‘Power to the Interns’: Creating Safer Newsrooms

Student interns — the youngest and least powerful members of newsrooms — are often targets of sexual harassment in the workplace. They were the focus of “Power to the Interns: Strengthening Intern Preparation in a #MeToo World,” held March 2, 2018, at the Newseum. It was the first in a series of live interactive training sessions as part of the Newseum Institute’s Power Shift Project, a major new initiative on behalf of women in the news industry.

A group of newsroom leaders, educators, legal experts and university students offered practical advice on ensuring workplace integrity for these vulnerable workers. As the #MeToo movement gains steam, university programs and media organizations are taking stronger steps to train and protect interns. And interns and other young journalists want supervisors to provide the tools they need to start their careers in a safe and supportive environment.

Jill Geisler, the newly appointed Newseum Institute Fellow in Women’s Leadership, moderated the program, which focused on what educators, employers and interns should know and do to ensure workplace integrity. Geisler is also the Bill Plante Chair in Leadership and Media Integrity at Loyola University Chicago.

Participants agreed that university programs and newsroom managers need to do more than just prepare interns to become journalists:

  • University career preparation programs must offer instruction on workplace culture and on ways students can prepare for — and handle — uncomfortable situations.
  • Media organizations must change the workplace culture so that interns are not vulnerable to harassment and abuse from those in powerful positions.

Interns fall into a gray area under workplace equal-protection laws that may depend on the state and the employer, said the experts who spoke at the sessions. In general, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits employers from discriminating against employees based on sex, race and other characteristics, does not apply to unpaid workers. But Lisa Schnall, senior attorney adviser at the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, said that employers can choose to have “their policies apply to anyone who works for them.”

Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 requires schools to protect students from sex discrimination, including sexual harassment, that limits a student’s ability to benefit from the school’s programs, the experts said. This includes protecting students from employers at unpaid internships. Schools that learn of harassment are required to step in to stop it.

College programs should develop materials and training programs that describe what constitutes sexual harassment, including examples of inappropriate and possibly illegal behavior. Students should also be counseled on how to “handle conflicts and deal with difficult situations,” said James Dickinson, assistant vice president for career services at Loyola University Maryland.

University supervisors also should regularly check with students on their workplace experiences and let them know that faculty members are available to provide advice and help if interns confront difficult situations. “As a university, we need to offer support,” said Lynne Adrine, director of the D.C. graduate program in broadcast and digital journalism at Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications. “We need to have a pipeline going back to us so if someone has questions, they can talk to us.”

Employers said some newsrooms are instituting no-tolerance policies on sexual harassment. Tracy Grant, managing editor of The Washington Post, said that managers are now being told “they have no discretion. If you see something or someone says something, you don’t have the power to decide whether it is significant or not. You have to go to a managing editor.”

Employers suggested that interns not be isolated but be given opportunities to interact with many people in the newsroom at all levels. Brent Jones, assistant managing editor for training and outreach at The Wall Street Journal, said an internship program must create “portals and opportunities for students to be able to engage so they can see their input matters.” The Washington Post matches interns with a “professional partner who is often a former intern who understands what that experience is like,” Grant said.

Newsroom managers acknowledged that interns view their newsroom placement as a major step toward a future job and may not be willing to report abusive behavior. But employers must create a culture of trust and integrity so that interns will come forward without fear of retaliation. One way to do that, speakers said, is for interns to see that editors and managers are calling out sexist or racist behavior, whether it be someone’s comments to another employee or the choice of a photo running on the front page.

Cordilia James, a journalism student at American University School of Communication who had a newsroom internship, said she would like more direction on how to handle uncomfortable situations. She also said that colleges should discuss sexual harassment throughout the school year, not just at freshman orientation, “so it becomes second nature.” Shira Stein, a senior journalism student at AU, said she accepted a full-time job after graduation at a newspaper where she interned last summer because editors there “were so good about making me feel I could tell them anything. It’s so important for interns to feel that they are valued and that their opinions are valued.”

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