Reporting on Sexual Misconduct in the Sciences

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In 2015, Azeen Ghorayshi, then a reporter at BuzzFeed News, got a tip that a group of students and researchers were not satisfied with how the University of California, Berkeley, handled sexual harassment accusations leveled against tenured astronomer Geoffrey Marcy. The prominent scientist had inappropriately touched women without consent, according to complainants as well as documents from an internal UC Berkeley investigation. Although the university found the scientist guilty, it only gave him a warning and he maintained his position.

Ghorayshi published a piece that October detailing Marcy’s years-long trail of alleged abuse and the university’s lackluster response. The article shook the scientific community, and then similar stories started pouring in. “Once we reported that story it was like the floodgates were opened,” Ghorayshi says. She and her colleagues had stumbled upon a massive, underreported problem in academia.

Science reporters at BuzzFeed News went on to publish many investigative stories covering sexual misconduct allegations tied to scientists such as astrophysicist and TV host Neil deGrasse Tyson and microbiologist Michael Katze. (BuzzFeed News shuttered in 2023.)

A beat unto itself, this topic takes tenacity to report. Investigations can drag on for months or even years. And reporters must be rigorous in tracking down key sources and documents and corroborating every detail. Reporting is further complicated by the sensitive nature of survivors’ stories and the legal liabilities inherent in publishing accusations.

Despite this demanding process, journalists who work on these stories say the effort is worth it, especially when high-profile resignations roll in. And even more so when their work exposes systemic flaws and institution-wide failings that allow abuse to continue unchecked. The rigorous work of reporters can bring about major changes in institutions, says Elizabeth Culotta, who often edits sexual misconduct coverage at Science. “Keep trying to knock down this brick wall,” she says. “You never know which might be the blow that will cause the whole wall to crumble.”


Finding the Right Story

Journalists known for covering harassment often don’t have to do much fishing for stories; the tips come to them. But for those less familiar with the beat, it takes more intentional work to find the right story to cover.

Ghorayshi, now a reporter for The New York Times, recommends scanning for tips on social media, where public whistleblowing has boomed since the #MeToo movement took off in 2017. Signal to readers and followers, too, that you’re active on this beat. “Wave a flag to readers and potential whistleblowers to say ‘Hey, I am interested in this space, and I am doing this reporting,’” she says.

Advocacy groups, such as those supporting women in science, might also provide story leads or relevant information. “The activists are the most active on this issue, obviously, and they’re often very helpful for reporters as a starting point,” Ghorayshi says. In reporting the Marcy story, for example, Ghorayshi spoke with researchers at the Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy, a branch of the American Astronomical Society. Try offering to speak with group members off the record to confirm tips and ask whether there are rumors that should be investigated.

The arduous process of reporting on sensitive material and the risk of retaliation can take an emotional toll and contribute to burnout.

Once you spot a potential story, assess its viability. Do some preliminary reporting to determine the extent of the allegations: Does this seem like a one-off instance or a long history of abuse? Did an institution fail to prevent or address an issue, or, worse, attempt to cover it up? Are there any systemic patterns at play?

The most powerful stories are those that don’t just focus on particular cases but instead help advance the conversation about how harmful behavior is able to persist within a system, says freelance journalist Lindzi Wessel. When she and science journalist Rodrigo Pérez Ortega investigated sexual harassment allegations against Colombian biologist Adolfo Amézquita Torres in 2020 they uncovered that his institution, the Universidad de los Andes (Uniandes), and many other Latin American universities lacked formal policies for reporting harassment and punishing abusers.

Stories with impact are also often those where “big fishes” are involved, Culotta says. “A person of great stature has influence and power and can create a culture that perpetuates a structure of abuse.” A story investigating someone distinguished within their field or otherwise well-known might be particularly appealing to editors, she says.

Before pitching, make sure evidence to back up allegations exists. This can include on-the-record testimony, investigative reports, or formal complaints. Even if you don’t have these documents in hand, you should have a sense of what they are and who might have them before approaching an editor. Ask sources who say they’ve been harassed or abused if they took action and whether recorded complaints or lawsuits might exist, for example.  “There are no formal rules here but rather guidelines that I and other editors use to make decisions on going forward with an investigation,” Culotta says.

Another consideration for reporters and their editors to weigh before taking on a story is the intense nature of these investigations, advises Richard Monastersky, chief features editor at Nature, who oversees some of the outlet’s coverage of sexual abuse or harassment allegations. The arduous process of reporting on sensitive material and the risk of retaliation can take an emotional toll and contribute to burnout. It’s the editor’s responsibility to prepare writers accordingly and remind them that they’ll have support, he says. “I try to have those conversations with someone very early to make them aware of what they might be getting involved with.”


Key Voices

Reporters trying to unravel cases of sexual misconduct need to interview a host of sources to get their story straight. At the top of the list are those who experienced the alleged behavior: the “survivors.” (This term is often preferable over others like “victim” or “target” because it lends a person a greater sense of agency.) Sharing the details of a traumatic experience can be very difficult for sources, so journalists should approach these interviews with extra care and sensitivity.

Start slow with off-the-record conversations, using the method your source is most comfortable with, whether that’s a phone call or a series of encrypted messages using a service such as Signal. Talk them through the reporting process and help them think through potential repercussions of having their personal stories appear online for the foreseeable future. This gives sources time to consider whether they want to continue with further interviews, on or off the record, and builds trust—a process that can take months.

As you cast your net further, reach out to the accused person’s former students and colleagues. These sources can help you understand what it was like to work with the person.

At some point, you’ll need to find at least a few sources who are willing to go on the record. Since survivors who are early-career scientists or are still working with the accused may be reluctant to use their names because of potential retribution, try contacting sources who are further removed, too, says Meredith Wadman, a reporter at Science. “The trick is to find people willing or able to talk by virtue of seniority or having left an institution,” she says. For her 2018 investigation that brought to light the inappropriate behavior of cancer biologist Inder Verma at the Salk Institute, Wadman spent months locating survivors who were no longer at the institute or were protected by tenure. Once those survivors came forward, she says, more junior researchers followed.

It also helps to interview people who might have witnessed the accused harassing or abusing others. These sources could point you to additional survivors, and they have a valuable insider’s perspective on the goings on in a lab. Talk to the janitor, the person who cleans the glassware, and the administrative assistant who overhears and knows all kinds of things, Wadman says. “Look for people who have eyes and ears around events.” At the same time, consider the risks these sources might be taking on by speaking out about their employer.

As you cast your net further, reach out to the accused person’s former students and colleagues. These sources can help you understand what it was like to work with the person, and they might corroborate or contradict others’ testimonies. For example, while reporting their 2020 story on harassment accusations against Mexican neuroscientist Ranulfo Romo Trujillo, Pérez Ortega and fellow science journalist Inés Gutiérrez Jaber interviewed more than 20 sources within Romo Trujillo’s institute to get a sense of his problematic behavior. (Disclosure: Pérez Ortega and Gutiérrez Jaber are members of The Open Notebook’s editorial team.)

Lastly, you’ll need to give the accused person a chance to respond to allegations against them. But hold off until you’ve done the bulk of your reporting, so you can ask informed questions and avoid giving them time to influence other sources. Even if they refute the accusations, their responses can be revealing. For example, when Wessel spoke with Amézquita Torres, he adamantly denied harassing or abusing anyone. He did, however, acknowledge that he had dated students because the code of ethics at Uniandes allows for it.

Start by sending the accused source an email informing them that they’re the subject of a journalistic investigation that will be published, and that you want to know their side of the story, Ghorayshi recommends. In addition to requesting an interview, describe what you’ll be reporting, making sure to maintain the anonymity of sources who have requested it, Gutiérrez Jaber says. If you don’t hear back, send a follow-up note, try emailing an alternative address, and call them by phone. “You need to be able to say with certainty that you gave them as many chances as possible to respond,” Ghorayshi says.


Paper Trails

For investigations involving sexual misconduct, documents related to the allegations are a crucial source of evidence. Lawsuits, for example, leave a paper trail that you might be able to follow with a little legwork. The lawyers on a case will sometimes provide lawsuit filings to reporters upon request. And if a federal case is underway, try looking through the Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER) portal for court documents, such as complaints and transcripts of trial proceedings.

You might also uncover useful documents from institutions themselves via public records requests. But it’s important to start by asking sources if relevant documents, such as complaints or reports, exist and if they’re okay with you requesting them. Records requests can become public themselves and could inadvertently expose a source who wants to remain off the record, says investigative journalist Peter Aldhous.

All of these documents can mount quickly. To keep things straight and start connecting the dots of a complicated story, it helps to have an organization system in place.

If the institution in question receives federal funding, you might be able to obtain documents from its Title IX office, created by the law barring sex-based discrimination in education programs. Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests or those under a state’s relevant public records law could work to obtain copies of these documents. But keep in mind that private institutions are not subject to FOIA, and public institutions might deny some requests according to confidentiality obligations.

In addition to formal complaints, ask institutions for access to all documents relating to the investigation. For her 2016 investigation into the sexual harassment allegations against microbiologist Michael Katze, Ghorayshi obtained an archive of text messages among other documents from the university’s public record on the case. She used screenshots of the texts within her story to show readers exactly how Katze was allegedly harassing women—in his own words.

All of these documents—in addition to piles of reporting notes and hours of interview recordings—can mount quickly. To keep things straight and start connecting the dots of a complicated story, it helps to have an organization system in place. Create a timeline detailing key events, which you can then annotate with references to related documents or timestamps in interview recordings. It also helps to have a master list of sources, their positions, and important details or quotes from their interviews. For their investigation of harassment allegations against neuroscientist Romo Trujillo, Gutiérrez Jaber and Pérez Ortega, constructed a chart depicting each source and how they were connected with others.

For journalist Nishita Jha, the process feels like piecing together a jigsaw puzzle. Over a year-long investigation into the alleged harassment of 16 women at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama, published by BuzzFeed News in 2021, she interviewed 25 scientists and obtained documents ranging from internal emails to official complaints. To stay organized, she kept two parallel timelines. One marked how her own reporting played out—when she discovered different documents and conducted each interview. The other was a timeline of the incidents themselves. “Keeping detailed (and secure) notes, timelines, and triangulating every single piece of information is important not just for the process of reporting a story,” she wrote in an email, “but for pre-publication legal checks, for making sure all sources are protected and not exposed to further retaliation.”


Bracing for Backlash

No matter how rigorously reported, stories exposing the dark side of a person’s career and character come with the risk of retribution. Journalists and editors should work closely with their outlet’s legal team to review a story thoroughly prior to publication, searching for any holes or statements that could lead to credible lawsuits. Freelancers in particular should check the language in their contracts carefully, to make sure they aren’t left to defend themselves or to foot a publication’s legal fees (a contract term often called an indemnity clause).

Sometimes, no surprises letters convince a previously unresponsive source to finally agree to an interview.

Another step to ensure a story is ironclad is to send the accused person a “no surprises letter” just before publication, in which the reporter lists in detail what the story will say about them and gives them one last chance to respond. These letters show that the accused person was notified and given an opportunity to rebut any claims made against them—a helpful defense in the event of a defamation lawsuit. Ghorayshi recommends setting a deadline for a response, giving the source at least 48 hours to respond, if possible.

Sometimes, no surprises letters convince a previously unresponsive source to finally agree to an interview. In other cases, the response is less constructive. When Aldhous sent Lawrence Krauss a no surprises letter before he and his coworkers published their 2018 BuzzFeed News investigation into the prominent physicist’s alleged harassment of several women, Krauss’s lawyer returned the email on his client’s behalf. The lawyer alleged defamation and warned BuzzFeed that if they proceeded to publish, “the appropriate legal response will be swift.”

After BuzzFeed’s legal staff determined that the reporters had sufficiently backed up their claims, the outlet published the piece. A lawsuit never transpired (though Krauss did post a PDF online listing the ways in which he claimed to have been defamed). His institution, Arizona State University, placed him on leave during their investigation, and seven months later, Krauss announced that he would retire from the university.

This is the kind of result that makes reporting stories about sexual misconduct worth it, despite the arduous, lengthy reporting process and legal liability. These investigations hold individuals and institutions accountable and have the power to spark positive change, making them some of the most important stories science journalists can do, Aldhous says. “Ignoring the human frailties of scientists and presenting a sanitized view of the scientific enterprise ultimately allows misconduct of various kinds to thrive.”


Humberto Basilio Courtesy of Humberto Basilio

Humberto Basilio is a Mexican freelance science writer and a TON early-career fellow sponsored by the Burroughs Wellcome Fund. He has written for Eos, SciDev.Net, World Wildlife magazine, and other publications. He is a member of the Mexican Network of Science Journalists and the Oxford Climate Journalism Network. Follow him on Twitter @HumbertoBasilio.

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