Skip to main content
University of Wisconsin–Madison

Author: Claudia Meyer-Samargia

When news orgs cover their own scandals; media critics weigh in


As #MeToo accusations mounted against a number of high-profile media figures in 2017 and 2018, organizations faced questions of how sexual harassment and assault could fester unaddressed. But for individual journalists, particularly those who cover news media, questions focused on how they could cover these cases ethically, with the right balance of truth-telling, transparency and respect for privacy.  

Margaret Sullivan, a media columnist for the Washington Post and former public editor at the New York Times, said there is no set guideline for how to cover a harassment scandal once news of it breaks. According to Sullivan, quality news outlets try to be transparent and honest with their audience about what has happened within their own organization.

When it comes to weighing the need to be transparent with news audiences against the privacy of those involved, Sullivan says reporting decisions should not be driven by wanting to protect the organization’s reputation, since this isn’t a concern when reporting on another organization.

“We’re not thinking ‘Oh dear, is this going to hurt NBC’s reputation?’ No, we’re just trying to tell the truth, and we should be doing that in every case,” Sullivan said.

Yet Paul Farhi, a media reporter at the Washington Post, says that a news organization is both a news organization and a company, and that these two roles might come into conflict when it comes to a situation such as covering its own harassment scandal.

“We’re all in favor of transparency, but it’s not quite so simple, particularly when it comes to a company talking about an employee,” Farhi said. Companies also have obligations to their employees and their privacy.

Farhi, who has covered numerous harassment scandals—both at the Washington Post and within other news organizations—also says accusations do not necessarily turn into a story.

“It depends on who is involved, the circumstances of the accusations, how many accusations, how reportable it is—that is, can we get at the story to a level in which we are comfortable accurately reporting the story or fully reporting the story,” Farhi said.

According to Farhi, elements of sexual harassment and assault allegations make them particularly difficult to report. These include the specificity of the accusations, corroborating evidence (such as the accuser discussing incidents with another person) and time lapsed between incidents and accusations.

Minnesota Public Radio’s coverage of Garrison Keillor

Following Garrison Keillor’s abrupt firing from Minnesota Public Radio in November 2017, an investigative team of reporters at MPR released a story in January 2018 on sexual harassment allegations against Keillor.

The stream of reporting following the initial piece not only discussed Keillor’s alleged misconduct, but also detailed the work being done by MPR to cover up the scandal.

Eric Ringham, an arts editor at MPR, was the editor of a team of journalists covering the Garrison Keillor scandal.

“Even though it was a complication that the scandal was in-house, it was also a big part of our motivation because we had a strong sense that our readers and listeners would be interested in knowing a lot more than our employer was letting on,” Ringham said.

Ringham believes that news organizations have to be willing to treat their own the same way they have treated others.

“It was troubling to me as a journalist because I work for a company that over decades had put Garrison in the marketplace as a star, promoted his career and profited handsomely from his career and from his popularity,” Ringham said.  “To suddenly make him a non-person without any kind of a meaningful explanation as to why was doing a disservice.”

When it came to investigating the claims and reporting on Keillor, MPR’s team of journalists put themselves on the same playing field as media organizations that did not work for MPR, according to Ringham.

They did not want to use any of their insider access from working at MPR to get an advantage on the story. Instead of attending staff meetings that discussed the current state of the Keillor allegations, they avoided the meetings and interviewed their peers afterward.

Ringham admitted that there are still some strained relationships in the office following their coverage of Keillor.

“It’s a little awkward because some of them were offended—they thought we were being somehow disloyal,” Ringham said.

While MPR had attempted to hide information about the Keillor allegations from the public for some time, Ringham was gratified to see that the organization respected their investigation once the team began reporting.

“We were working with the knowledge that we at least believed there was a firewall that separated the newsroom from the business interests of MPR, and that we were independent and would be free to work independently,” Ringham said.

“I think it was an open question how firm that firewall would prove to be as this story played itself out. I’m gratified to say that the firewall held.”

NPR’s coverage of Michael Oreskes

At National Public Radio, there is a clear policy and protocol on how to cover news involving NPR in a significant way, said David Folkenflik, a media reporter at NPR and host and editor of “On Point.”

When it comes to reporting on the organization, Folkenflik said, “We want there to be a clear line. No one from executive management gets to see what we’re going to publish before it happens and, in fact, the rest of the newsroom doesn’t know what we’re going to report before it happens.”

David Folkenflik covered Michael Oreskes, the now former senior vice president of news and editorial director at NPR, when the Washington Post reported on sexual harassment allegations against him.

Folkenflik said he had previously looked into an allegation against Oreskes a year-and-a-half before the Washington Post published the first story about it in October 2017.

At that time, Folkenflik couldn’t get a source to go on record and couldn’t establish a pattern of behavior. But Oreskes was rebuked for his behavior.

After the Washington Post broke the story, NPR knew it had to be covered—not just because it was getting coverage from other organizations—but because they had reason to believe there was a pattern of behavior that had to be investigated.

“We thought we were going to own this story even though we weren’t the first ones to write a public story about it,” Folkenflik said.

Covering such an important figure at the organization added an extra level of discomfort.

“This was something that tore people up,” Folkenflik said. “It really affected the chemistry of the newsroom in a significant way.”

This was not the first time Folkenflik had covered stories of this nature. He has covered sexual harassment and sexual assault allegations at Fox News, NBC and CBS.

“It brings me no joy to do it, but then again, it’s not like it brings me any joy to write these things about other news organizations. I like news organizations,” Folkenflik said.

But he recognizes the necessity of covering these stories for the public.

“Even in a time of crisis, we are going to fulfill our mission. Even when it’s most uncomfortable for ourselves,” Folkenflik said. “These are issues that are serious and have to be exposed. There is behavior that has to be held accountable.”

Moving forward in the era of #MeToo

“It really is a different era,” Farhi said. “I think this whole #MeToo movement has created an entire set of variables that we didn’t deal with before because very few people reported on sexual harassment other than Bill O’Reilly and Fox.”

Farhi points out that the same journalistic standards should still always apply. “You try to get as much information as you can while respecting the privacy of individuals and dealing with the sensitivities of people making accusations like this,” Farhi said.

Falling back on the usual journalistic fundamentals will guide reporters, Farhi said—be fair, be accurate, be honest and be truthful about how you report.

Sullivan believes that journalists need to use the same ethical standards to report on themselves as they would on other industries.

“I’m hoping to see fairness, that you would cover yourself the way you would cover another entity, whether it’s a news organization or Congress or the Metropolitan Opera,” Sullivan said.

Folkenflik said when journalists are putting out a story about their employer, they have to dig into what happened and live their journalistic values.

“We’re major institutions, and we help people shape their views of the world. We need to get it right.”


For information on the conference hosted by the Center for Journalism Ethics on “What #MeToo Means for Gender, Power & Ethical Journalism,” on April 26, see this summary.

The Center for Journalism Ethics encourages the highest standards in journalism ethics worldwide. We foster vigorous debate about ethical practices in journalism and provide a resource for producers, consumers and students of journalism. Sign up for our quarterly newsletter here.


Recap: What #MeToo Means for Gender, Power & Ethical Journalism


Director of the Center for Journalism Ethics Kathleen Bartzen Culver talks with keynote guest and leading tech journalist Kara Swisher at the Center’s conference What #MeToo Means for Gender, Power & Ethical Journalism on April 26 at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. 


More than 160 people attended the Center for Journalism Ethics conference on April 26, 2019, with an additional 435 views occurring via livestream.

Focused on “What #MeToo Means for Gender, Power & Ethical Journalism,” the conference featured a keynote conversation with leading tech journalist Kara Swisher, as well as expert panelists from leading news organizations and universities all over the country.

In the keynote discussion with Center director Kathleen Bartzen Culver, Swisher discussed the beginnings of her career. As a student at Georgetown University, Swisher called the Washington Post to complain about their coverage of a Georgetown event, a complaint that ultimately led to a job offer.

At the Washington Post, Swisher covered the Internet early on.

“I saw it as the printing press, television, radio. I saw early on what it meant for journalism. I knew this was going to change everything,” Swisher said.

Students respond to keynote Kara Swisher’s address.

She said that being a good beat reporter and covering tech news through a personal lens, rather than technical, helped distinguish her in the beginning of her career.

Swisher described the way she covers tech as this, “I won’t tell you how a watch works, but I’ll tell you the time.”

The conversation transitioned to the topic of #MeToo, with Swisher pointing out that #MeToo stories were hiding in plain sight.

She said that when she started covering it, the most interesting part was that most men didn’t know about it. She points to all-male editorial boards as a possible reason for why these stories took so long to come out.

She said that once the reporting came about, it was people who had been unsafe themselves who covered the #MeToo stories – women, people of color and LGBTQ+ people.

She discussed how hard it is to ask people to go public with their stories and how hard it is to ask people to do things that might hurt them.

Swisher next discussed three “tragedies” in the current tech workplace.

The first is a lack of self-awareness and reflection. Next, believing that money equates social good. Finally, having the inability to empathize with people who are not like you.

She also touched on likeability – and the fact that she doesn’t care about being likeable.

“You don’t want to be a jerk, but when you don’t have to be the good girl, it’s freeing,” Swisher said.

“Just say things. Don’t hear no. You have to be disputatious but polite. There isn’t actually a cost. The cost is going along with things. The cost is waiting until later.”


Panel 1: The Power of Portrayals in a Wired World

Linda Steiner and Negassi Tesfamichael

  • Tracy Lucht (moderator), associate professor, Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication at Iowa State University
  • Barbara Glickstein, director of communications, Media Projects at the Center for Health Policy and Media Engagement at George Washington University School of Nursing
  • Kem Knapp Sawyer, contributing editor, Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting
  • Linda Steiner, professor, Philip Merrill College of Journalism, University of Maryland
  • Negassi Tesfamichael, education reporter, The Cap Times

This panel focused on covering stories related to #MeToo, along with how to prepare journalists to cover those stories in the future.

“I don’t think I’m surprised anymore. I think what I’m surprised about is when people are surprised,” Glickstein said.

Steiner discussed that the sheer number of women who have been willing to tell their stories and be named is surprising, and it has encouraged others to come forward as well.

“There’s something about the invasion of one’s body that makes it difficult to talk about, even if we think we’re tough,” Steiner said.

Negassi pointed out that it’s important to describe those who have experienced sexual assaults as survivors, not victims.

Steiner said that it is imperative that journalists are taught new skills to cover #MeToo.

Steiner questioned, “How do you establish an attitude of caring and empathy and give people the time and space they need to tell their stories?”

These are not the typical investigative reporting skills, but she said journalists need to know how to talk to both survivors and perpetrators.

In the same way, the panel also discussed the need for student journalists and young journalists to be prepared in case they are harassed or witness harassment.


Panel 2: Gender at Work: Overcoming Bias in the Newsroom

Michelle Ferrier, Jon Sawyer and Christina Kahrl

  • Lindsay Palmer (moderator), assistant professor, School of Journalism & Mass Communication, UW-Madison
  • Michelle Ferrier, dean of the School of Journalism & Graphic Communication at Florida Agricultural & Mechanical University, founder of
  • Christina Kahrl, senior editor for MLB coverage at ESPN
  • Jon Sawyer, executive director of the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting

Three panelists spoke on their different experiences in the field of journalism as a black woman, a transgender woman and a white man.

Ferrier discussed being one of a few people of color in the newsroom.

She found herself arguing with her own writers on the desk about diverse representations in stories they covered. And she discussed the challenges of there being so few people of color in the newsroom.

“I was terrified for the nights that I wasn’t working because of what my colleagues would do – worried about them not representing the people of color in the community,” Ferrier said.

Christina Kahrl shared her experience of working at ESPN before and after transitioning, saying that she has experience “on both sides of the gender divide.”

After transitioning, someone sat next to her in the press box at a game and asked if she needed help learning to keep score. She found it validating to be acknowledged as a woman, but extremely upsetting to see this gendered bias.

Jon Sawyer began his remarks by saying, “I’m the guy that lived his career in unconscious enjoyment of white male privilege.”

The #MeToo movement helped him realize how much he doesn’t see, as a white man.

“It was a reminder of how different the world can look if you’re a man, woman or person of color.” He continued, “You cannot assume that the dynamic that you’re sharing is the same.”

Panel 3: Real World Solutions: Moving Forward with Equity & Integrity

Jill Geisler, Lindsay Palmer, Sharif Durhams, Susan Ramsett and Traci Schweikert

  • Jill Geisler (moderator), Bill Plante Chair in Leadership & Media Integrity, Loyola University Chicago and Freedom Forum Institute Fellow in Women’s Leadership
  • Sharif Durhams, senior editor, CNN
  • Lindsay Palmer, assistant professor, School of Journalism & Mass Communication, UW-Madison
  • Susan Ramsett, general manager, KWQC TV-6
  • Traci Schweikert, vice president of human resources, POLITICO

Geisler began by saying that the standard harassment training used by news organizations has not demonstrated effectiveness, except at reducing liability in lawsuits.

Schweikert said, “Early in my career, I was taught that being creepy isn’t against the law.”

She continued to say that we shouldn’t just consider what’s against the law because then we miss the chance to catch things early. You want to make sure that there is a level of understanding that can be applied to a day-to-day scenario.

At Politico, human resources staff meet with other Politico staff members at their corresponding level to discuss the culture and expectations.

Durhams noted that everyone has worked in a newsroom where a macho culture is celebrated. He said there is work to be done in the largest newsrooms in the country and in the smaller, regional newsrooms.

Ramsett also discussed the whisper circle that exists in newsrooms. It was a circle of women who would warn each other about predators in the newsroom.

She said that she knew so many people who left the business because of how they were treated.

“Even if I couldn’t make a change to the past, I wanted to make a difference moving forward,” she said.

Geisler also presented information on the Freedom Forum’s Power Shift Project and its Workplace Integrity Training, which aims to eliminate sexual harassment from the news industry.


The Center for Journalism Ethics encourages the highest standards in journalism ethics worldwide. We foster vigorous debate about ethical practices in journalism and provide a resource for producers, consumers and students of journalism. Sign up for our quarterly newsletter here.