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University of Wisconsin–Madison

Newsrooms have an ethical obligation to address the power structure of internships; Jill Geisler is bringing that front and center

Jill Geisler, the newly appointed Newseum Institute Fellow in Women’s Leadership, recently modered a program which focused on what interns, employers and educators should know and should do to maintain ensure workplace integrity. The Center for Journalism Ethics talked with Geisler, who is also the Bill Plante Chair in Leadership and Media Integrity at Loyola University Chicago, about the challenges, obligations and successes she has observed of interns as the #MeToo movement has progressed.

Q: What are some of the biggest challenges you see interns face as they enter a newsroom for the first time?

Up until the #MeToo movement I would have told you that it was about establishing yourself as a professional. And while that is still true, what we have learned from the more intense focus on sexual misconduct in newsrooms. It relates to power, and the least powerful people in any organization are interns, temporary employees, freelance employees and the very youngest and least experienced. And so, that population is the most vulnerable to harassment and discrimination. It’s caused me and it’s caused other people to say, “Let’s revisit how we prepare our newest journalists for internships and for their first jobs.”

I think we always felt that we never wanted to enphantalize our students. We never wanted to treat you like students. We never wanted to patronize. We wanted to treat you like adults, and we still do. What we’ve now realized is that even young adults in the workplace can be vulnerable. And it doesn’t mean that every place that you might work is ripe with predators, waiting to pounce on you. But what we’ve realized is that those who have been fired for that reason sometimes used “Let’s talk about your career” as the entry point for changing the subject to “Let’s talk about your personal life” [or] “Let’s talk about your sexuality.” And because of that, we now know that we have a greatest obligation to incorporate that information and how to deal with it, how to be prepared for it, into the teaching that we do with our students.

Q: Is this obligation new?

I don’t think it was the absence of an obligation. It was the absence of an understanding of its importance. Again, I’ve spent a lot of my lifetime as a professional going to career night talks, giving advice to young journalists about their careers and now as an educator, I give that advice. Never in any of that time, in any career fair, did I ever say, “And by the way, let’s talk a little bit about how to respond if you are in the presence of harassment, discriminatory conversations, bullying, uncivil behavior.” We haven’t had that in no small part because to talk about it is to acknowledge that it exists and I think we all wanted to believe that if it existed it was minimal. And now what we’ve realized is that there’s more of it then we might have wanted to believe.

Q: What role does the university play in preparing interns for some of these challenges?

I’m doing a separate, “Powers to the Interns” evening at Loyola on March 19, and I’m doing it in corporation with the head of the journalism department and instead of just talking about careers because I’ve already done a career night. Instead of it being focused on how to do your resume, it’s really going to be focused on the potential for being in the presence of bullying, discrimination, harassment, telling racist jokes. What do you do as the youngest professional in the room who wants to make a good impression but is hearing this from colleagues? And that’s not just about sexual harassment because this is beyond that we’re talking about workplace integrity. What we’ve determined as the focus of the Power Shift Summit is that workplace integrity involves an atmosphere free of harassment and discrimination.

Q: What is the importance a diverse staff in helping interns successfully enter newsrooms?

People’s behavior changes in the presence of people who bring a diverse perspective. When we’re all alike there’s too much of an opportunity for group think, there’s too much of an opportunity to believe that everyone thinks like us, so what we think is funny, everybody thinks is funny, what we think is fair game, everybody thinks is fair game. To give you an example: One of my students said that as an intern she was on a chat group – and the people involved didn’t know that she was watching – while one of them wrote about who was going to bang the intern. How does she respond to that? How does she respond if there’s no HR department.

Q: What impact can mentors then have?

Mentorship is important. But having a process for reporting something that is inappropriate, for getting advice, for determining whether what you’ve heard is intended to be what that person said. All of those things are critically important.

Let’s turn this into a process. It starts at the university level: preparing people professionally for the work, for the work ethic and for how to respond to things that are inappropriate. And then giving them mentors in the organization. Having the company prepare its interns. As an employer you need to have a process that both prepares them and briefs the staff on what’s appropriate and inappropriate behavior. Now it feels that it should be simple, that we should all know that, and that’s why it felt like people didn’t have to train us previously because we felt that people would instinctively do the right thing. But now we know that that doesn’t always happen.

Q: What are the some of the successful reporting or less successful reporting tactics you’ve observed?

NPR right now has developed a team of volunteer staff members who exist to help people who may have a question, have a concern, who don’t feel comfortable going to HR. They can go to these colleagues who have actually taken some training and work with them to get advice on whether they should report, how they should report and how they should respond. Sometimes people don’t know for sure if they’ve been targeted. If you’re manager says, “let’s go to lunch and talk about your career,” it could be something or it could be nothing. What women have often done over the years is called the whisper network: “What about him?” or “When he hugs me is he being friendly or is he trying to take advantage of me?” Those informal networks have existed, sometimes because people thought that they couldn’t talk to HR.

Q: What role do men play in reporting harassment and assault in the workplace?

Men play a huge role. First of all, this is not an exclusively women issue, men can be victimized just as much as women, and men, when women are victimized, can be allies. There’s a whole concept of active bystanders which universities are already and started with partying, so now there’s the whole active bystanders concept goes to the workplace.

This is not just a white women’s issue. This is an issue that transcends race, it transcends gender and it sometimes is multiplied for people who are female and are people of color, who may experience multiple forms of either harassment or discrimination. Some of it is subtle and some of it is blatant. But again we don’t want to scare anybody from going into the workplace nor do we want them to think it’s full of snakes. But, if there’s one snake, I want to make sure it doesn’t bite you.