It was a September afternoon, and I was riding high from landing a new reporting assignment. I emailed a key source, the leading expert on the topic I was writing about, and to my delight, he replied just five minutes later agreeing to field my call.
But the call itself deflated any enthusiasm I had for the assignment. I cringed as the source told me how much he loved Asian women and remarked on how smart my questions were, in a tone that suggested he had expected otherwise. By the time he invited me to apply to be one of his PhD students, I was spending more time crafting comebacks to his comments than I was listening to him. But I held my tongue. I knew I needed his input to pull off my story. I hung up feeling confused, disrespected, and frustrated—and dreading having to transcribe our conversation to draw out quotes for my piece.
Harassment is par for the course for many journalists. Readers commonly send reporters hateful or threatening messages, and sometimes even dox them. And government officials and other leaders have been known to badger reporters who dig into their business. Journalists from underrepresented groups are especially likely to be targeted; on Twitter, for instance, women of color are 34 percent more likely than white women to be mentioned in hateful tweets. But journalists of color are also prone to experience a less-documented form of harassment, from the gatekeepers of the stories they’ve been assigned to report: their sources. As the journalism community looks to recruit and retain a more diverse workforce, it’s crucial to ask how the industry can respond to harassment by sources—and support journalists of color who experience it.
The Toll Harassment Takes
In the most egregious cases, harassment can shut down a story from the outset. Before he began reporting on the outdoors and the environment, journalist Glenn Nelson covered sports, and had a reputation for getting the NBA’s most media-hostile players to sit down with him. But when he encountered an NBA player who told him, “I don’t talk to no f***king Japs,” he dropped the story he was working on. Nelson, the son of a white father and a Japanese mother, says that slur immediately brought to mind childhood memories of people lobbing those same hurtful words at his mother. “I went from being like, ‘what?’ to being outraged,” he says. “It made me decide pretty instantly I’m not going to talk to this asshole.”
When faced with harassment from sources, journalists of color often question how they should respond—or whether they should say anything at all. Ohio radio reporter Adora Namigadde struggled with this dilemma while covering a match at a local amateur wrestling league. There, she encountered a wrestler performing as an “African savage” character called Papa Dingo, who was portrayed as “too unintelligent to speak.” Another wrestler, acting as Papa Dingo’s translator, joked to the audience that Namigadde, a black woman, would have to be Dingo’s wife.
“At first I was like, ‘Wait, what?’ It takes a second to process these things,” says Namigadde. “I couldn’t believe what just happened.” Namigadde, who describes herself as outspoken, says that had the incident happened in her personal life, she likely would have said something to an event organizer. But since she was on the job, she was reluctant to “stir the pot,” she says. “I’m supposed to observe; I’m supposed to be objective, whatever that means.”
Julissa Treviño, a freelance science and health journalist in Texas, also avoided confronting a source who, after learning she was Mexican, made comments that made Treviño uncomfortable. “I feel like you have to be more careful when you’re a reporter of color,” says Treviño. She says she worries that people assume that she has a bias related to her identity. “You don’t want to appear to be unprofessional or confrontational.”
The imbalance of power between a reporter and a source can also dissuade reporters from pushing back against offensive comments. Katherine J. Wu, who is Taiwanese-American and a digital editor at NOVA, says that when a source invoked stereotypes about Chinese facial features to explain a facial recognition algorithm, she hesitated to confront the person. “I could feel the power dynamic, because I knew I was calling her, asking for her help, to take time to look at this study and explain the concept to me,” she says. “That really made me balk at the idea of saying anything, but I wish I had at least said, ‘I’m not sure that’s an appropriate example to use.’”
Pinpricks Add Up
While some sources may harass reporters with slurs or other blatantly racist statements, not every incident is, as Namigadde called her experience at the wrestling match, an “outright yikes” moment. Rather, reporters of color experience smaller pinpricks of harassment, commonly referred to as microaggressions: subtle prejudiced comments or actions directed at a member of a marginalized group.
For instance, Indian-American journalist Beejoli Shah says sources often end up telling her about trips they’ve taken to India, or their experience with Indian weddings. “This is all in the pleasantries before and after, so I don’t want to avoid engaging—a big part of source management is making them feel comfortable with you,” she says.
A single microaggression may seem innocuous, but they add up. Shah describes these seemingly mild occurrences as “the type [of racism] that chips away at you over time.” Wudan Yan, an independent journalist who is Chinese-American, agrees. She has encountered sources that insert “nǐ hǎo” or “zàijiàn” (Chinese for “hello” and “goodbye”) into emails. “I don’t think it was intentionally racist,” she says, but it does betray sources’ assumptions about her based just on her name or email address. “It feels very ‘othering.’”
It also puts reporters off their game. Science and environment reporter Eli Chen, who is Taiwanese-American, says that after a man approached her to guess at her ethnicity after a community meeting she was covering, she brushed him off but couldn’t stop thinking about it. “When it happens in a work context, it becomes kind of distracting, and instead of being focused on what I’m doing, I’ve got this weird interaction in my brain.”
Microaggressions can be especially difficult to manage—precisely because of how innocuous they seem. And even in instances of more blatant harassment, the sources may not mean to offend. But good intentions can’t take away the hurt and disrespect inflicted by off-color remarks. Reflecting on her source who stereotyped Chinese facial features, Wu says, “I could tell she didn’t mean harm by it—I think she genuinely wanted to explain this concept to me, but it made me feel very one-dimensional.”
Some journalists feel it’s often not worth it to confront sources about their indiscretions. “It’s so much emotional labor. You have to think about how to be diplomatic,” Yan says, adding that it can be easier to just move on. “Putting in the time to explain to somebody that what they did was wrong on some level is too much work.”
But not saying anything can leave journalists feeling terrible, too; it can feel like an implicit affirmation of the status quo. Shah, for example, says she has felt guilty about failing to challenge sources’ inappropriate comments.
How Editors Can Help
Currently, the onus is on individual reporters to address harassment they receive from sources. Ideally, newsrooms would develop and adopt procedures for supporting harassed journalists, but doing so is a real challenge: Each instance of harassment is a bit different, and there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. Thinking back on my run-in with the source who “loved” Asian women, I’m not sure the situation had a solution. It was my first time working with the editor who assigned the piece, and I didn’t feel comfortable approaching him. And even if I had, what could he have done?
That’s not to say that newsroom leaders aren’t willing to do earnest soul searching on the problem of harassment. After we first spoke, Chen says, she mentioned our conversation about source harassment to her lead producer. “He wasn’t sure whether developing a policy would be the right strategy,” but he thought that “certainly providing some guidance to reporters of color would be helpful, given that these sorts of microaggressions could potentially build up over time to a point where someone feels discouraged about being in journalism and could leave the field altogether.”
A welcoming work environment can help reporters of color feel more open to talking about unwanted comments from sources—and can thereby help alleviate the attendant feelings of loneliness, frustration, and guilt. When Namigadde returned to the newsroom after her jarring experience at the wrestling match, her editor asked how it went and then suggested she reframe the piece to include her experiences with racial stereotyping. “It validated the severity of the experience,” she says. “I was grateful my boss cared when that happened to me; it felt reassuring that I could go to him and express qualms or concerns with my interactions with sources, and he’ll at least hear me.”
Having just one trusted person at work can make a world of difference—and it doesn’t have to be a direct supervisor or editor. When a longtime source was making Shah feel uncomfortable, she approached a superior she had worked with only once, but whom she thought might understand. “Her immediate concern was, ‘Do you feel safe?’” says Shah, adding that they then talked through their options. Although there was no formalized process in place to guide their conversation, the exchange left Shah feeling more prepared to address the situation.
Treviño also sees advantages in confiding in an editor or colleague. “They can help you sort out whether you even want to profile this person, or how to approach them, especially if you need to follow up with them,” she says.
One key way that editors and other colleagues can support reporters is to proactively invite them to share their experiences of harassment, either by making it clear in the beginning of the working relationship that they are open to hearing about reporting difficulties or by regularly asking the reporters how things are going. If a reporter does divulge a negative experience, simply saying “I’m sorry to hear that” or “I’m sorry you had to go through that” can make the person feel less alone, says Yan. “Just acknowledge it.” That acknowledgment isn’t a solution, but it’s certainly a start.
Jane C. Hu is an independent journalist whose work has appeared in Wired, National Geographic, The Atlantic, Outside, Scientific American, Columbia Journalism Review, Slate, and others. She was an early-career fellow at The Open Notebook in 2017. You can find her on Twitter @jane_c_hu.