Treat sexual harassment like any other issue

THE Harvey Weinstein exposes and the #MeToo campaign that followed triggered an avalanche of allegations against powerful figures — and ultimately reshaped the way media outlets cover stories of power and sexual abuse.

According to Ronan Farrow — whose investigative reporting played a key role in the downfall of Weinstein — "the culture of willingness to report on these kinds of crimes in newsrooms, I think, is in a more robust place than it was in five years ago or more".

"It feels like we're in a really promising era in terms of the willingness of both reporters and editors to go after sacred cows and confront powerful institutions," the New Yorker writer told AFP.

Farrow's bombshell investigations that exposed lurid stories of predation perpetrated by the once-untouchable Weinstein won him a public service Pulitzer Prize in 2018, which he shared with Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey, New York Times reporters who also broke damning stories of Weinstein's misconduct.

Kantor and Twohey declined to be interviewed for this article.

After the initial Times and New Yorker stories dropped in October 2017, media coverage of #MeToo and sexual assault jumped 52 per cent over the following year, according to a study conducted by the Women's Media Center feminist organisation.

"This has been a year when the media and truth itself are under siege," said the centre's president when the study was published.

"By exposing horrible individual and institutional practices, we see an opportunity for a new transparency and permanent changes aimed at greater equality and power for women."

And post-Weinstein allegations of criminal wrongdoing by well-connected figures, including Jeffrey Epstein and R. Kelly, were reconsidered in a new era that took their accusers far more seriously.

For Scott Berkowitz, the president and founder of the US anti-sexual violence organisation, RAINN, "one of the great outcomes in #MeToo was that it really showed people that they're not alone, that this is something that happens to millions of people".

RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) operates the US National Sexual Assault hotline, and Berkowitz said that in the five years since the #MeToo movement went global, usage of the hotline doubled.

"I think seeing more conversation about the issue makes it feel safer to talk about what you experienced yourself," he said.

Berkowitz told AFP that in the nearly three decades since RAINN began, "there's been really a steady improvement in the way the issue is covered".

"Media on the whole are now much, much more aware that there's a survivor behind this experience and so they cover it not just as the nuts and bolts of the crime, but with some empathy and understanding."

Along with improving sensitivity, Farrow said in recent years journalists are developing their understanding of sexual violence as a topic as worthy of investigation as, for example, corporate or national security crimes.

"In some ways sexual violence has distinct qualities, because you're dealing with people carrying a lot of weight of personal trauma, and that requires a specific kind of sensitivity," he said.

"But, in other ways I think it's actually important to remember that these stories weren't any different from any other kinds of stories of misconduct or crime.

"I think part of the problem that descended around this particular topic was that there was a kind of siloing away of sexual violence — that this was viewed as an issue that was less polite than other types of reporting on crime."

But, while the press demonstrably boosted #MeToo's visibility and amplified the conversation surrounding sexual violence, limiting factors remain, including persistent focus on the experiences of celebrities and white women, according to a 2019 study analysing the British press's coverage of #MeToo by Sara De Benedictis, Shani Orgad and Catherine Rottenberg.

Their analysis of British media's first six months of #MeToo coverage suggested the phenomenon had helped reinforce a version of feminism that "forefronts white women, and most often white women with a substantial amount of economic, social and cultural capital".

Still, Berkowitz said the movement pressured companies to take a more proactive role, "in terms of educating and making sure they respond better to allegations of sexual misconduct".

"I think that's a tangible way that is helping the average person."

The head of RAINN also said while "attitudes and understanding have improved... it's not clear whether that has translated yet to an actual decrease in sexual violence".

He urged "sustained attention" to stories of abuse:

Constant coverage of this will have an impact on people and remind them how common this is, and what they can do to contribute to stopping it."

The writer is from AFP news agency
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