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Navigating the reporting of harassment in science is not easy

As much as journalists look for certain types of behaviour when interviewing people who have experienced bullying, harassment, and sexual assault in science it can also be traumatic on the reporters themselves, so I learnt, during the World Conference of Science Journalist in Lausanne 2019.

Shame is a common experience from victims. Victims often try to avoid eye contact, totally refuse to be interviewed or reporting the incident to the police as a way of creating a psychological distance from their suffering, I heard during a 3 July session at WCSJ2019.

Some victims might suffer from hyper arousal, they easily feel threated, a smell of aftershave worn by their abuser can give them flash backs, said Lucy Maddox a consultant clinical psychologist and writer.

Bethany Kok,a data scientist, who previously experienced harassment at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences said that people who experience abuse must take their time and be patient in giving interviews. If they are not comfortable or ready, they can do the interview in pieces. “You should not let the journalist determine the terms of the conversation, you need to feel you are safe [to speak],” she said.

While calling on the phone, or speaking on Skype can be done, said Meredith Wardman, a policy reporter with Science, developing trust with sources is crucial since it helps to get to the bottom of the issue.

Journalists might shy away from reporting sexual harassment in science but courage to pursue such stories and have them published has made reporting more doable, and made it more possible for more women to come forward, said Maddox.

“Your story could be mine,” Kok was told by other women who read her story.

“I would not care less about the reputation of eminent scientists who were implicated in harassment of women at work I would care more about justice,” said T.V. Padma, who has reported about harassment of women in science from India for Nature.

It was helpful to know that journalists interviewing people suffering from trauma could also become victims from secondary trauma. Reporters should equally come up with measures to protect themselves, as well as their sources.

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