The Challenges of Covering Sexual Harassment in Science

The Challenges of Covering Sexual Harassment in Science

D2) The Challenges of Covering Sexual Harassment in Science

Moderator: Cristine Russell

Sexual harassment in science burst into the public spotlight when a series of major media stories revealed serious allegations against prominent scientists in astrophysics, anthropology, biology, public health and medicine. The startling disclosures tarnished the image of American science, suggesting that some scientists’ sexual harassment transgressions were not so different from those of major entertainment and media stars.

The trigger was an exclusive BuzzFeed News article in October 2015 that a University of California Berkeley investigation found internationally acclaimed astronomer Geoffrey Marcy had “repeatedly engaged in inappropriate physical behavior” with four female students, including “unwanted massages, kisses and groping.” A wave of stories about other scientists followed, as well as research showing the problem was more widespread than thought. Calls for change came from leading scientific institutions, societies, funding agencies, advocacy groups and a member of the U.S. Congress, amidst concern that sexual harassment and hostile workplace environments negatively impacted recruitment, retention and advancement of women in STEM careers.

While American cases and institutions have dominated sexual harassment publicity, the problem clearly has no geographic limits. International stories appeared in Latin America; Europe; Australia; and India, including a widely-publicized court case involving Indian climate scientist Rajendra Pachauri, former head of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Covering a controversial societal issue such as sexual harassment poses extraordinary challenges for science journalists: it combines investigative journalism involving sensitive personal and institutional information; analysis of incidence studies; knowledge of sexual harassment laws/policies; and context in terms of sexual harassment in different fields and institutions.

This session will provide guidance from leading journalists and scientists knowledgeable about gender discrimination and sexual harassment in science, as well as experience in how best to report on this tricky topic in terms of fairness to individuals, institutions and science itself.