A virtue of good journalism

Undark has a very good article on how journalism could be changing the problem of sexual harassment in academia. It really is a big mess that needs cleaning up.

Katze, BuzzFeed wrote, had been admired for, “preaching calm in the face of fear” during the 2014 Ebola epidemic in West Africa. Yet the laboratory he had led for nearly 30 years “was descending into chaos.” He was found to have “misused university resources for personal gain, including by asking an employee to do chores for him and solicit a prostitute,” the story said.

Katze responded by suing the university in federal court for violating his rights as a tenured professor. He also sued BuzzFeed to block release of the documents in the investigation, which included more than 100,000 text messages, emails, and other material. Both suits were unsuccessful, a fact noted in the story by Azeen Ghorayshi, a staff reporter at BuzzFeed, who has been tracking cases of sexual harassment by scientists for months.

I’ve noticed, over the years, how often harassers use legal intimidation to try to suppress word of their actions getting out…and how often it totally fails and often serves to spread the news even more. There are processes in place to examine these issues; rushing to the courts means you’re either a) trying to suppress an unwanted finding, or b) trying to prevent an unwanted finding from occurring. There is a place for the legal recourse when an unjust ruling is made in the process, but it’s awfully hard to argue that Katze’s case was unfair.

I’d also point out that it’s peculiar because usually the process is weighted in favor of the harasser, anyway.

But maybe the science journalists will actually make a dent in the problem. It’s also a good sign that these reporters are tackling the hard cases.

And yet, reluctant whistleblowers and tangled knots of competing interests and motivations have forever been the hard stuff of journalism, whatever the beat, and science journalists are as obliged as any member of the profession to keep digging, keep writing, keep exposing. Sure, such work won’t change things overnight. But change — however sluggish and freighted with cultural inertia — can’t happen without it.

“I think in the long run,” Balter said, “[a] cultural change will take place that will make sexual harassment more difficult to get away with.”

We can hope.


  1. stripeycat says

    I figure the legal threats in cases like this are because he knows he has a guilty conscience. Even though the evidence might never be found otherwise, he knows it’s there and tries to hide it.

  2. lotharloo says

    The link is fucked up for me. It just shows the cover picture when I scroll down. Does anyone else has the same problem?

  3. Friendly says

    The Reveal show, which airs on NPR, just aired an episode in which a reporter details her own experiences with trying to get criminal charges prosecuted against a former gymnastics instructor who had abused her when she was a child. It’s very sad and disheartening piece, but I’m also flabbergasted at the fearlessness shown by her and the show’s producers in repeatedly naming her abuser, given the high probability that he’ll sue them.

  4. lepidoptera says

    At the National Association of Science Writers, Rose Eveleth has a useful article with suggestions for moving forward for equity and respect. Suggestions include

    *Readiness to fight the daily battle
    *Teaching our boys
    *More inclusive newsrooms
    *Better sexual harassment training
    *Talking about diversity
    *A culture shift
    *The continuation of this conversation