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Reporting on Sexual Assault
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The last few weeks have been marked by extraordinary investigative reporting on the actions of movie producer Harvey Weinstein, revealing a pattern of inappropriate sexual attention, harassment and possibly rape. Mr. Weinstein has been ousted from his company and criminal investigations may be re-opened in LA, London and New York.

Since that initial reporting from The New York Times our airwaves and newsfeeds have been full of discussions of harassment and the more general treatment of women in the workplace. The story has unleashed a torrent of coverage and indeed, other executives have been ousted for their behavior toward women following the revelations of the Weinstein saga.

These stories have all revealed sordid details of abhorrent behavior on the part of these male executives and many of the stories are hard to hear or read. But they are part of the current discourse. 

Viewer Lorna Ward from Tucson, Ariz., takes issue with the PBS NewsHour coverage of this issue. With regard to Hari Sreenivasan’s interview with Weinstein accuser Katherine Kendall, she writes: "I’ve always had a great respect for Mr. Srinivasan’s (sic) reporting.  However, not this time, he had her share all the morbid details of her experience. This is inappropriate for public television. I would like to trust that my grandchildren would be able to watch a PBS news broadcast, but I sure would have whisked them out of the room for this one.  What is the necessity of or reasoning behind revealing all these details on PUBLIC TV?? It seems like sensationalism to me, and WAY beneath the dignity of normal PBS news presentation.  I’m extremely disappointed that PBS would do this."

Viewer Lillie Anderson accused PBS NewsHour and Judy Woodruff for failure to “give balanced coverage to the issue of sexual harassment in the workplace on Oct 17. Only Judy Woodruff mentioned in passing that men also faced sexual harassment. The issue of 'she said he said' was summarily dismissed as a valid issue by one of the panelists.” She goes on to complain that there was no discussion of “what constitutes sexual harassment or addressed the problem of proving it.”

Sexual harassment and assault are among the hardest stories to report on and verify.  A woman who makes the decision to tell her story publicly risks a backlash of intense proportions. 

Ms. Kendall’s recounting of her experience with Mr. Weinstein was a relevant part of the story and Mr. Sreenivasan demonstrated respect and sensitivity when asking her to recount what happened.  Yes, the details are difficult to hear and they are sordid.  But that is the point.  I would argue that it is only because we have heard candid and graphic retelling of these encounters that the story has been taken seriously.  The original reporting in The New York Times and The New Yorker was disturbing to read but that is also what made the reporting so powerful and the impact so immediate.

Viewer Sharifah Rosso appreciated Sreenivasan's interview: "I think his handling of that interview regarding a most difficult subject for the woman being interviewed reached new heights of nobility ...THANK YOU for the manner in which this was presented."

Too often, women have been dismissed when talking about their experiences of sexual harassment because they have been embarrassed and made to feel ashamed to tell their story. 

Too often, sexually inappropriate behavior is discussed with euphemisms. There is a spectrum of behavior that constitutes sexual harassment from inappropriate comments all the way to the conduct of a predator like Mr. Weinstein. If we don’t know the details we (society) tend to play down the claims.

Which brings me to Lillie Anderson’s comment. Often, viewers want every issue resolved in one segment, as if what they are watching is the final word on a topic.  

Judy Woodruff had a 15-minute conversation with four women from a variety of backgrounds to discuss a range of issues. The catalyst for that segment was the #metoo social media campaign to highlight the extent to which women are subject to harassment.  It expanded into a wide-ranging conversation about how hard it is for women to report this behavior and how that might change.

Agreed, it didn’t define sexual harassment. There’s a legal definition and social and cultural definition. I think Ms. Woodruff’s conversation was geared toward that wider conversation that is being had across the country. Is there an opportunity to do another segment that looks at the legal challenges of making a charge of sexual harassment? Absolutely. Does that mean that this segment somehow failed? No.

Is there anything the PBS NewsHour could have done differently in either of these segments? I would have perhaps included a warning about the nature of the interview with Katherine Kendall. Other than that, no. 

I did ask PBS NewsHour Executive Producer Sara Just to comment on the issue of audience warnings. Here’s her reply:  “We did not discuss a warning and I do not think the largely adult NewsHour audience would have been surprised to hear such a detail in a story on this topic. As a rule, we have generally reserved warnings for the most disturbing images in our reporting, usually violent scenes for which some viewers might want to look away. But it is a point worth considering and we will continue to discuss in our newsroom."

Unfortunately the stories journalists are asked to report on are sometimes unsavory, but they would be remiss if they tried to sanitize details that are core to the story. 

Parents or grandparents have full control in deciding what children can see. The onus on the journalists is to pursue the truth, however challenging that truth might be, and bring it to the public. That is as true on Public TV as it is for any other organization.

On another matter, last week's column dealt with questions around streaming video of PBS programming. I am still gathering information and will update you when I have some answers.

Posted at 11:30 a.m.