scientists away from the field.

A sexual harassment investigation in academia involves many players: Victims must be willing to come forward and trust journalists with their stories, legal representatives may influence that decision, the accused must be confronted and given a chance to share his or her account of events, and institutional representatives will help determine the information that can be shared about the accused and the institution's handling of the case. Reporters must carefully approach each conversation and think creatively about how to fill in information gaps that can't be gleaned through interviews. PIOs representing institutions can also benefit from understanding the reporter's process, which can help them weigh both the immediate institutional interests surrounding an individual case and the long-term goals around creating a safe environment for researchers.

In this panel, you'll, of course, hear from reporters and editors who have broken high-profile sexual harassment stories in science. But you'll also hear from other actors who have shaped the narrative of important sexual harassment reporting. A prominent lawyer will share how she advises survivors of sexual abuse about how to decide whether to speak to the press, a public information officer will offer her insight on how PIOs handle allegations of misconduct at instutitions, and a survivor will share what it was like to speak about her experience with international press. We'll discuss how to consider the safety and well being of vulnerable sources, how to seek documentation to back up claims and how to approach the accused for their account. We'll also consider the ethical and practical considerations facing PIOs handling such cases for their research institutions.

All these tips and strategies are not exclusive to reporting on sexual harassment, as they can also be applied to other kinds of investigations in STEM and health journalism.

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