Posted in Stories
April 25, 2018

Panelists Say There’s a Long Way to Go for Interns

Professionals on future of interns in a #MeToo era newsroom

By Anis Modi

Individuals from the media industry, university faculty,  and college students gathered at the Newseum in Washington, D.C. on March 2 for its “Power to the Interns” panel on workplace harassment. While participants provided different perspectives, they all agreed that change is much needed.

Video courtesy the Newseum Institute.

How exactly that change will look was a point of debate.

Jill Geisler, the panel’s moderator, is the Newseum Institute Fellow in Women’s Leadership and the Bill Plante Chair in Leadership and Media Integrity at Loyola University Chicago. According to Geisler, change starts in small steps, and the first is simply talking about the issue. Geisler published an apology letter in USA Today to interns about their experience in the workplace 

“For a lifetime in my career I took part in career days and career nights and conversations, and never once did we bring up sexual harassment,” Geisler said.

The #MeToo movement moved many industries to face their reckoning, while reporters have covered how power dynamics often play into workplace harassment. The discussion at the panel reflected these trends.

“I can tell you that not only ABC, but every network as we know has dealt with this at very high levels,” Gloria Riviera said, an ABC News correspondent and co-founder of Press Forward, a new initiative to stop sexual harassment and assault in newsrooms.

Going beyond the minimum

According to Maya Raghu, the director of workplace equality and senior counsel at the National Women’s Law Center, just doing what is required by law just won’t cut it.

The law just provides the bare minimum of what universities and employers should be doing,” she said. “That doesn’t mean that they couldn’t and shouldn’t be doing more.”

A recent New York Times article recounted the ways in which employers exacerbated workplace culture issues by doing the minimum. Traci Schweikert, vice president of human resources at Politico, acknowledged this trend.

“For a long time we did the lowest common denominator when it came to training,” Schweikert said. “We put it online and just expected people to use it, when we all know that people are clicking next while they’re doing their email.”

Not all of the blame was pinned on employers. Several panelists agreed that universities play a large role in educating students about their rights and expectations as they start their way in the professional world.

“In the past we’ve had very little conversation with them about what they should expect from their employers, and that is I believe the ‘aha’ moment for me as to the MeToo movement,” added Lynne Adrine, Director of the D.C. graduate program of Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Public Communication.

So how does an industry infamous for creating toxic workplace culture adjust to the age of #MeToo?

Expanding the conversation

It’s often difficult to speak up about harassment. The panelists  discussed several approaches to making sure students, interns, and new hires know that their voices are being heard.

On the university level, James Dickinson, the assistant vice president for career services at Loyola University Maryland, said that on-campus resources should be readily available to students so that they could be better informed on the issue.

Among these resources, he mentioned Title IX coordinators, human resources professionals both on the professional and university side and faculty members.

In workplaces, power imbalances can exacerbate this problem even further. According to Riviera, it is important to get everybody in on the conversation.

“One of the first things that ABC did was to gather all the senior managers,” she said. “And they have now taken an approach in which they want every manager from the bottom on up to be an active bystander.”

An active bystander is someone who not only witnesses a situation, but takes steps to intervene when it seems that another person is uncomfortable or distressed, according to Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

In light of the #MeToo movement, the active bystander approach to addressing sexual harassment has been gaining significant traction. The “It’s On Us” campaign, championed by celebrities of various backgrounds including former Vice President Joe Biden, invites the public to “take the pledge” to help end sexual harassment by being an active bystander.

The responsibility to expand the conversation on sexual harassment does not rest on individuals alone. Tracy Grant, the managing editor for staff development and standards at The Washington Post, explained how clear guidelines have helped raise awareness of sexual harassment problems, which in turn helped diffuse sensitive situations.

She said that communicating to employees that they should speak up – the ‘if you see something, say something’ approach – takes decisions and the stress associated with the situation out of their hands, and allows The Washington Post to swiftly address problematic behavior.

Long way to go

The last of the three panel sessions focused on how interns feel about this cultural shift and whether they feel affected by it. Their response showed that, while awareness has increased, the fight for harassment-free workplaces is far from over.

“I can’t remember any time when I had that conversation on an institutional level,” said Shira Stein, a journalism student at American University.

Both Stein and Cordilia James, a junior at American University, expressed confidence in the university’s efforts and hope that the cultural paradigm is beginning to change.

“I believe the university started to implement some of these programs from the beginning,” said James. “A lot of freshmen are starting to get more of these kinds of conversations.”

So, as universities work to educate students about their rights and entire industries change both norms and workplace regulations – what should be said to those resisting this paradigm shift?

According to Grant, the answer is simple:

 “The world changes – you just need to get on board with it.”

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