Ten Ethics Lessons From the #MeToo Movement in Media — and Beyond

Power Shift Project

The Power Shift Summit, held at the Newseum on Jan. 9, 2018, focused on systemic solutions to sexual misconduct in the workplace.

It is a time of reckoning in the media industry. Breakthrough reporting revealed that newsroom sexual misconduct is both pervasive and protected. That truth became the catalyst for the #MeToo moment, which opened eyes by opening old — and not-so-old wounds for all to witness. Victims spoke out. Predators were fired. Workplaces began to take stock of their cultures. How did it happen here? How did our systems and values harbor harassment and discrimination?

In my role as a professor of leadership and ethics, with deep roots in newsroom management, I’m helping them not just answer those questions, but to ensure that the #MeToo moment becomes a movement. The goal is workplace integrity: an environment free of harassment and discrimination and filled with opportunity, especially for those who have traditionally been denied it.

The foundation for my work was the Power Shift Summit in January 2018, at the Newseum in Washington, D.C. I moderated the gathering of 130 diverse media leaders, educators, legal experts and victims of harassment. Their insights and calls to action became a report; the report became a project. The Newseum Institute asked me to help guide that work — in newsrooms and beyond.

So, as I design programs to foster workplace integrity, raise awareness, build skills, change cultures, and rebuild trust, let me share some ethics lessons from the worst of what we’ve uncovered and the best of what we can hope to be.

  1. Using only legal yardsticks to measure harassment leaves great space for misconduct. There’s a vast stretch of wrongdoing that may not meet an EEOC threshold test of illegality, but nonetheless demeans, devalues and can drive away its victims.
  2. Those with power have an ethical obligation to understand its impact on others. A leader’s language can become the newsroom’s stylebook; from mundane to profane. Their requests can be heard as dictates. Their approval or disapproval can be career-altering.
  3. Power resides in individuals (supervisors or superstars), but also exists within “in” groups in organizations: veteran employees, key work groups, and staff who outnumber colleagues. Their collective thinking and behaviors can affect others — for better or worse.
  4. Employees who are popular, generate goodwill or revenue for organizations must be held to the same standard of behavior as all others. Turning a blind eye to the misdeeds of a “rainmaker,” prioritizes money over morality.
  5. It is unethical to excuse misconduct as a function of a highly creative or stressful environment. To excuse is to enable — and to legitimize a toxic culture.
  6. Confidentiality, non-disclosure and non-disparagement agreements may benefit the organization, while harming victims and society. Victims may not be able to warn others. Harassers may re-offend. Organizations may cover up their own complicity.
  7. When incivility is tolerated in the workplace, it sets the stage for escalating misconduct. In a toxic environment, where people are routinely exposed to profanity-laced tirades, vulgarity-as-levity, and bullying as the norm, harassment and discrimination easily take root. Victims in such circumstances may presume reporting their fate is a futile act.
  8. Sexual misconduct is not a stand-alone issue; it must be seen in its relationship to racial and gender inequity and to discrimination in the workplace.
  9. The new and necessary focus on sexual misconduct raises important conversations. Consider the power of words and phrases. When the past is positioned as “the days when people weren’t so politically correct” — remember that women often had little power, little legal protection and little recourse in work situations that demeaned them and subjected them to harassment. Their apparent compliance was a survival mechanism. Terms like “ladies man” or “handsy” trivialize inappropriate behavior. Imagine replacing the word “handsy” with “molest-y.”
  10. Organizations have a duty to care. If they have no mechanism for victims to safely report, do no anti-harassment training or provide it in a manner that is easily mocked or ignored, if they pay scant attention to diversity in hiring and promotion, they are increasing the likelihood of misconduct and discrimination.

Jill Geisler is the Bill Plante Chair in Leadership and Media Integrity at Loyola University Chicago and the newly-named Newseum Institute Fellow in Women’s Leadership. Information on Power Shift programs and free training resources are available here.

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