In June, a man I’ve never met messaged me on my professional Facebook page. He asked me about a news story I wasn’t involved in and didn’t know anything about. I apologized and assumed he’d move on.
And then he asked me to have his children.
As a local TV reporter, I could fill this entire piece with harassing comments and gross requests from people I’ve never met and never want to meet. I’ve had a man tell me my skin makes him “want to waltz,” whatever that means. One guy asked me if he could be my slave.
There’s an old local TV news saying: Every day, people invite you into their homes. You’re in their living rooms and kitchens, delivering them information. They put their trust in you, they learn things from you, and after a while, they get to know a part of you — the public part. You become a slice of their lives, and a part of their city.
Many times, this can be a wonderful thing. People say hi to you on the street and compliment your stories. An older woman might bring baked goods to your TV station. Through your reporting, you come to know almost every neighborhood and every street in your town. It’s an amazing feeling.
And then sometimes it’s different — a little darker. Sometimes much darker. People believe they have a right to your body, whether you like it or not. They think they own a part of you, because you’re on TV in their town, and you’re a pretty girl in a pretty dress who’s there for their entertainment. It doesn’t matter what’s in your head or how hard you worked on your story.
Harassment in the media is a problem — the recent news about Charlie Rose and Matt Lauer makes that painfully clear. That’s another piece for another time.
But there’s another problem running through local TV news that affects women daily: harassment from the people who watch the news.
A woman in the business sent me this message. She’d been anchoring a newscast, reading a short video piece called a VO/SOT.
This side of local news includes the guy who screams, “F**k Her right in the p***y,” behind your live report. Or the local woman who sends you racial slurs because she doesn’t like the way you look. Or the man who sends flowers to your station over and over again. For the hundreds of young women in local broadcast news, there are thousands of stories of harassment.
And after my own experience, I asked women in the business to share their stories with me.
This is just one of the many screenshots they shared with me.
Imagine this: You’re a young woman in your first or second job. You’re hundreds, if not thousands of miles away from your family, surviving on slim paychecks, living alone, and working odd hours. It’s relatively easy for people to find out where you are, thanks to the constant social media updates about your news story that day.
And along with some guy who wants you to kick him in the balls, you’re dealing with people like this:
“He calls the station asking for me, he creates fake aliases on the phone and on the internet to get me to respond … he’s told me he loves me; we’re going to be together. He’ll find me one day, etc. …
“When this started I was fresh out of college, 22 years old, first job in TV. Moved away from home, lived alone and hadn’t made too many friends yet.
“Something like this can be so scary for a young woman to try and deal with. … This guy even showed up at work one day looking for me.”
Harassment by viewers is so commonplace, it’s basically become part of the job. You’re a public figure in a small town, a woman always dressed up and made up. Your first creeper is a rite of passage. A text from a weirdo obsessed with your shoes is just a hilarious screenshot. It’s something to laugh about at drinks with fellow reporters — until it isn’t funny anymore.
I’ve tried to understand why these people threaten and harass journalists. Is it power? Sex? They’re just inappropriate weirdos and creeps?
I don’t know. But I do know these people are harassers, and what they’re doing is inexcusable.
The wild and wonderful world of local news take its reporters everywhere — it’s amazing and exhilarating, and many times, these young journalists do it alone.
It’s less amazing when you’re constantly worried about the man who pretends to be a recruiter for a major network but is really a serial sexual harasser. Or mentally preparing yourself when an older man approaches you while you’re reporting, and you can tell by the look in his eye that he’s going to say something lewd and offensive.
The kick in the chest doesn’t just come from harsh words or threats to safety; it’s also the complete disregard for your intelligence and hard work. It’s that squirming feeling in your heart when you realize that many people consider women in TV news, first and foremost, eye candy.
Why? I think it’s a hellish mix of the industry’s standard of hiring generally attractive women, and society’s penchant for reducing women to their appearance and sexuality. Regardless of the cause, it’s affecting those who don’t always have the power to fix those problems, at least for now — young women in low positions of power. For women of color and LGBTQIA women who don’t appear cisgender, it can no doubt be even worse.
So we continue to be flooded with messages like this:
“I, along with most men, like our pretty anchors and weather girls so much that we determine which news to watch by who has the prettiest girls. …”
Too many female TV newsers are taught to be polite and friendly, even in the face of blatant harassment. It goes against years of conditioning and stereotype to flip the switch and be aggressive, because women are rarely taught how to do that. Even now, when I deflect any kind of harassment, there’s still a little twinge of guilt that I have to brush away.
Harassment is a reality for everyone in the business, regardless of gender. Some of my friends, male anchors and reporters, are told to lose weight or to shave. One anchor emailed me explaining how someone asked him to show off his legs so they could see how hairy they were.
Men are dealing with it too. But, I’m writing from my perspective as a woman, so I’m choosing to keep my focus on events close to my own experiences.
As I wrote this article, I read a lot of stories from women in the business. At the end of many of them, they asked: Next time this happens, what should I do differently? Should I be more aggressive? Smile and try to be polite? Every question was filled with a vague sense of guilt and one damning thought: Am I overreacting?
And you know what? That’s happening to me right now, as I write this piece; I’m starting to feel guilty about complaining.
Let’s go back to the guy who wanted me to have his children. When I responded to him, telling him not to contact me again, he got angry.
“There’s a thousand other half-cute journalism grads who’ll easily replace your milquetoast-ass tomorrow. So don’t flatter yourself. No one gives a shit about you.”
The fact that his rage was fueled by my rejection was pretty obvious, but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t affect me.
Because for a while, I thought he was right. Who would give a shit about some small-town news girl getting creeped on? We’re a dime a dozen, generally represented in popular media as vapid bimbos with half a brain.
I sat on this post for months. I started working on this in late spring, but every time I came close to publishing it, doubt started worming its way into my heart. A little voice whispered to me: Who cares?
And then other women began stepping forward, in other industries. Allegations emerged.
And the more women I saw come forward to tell their story, the more people reacted. Other woman echoed that feeling of helplessness, of weakness. And I realized that these experiences, no matter how slight or different, absolutely do matter.
I’m tired of getting messages that make me feel ashamed or have me looking behind my shoulder when I walk to my car at night. I’m tired of talking with other women in the business, feeling their fear and shame, hearing their stories like confessions.
And when I got tired of the man asking me to have his children, I went to my station about it. Not all stations are helpful when women come forward with their concerns, but mine was. They supported me wholeheartedly. I got in contact with our local police, who also supported me and assured me that it wasn’t a foolish move to report the message.
That experience was one of the two bright spots in this whole mess. The other was the women I spoke with.
Despite this barrage of threats, sexual requests, and invasions of privacy, the woman journalists I spoke with still press forward in their passion. Journalism is already an emotionally and mentally taxing business — to also deal with external threats and still create compelling stories is a testament to the strength of women working in the business.
This essay is adapted from a post on Ellen Meny’s blog.
Ellen Meny is a local television reporter in Oregon. In her spare time, she runs a personal blog, aptly named Ellen Meny’s Blog. You can find her on Twitter at @ellenmeny. If you have your own stories of harassment, please email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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