The open letter below - penned by ICFJ President Joyce Barnathan and nine other international media leaders - was first published June 19 on Nieman Lab with the following editor’s note.
Editor’s note from Nieman Lab: The following open letter, about the broad problem of sexism and sexual harassment in the news industry and at global journalism events, is being published simultaneously on Tuesday at The Quint, European Journalism Observatory, ICFJ, Chicas Poderosas, and NewsMavens. The letter was triggered by incidents during WAN-IFRA’s World News Congress in Portugal earlier this month.
Nieman Lab requested comment from WAN-IFRA CEO Vincent Peyregne and from João Palmeiro, head of the Portuguese Press Association. Their statements are printed in full at the end of this story. “Inappropriate incidents on stage in Portugal have been addressed by WAN-IFRA in many forums including at the conference, on social media, on our website and with our staff. They are contrary to our values and are unacceptable,” Peyregne said in part. “We will continue to use our position to push for change from within the industry.” His full statement is here.
“You link the action of one person, in a less fortunate moment and outside the sphere of discussions of the event, to news organizations in general and WAN-IFRA in particular,” Palmeiro told me in part. “I suspect that you are unaware of my activities on behalf of causes namely equality of gender, race or sexual orientation, which would show very clearly that what happened at the dinner was, as far as my actions intended, a sad moment of less attention by one person and not an affirmation of ideological, or disrespectful gender behavior of an organization or a sector of activity.” His full statement is here.
— Laura Hazard Owen
An epic “manel,” sexist jokes about breasts, and on-stage sexual harassment at the recent World News Congress in Portugal put the gap between acknowledging gender inequality and actually empowering women into stark relief. In response, a group of senior international news professionals has penned this open-letter. It’s time to stop talking about the need for equality and start actively reforming the industry.
The World Association of News Publishers’ (WAN-IFRA) annual Congress in early June is one of the media world’s major industry events — a networking opportunity for close to a thousand attendees from international news publishing, with keynote speakers and panel discussions addressing the future of journalism and the news business in a time of convergent crises. It should be the pinnacle of good practice, shaping the path for industry progression.
But the 2018 World News Congress was a study in contrasts, one indicative of the news industry’s treatment of women: symbolic (and at times substantial) gestures of respect interspersed with real, sometimes shocking sexual discrimination and harassment.
Women in news: moving from the sidebar to the front page
The event began with the second annual Women in News Summit featuring the BBC, The New York Times, former editor-in-chief of USA Today and author of That’s What She Said Joanne Lipman, former CEO of Gizmodo Media Group Raju Narisetti, and many others committed to championing diversity within their news organizations. Their impressive stories and good practices alone made the trip to Portugal worthwhile.
However, the Summit was relegated to pre-conference programming — like an asterisk to the main event. And while the Congress curation achieved unprecedented levels of gender balance (46 percent of speakers were women), the opening ceremony saw a veritable wall of men — we lost count at nine — speak for 90 minutes before the prestigious Golden Pen of Freedom was eventually awarded to Maria Ressa.
The award bestowed on Ressa, CEO and editor-in-chief of Rappler.com, recognized her sustained battle against the gendered, state-sponsored harassment of journalists in the Philippines. It was an important and deeply symbolic decision to select Ressa. But by the time she was allowed to speak, several delegates had left the venue in disgust with the total absence of diversity on stage.
Over the next three days, the event careened between spotlighting gender equality with awards and speeches, and disrespecting women in practice.
Fake breast and forced kisses
Talking about diversity is not enough to effect change. But, ironically, scandal sometimes is. The rampant displays of sexism and sexual harassment during the gala conference dinner at the Estoril Casino (the venue that inspired Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale) left so many participants and WAN-IFRA employees shaken that they ultimately triggered significant action. The evening began with a joke from the MC comparing fake news with breasts. The punchline: in both cases he prefers the fakes.
Then came the editorial leadership awards given to outstanding female editors from Uganda and Jordan. One (important) goal for women in news.
And finally, a closer so awful that many of us present (including WAN-IFRA employees we’ve spoken with) were in shock. At the end of the dinner, João Palmeiro, the head of the Portuguese press association, persuaded a group of women who organized the conference to join him on stage, before asking one of them to tie tablecloths around the necks of the others, saying he was giving them wings: “They are my angels and I don’t know if I am prepared to share them with you.” Palmeiro (a former WAN-IFRA Board member) continued, calling himself ‘Charlie’ and declaring: “In the name of all of you, I am going to kiss Christin!” WAN-IFRA’s senior project manager Christin Herger was one of a number of employees on stage. You can watch the cringe-inducing video here.
The audience applauded. And gasped. Herger visibly bristled and withdrew from Palmeiro’s forced kiss, but he was undeterred. “She’s shy, please, please, and I hope you, Portuguese girl, are not so shy,” he said before grabbing the Portuguese WAN-IFRA employee Maria Belem and kissing her instead, despite her obvious discomfort.
As he exited the stage, Palmeiro thanked the line-up of women and called them his “dream team,” making much of the fact they were all women. Ironically, a new WAN-IFRA handbook on combating sexual harassment in the media was launched during the conference.
Maria Belem, one of the women on whom Palmeiro had imposed himself, posted this message on the official conference app after the event: “We are not angels, and we do not work for Charlie. We are professionals working for press freedom and towards a healthy media ecosystem.”
When “platforming” sexual harassment triggers change
Here’s the good news: despite the (at times) overt sexism and sexual harassment on display during the World News Congress, the events appeared to trigger a chain reaction that has deepened WAN-IFRA’s commitment to reforms and delivered a chance for much-needed reflection within the industry as a whole.
When social media users called out the misogyny in Estoril, it became a #metoo moment for journalism events. In response to expressions of outrage — both on and offline — WAN-IFRA publicly apologized, openly reflected on the incidents, issued a statement of condemnation via the World Editors Forum, and announced the promotion of women on its board.
Michael Golden, the chair of WAN-IFRA’s board and former vice chairman of The New York Times, appeared on stage the morning after the gala dinner to address the crisis:
“Last night what happened on the stage…with João Palmeiro calling up the staff was inappropriate. He imposed himself on our staff — on Christin Herger, on Maria Belem — in a way that made them uncomfortable and that made many people uncomfortable. I am here to say that that was not appropriate. I am here to apologize to our staff for what happened last night and to say that we recognize the extraordinary work they have done and that they did not deserve to be put in that situation.”
Palmeiro stepped up to the stage next, saying sorry “from the bottom of my heart.” But that apology seems hollow when viewed in the context of an interview he gave later that day to journalist Yusuf Omar. Echoing sentiments that had been hinted at by WAN-IFRA executives, Palmeiro blamed his behavior on Portuguese culture, claiming that such conduct was “absolutely OK” and “normal” in Portugal.
That was not a view shared by Portuguese women, including those on the stage. “I felt humiliated as a professional, as a woman, and as a Portuguese person. It was not cultural,” one told us.
In the aftermath, WAN-IFRA drew attention to the new appointment of South African editor Lisa MacLeod as the vice president of its board (which represents many of the world’s biggest news brands) – the first woman in the organization’s 70-year history to hold the position. The day before the gala dinner, two new women were voted onto the board and four promoted to the board’s executive committee. Though this is progress, WAN-IFRA remains heavily male-dominated, with women still comprising just 14 percent of board members. (The World Editors Forum board has achieved 35 percent female representation.) Indeed, WAN-IFRA CEO Vincent Peyregne acknowledged this by saying, “We have a lot more to achieve in the coming months.”
#TimesUp for newsrooms, publishers and event organizers worldwide
The Palmeiro incident didn’t happen in isolation. It followed a sexist trajectory deeply rooted in stigmas that marginalize women across all news organizations (and throughout society).
Though many can point proudly to diversity goals displayed on corporate websites, and the injection of influential female voices into content and conference programs, women in the media continue to be under-represented in bylines, behind editors’ desks, and in board rooms. They’re also often paid less than their male counterparts.
Our industry has a responsibility to lead on gender equality in, and through, the media. Broader social change depends upon it.
And we, members of the international journalism community, are not prepared to sit through another “manel,” support organizations that disingenuously claim credit for gender equality initiatives, or stay silent when female colleagues are sexually harassed before our eyes.
We are done pandering to the egos of change-resistant influential men in the hope that our gentle lead will eventually encourage them to join us on a meander toward gender equality in the news business. Time is well and truly up.
14 principles of gender equality for the news industry
Here are 14 principles and recommendations for the global news publishing community to use when auditing their efforts on gender equality, and on diversity more broadly. Some of them were inspired by WAN-IFRA’s pioneering Women In News Summit.
- Insist on gender equality in and through the media. Globally, women represent well under 30 percent of leadership positions in newsrooms, making the narrative of most publications skewed to the male perspective. Recent studies also show that mainstream newspaper journalists and commentators are dominated by men talking about what other men are doing. This imbalance is directly reflected in content, and in curation of panels and moderators at events throughout the news industry. It’s 2018 — push back and make sure you/your organization are not contributing to the problem. Bloomberg News’ recipe for embedding gender equality is a useful guide, as is this initiative from the Financial Times.
- Use data to drive inclusive representation on panels, in leadership, and on stage. “If you can’t count it, you can’t change it.” This great point from Joanne Lipman is an important starting place. Most organizations feel that gender inequality is not their problem. But taking the time to map and measure is the only way to be sure. Track the gender of bylined authors, sources, speakers, and editors to see how balanced your teams and content really are. Simply counting can lead to change. (Read about/listen to Lipman’s approach to leveraging data in the cause. Check out the BBC’s 50:50 gender balance challenge created by Ros Atkins, and see the toolkit produced by Gender Avenger) Consider sharing these metrics so you can be held accountable, in a spirit of transparency that should also help build trust in your organization.
- Call out sexual harassment and tackle it head on (on and offline). “I deeply believe we need an overall code of conduct for men to learn how not to treat women in professional settings. There is a lot to learn,” Mariana Santos, founder of ChicasPoderosas has said. News organizations need detailed policies that deal decisively with harassment both on and offline. See Press Forward’s resources and read Julie Posetti’s 11-step guide to managing online harassment in newsrooms.
- Don’t ghettoize gender equality initiatives. Schedule and feature content designed to empower women sources, journalists, and editors on the main program, center stage, and on the front page. This is vital if the issues are to be taken seriously, and to ensure male participants are also educated and motivated to embrace change and collaborate on gender equality initiatives. “To relegate issues about women is double-binding —because it makes it a ghetto,” says Catarina Carvalho, editor-in-chief of Portugal’s Global Media Group.
- Conference organizers: create opportunities for women’s active participation. Consider sponsoring female speakers and moderators, who may have less economic power than their male counterparts. And what about sponsoring childcare to accommodate female professionals with primary care responsibilities for young children? (See also Hannah Storm’s 13 suggestions for a more inclusive conference.)
- Insist that your partner organizations and contracted contributors abide by principles of gender equality. Ensure that all conference partners, sponsors, moderators and speakers are aware of, have access to, and abide by organizational policies and codes of conduct on sexual harassment and gender equality to avoid a repeat of the Estoril incidents. WAN-IFRA has a policy in development — could it become a model for the industry?
- Sponsors: Consider using the funding stick to enforce gender equality standards. Sponsors of journalism and media conferences and events should make funding contingent upon gender balance in the content, or should directly fund female speakers and moderators. Audit content thoroughly after events and publication, and consider withholding funding if equality is not achieved as promised. Facebook, Google, Twitter — we’re looking at you (along with an array of Northern European media development funds and intergovernmental organizations). Alternatively, perhaps consider the carrot of a funding bonus for success.
- Share the platform. If your event must include speakers or panels from partner organizations or sponsors, insist they nominate a woman/women with expertise. And if you’re a male executive asked to represent your organization as a speaker, consider nominating a more junior woman to take your place. Experience grows from opportunity.
- Mind conversation culture. Male dominance on panels and in meetings, interruption of women who are speaking, or explaining to women things they are perfectly aware of (“mansplaining”) are common ways that women’s voices are silenced in work environments. Making your team sensitive to this and measuring contributions with simple apps can help foster an environment where women can thrive.
- Edit bias out of your hiring and selection processes. The human brain is designed to use bias to navigate complex reality. It is not, however, designed to create equitable hiring and panelist selection procedures. We have to design programs and mechanisms to correct for bias by hand. For help, see Iris Bohnet’s recommendations on designing a bias-free organization.
- Sponsorship from the top: Achieving balance can’t happen as a grassroots initiative. Without buy-in from the top, gender initiatives will pop up and peter out. Men sponsoring talented women for promotion is one of the best ways to set an example for management and build diversity into leadership. Adam Grant has some great advice on how to do this if men in your organization are nervous about mentoring and sponsoring women in the post-Weinstein world.
- To pay equally, negotiate differently. Orit Kopel, CEO of the Jimmy Wales Foundation and co-founder of WikiTribune, says that the responsibility for equal pay rests with the employer, not the employee. To pay women equally, don’t abuse women’s tendency to undervalue their contribution. Give raises to those who deserve them, rather than to those who demand them.
- Let women pull back and lean in when ready. Just because a woman refuses promotion when she wants to focus more on her family doesn’t mean she will never want to put her career in high gear again. Many women choose to focus on their children when they are small. Once kids reach a certain level of independence, their parents’ capacity to “lean in” tends to rebound in a big way. So, if a star player refuses once, keep trying.
- Apply all of the above in reference to diversity more broadly. This includes race, class, and sexual orientation.
If you’d like to add your name to the list of signatories below — regardless of your gender — please do so here.
Hannah Storm is director of the International News Safety Institute and a freelance gender and media consultant working with organizations including the UN. She is editor and co-author of “No woman’s land: On the frontlines with female journalists” and co-wrote “Violence and harassment against women in the news media” with the International Women’s Media Foundation. Before joining INSI, she worked as a staff and freelance journalist for the BBC, ITN, The Times, and Reuters.
Julie Posetti is senior research fellow at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University, where she leads the Journalism Innovation Project. An award-winning journalist and media academic, she is author of UNESCO’s “Protecting journalism sources in the digital age” and and co-editor of “Journalism, ‘fake news’ and disinformation” (forthcoming). A former research fellow and editor with WAN-IFRA/World Editors Forum, she’s been a reporter and editor with the ABC and headed up digital editorial capability at Fairfax Media.
Zuzanna Ziomecka is editor-in-chief of NewsMavens, a pan-European collaborative round-up and current affairs magazine created exclusively by professional newswomen. The project is funded by’s Google DNI fund and Gazeta Wyborcza in Poland, and aims to answer the question: What will happen if only women choose the news?
Joyce Barnathan is president of the International Center for Journalists, a nonprofit dedicated to advancing quality journalism worldwide. She helps to develop a wide variety of programs at the nexus of quality journalism and technology. Previously, she served as BusinessWeek’s executive editor and Asia regional editor-in-chief in Hong Kong. She also worked for Newsweek in Moscow, Washington, and New York.
Ritu Kapur is the CEO and cofounder of Quintillion Media, which publishes The Quint in India. She is a board member of the World Editors Forum and is on the advisory board of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.
Orit Kopel is cofounder of WikiTribune, a wiki-based news platform. With a background as a qualified human rights lawyer, Kopel is CEO of the Jimmy Wales Foundation for Freedom of Expression, advocating for bloggers and social media users who are persecuted for speaking out online
Yusuf Omar is an award-winning mobile journalist and co-founder of Hashtag Our Stories, which empowers mobile video storytelling communities around the world. He has worked at CNN and as mobile editor at the Hindustan Times where he empowered 750 journalists to tell stories using mobile phones.
Raju Narisetti is an editor and media executive. He has served as CEO of Gizmodo Media Group, SVP strategy for News Corporation, and managing editor for The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post.
Mariana Santos is the founder and CEO of ChicasPoderosas, a nonprofit organization that seeks to empower women journalists in digital media and leadership. She has been an ICFJ Knight Fellow and a JSK Fellow at Stanford and helped create the Guardian’s first interactive team.
Catarina Carvalho is the executive editor-in-chief of Diário de Notícias, the oldest paper in Portugal.
Statement from Vincent Peyregne, president of WAN-IFRA:
As you certainly already know, WAN-IFRA is committed to gender equality in our policies, our management, our programs and our board and have publically set unequivocal targets to support these goals by the close of 2020 in a Strategic Plan for Diversity and Inclusion adopted in December 2017. This has begun in concrete terms when it comes to our governing bodies: Earlier this month, Lisa MacLeod was elected vice president, signaling the first time a woman has been named to the presidency. Lisa MacLeod, Karin Pettersson (Sweden), Tove Nedreberg (Norway), Fatemah Farag (Egypt), Stoyana Georgieva (Bulgaria) were also appointed to the WAN-IFRA Board and Executive Committee. Rameeza Nizami, editor in chief and publisher of Nawa-i-Waqt in Pakistan was appointed to the World Editors Forum Board. This is a first step in the right direction to meet our diversity targets.
Inappropriate incidents on stage in Portugal have been addressed by WAN-IFRA in many forums including at the conference, on social media, on our website and with our staff. They are contrary to our values and are unacceptable.
We will continue to use our position to push for change from within the industry through our initiatives such as Women in News, calling out unacceptable behaviour, and creating forums for the media industry to examine how we as an industry can improve gender balance in our boardrooms, newsrooms and in the content we produce. We will also continue to examine our own record, and not be afraid to admit when we can do better.
The events in Portugal gave us cause to think about how we make future events stronger, increase our commitment to champion diversity across our programs, and speed up the implementation of our internal action plan. This is a movement that requires initiatives from multiple fronts, including internally, and we will do our part to support, and where possible, amplify the voices of those in the industry driving and promoting change.
Statement from João Palmeiro, head of the Portuguese Press Association:
There is an issue I have difficulty with. You link the action of one person, in a less fortunate moment and outside the sphere of discussions of the event, to news organizations in general and WAN-IFRA in particular.
I suspect that you are unaware of my activities on behalf of causes namely equality of gender, race or sexual orientation, which would show very clearly that what happened at the dinner was, as far as my actions intended, a sad moment of less attention by one person and not an affirmation of ideological, or disrespectful gender behavior of an organization or a sector of activity.
At least in Europe and in Portugal.
Apimprensa promoted during the Congress in Estoril a seminar on gender situation in the Portuguese newsrooms as an affirmation of our concern on this issue.
Therefore there is nothing specific that I could add to the sincere apologies that I presented.
Photo Credit: Mihai Surdu on Unsplash