WARSAW, POLAND– It isn’t often that you get to watch the straw break the camel’s back. But that’s exactly what happened at a recent news congress where incidents of disrespect towards women culminated in sexual harassment on stage, in front of hundreds of media execs from around the world. A group of people from a wide range of backgrounds and all corners of the globe couldn’t get the image out of their minds even after apologies were made.
So instead of coming to terms with it, we wrote a call to action for the news industry to commit to creating real gender balance in the media. The letter was published on multiple media platforms and continues to be translated and published in a growing number of countries. I was one of the collaborating editors because this is exactly why Newsmavens was created in the first place – to even out the gender scales in the news industry by elevating women’s voices. If we don’t start taking the lead on changing the media, no one will. Here is our edited open letter to those in the media business who need to take a sober and stark look at their newsrooms:
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 have 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 this year’s WAN-IFRA 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.
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.
However, the summit was relegated to pre-conference programing — 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 speak for 90 minutes before the prestigious Golden Pen of Freedom was eventually awarded to Maria Ressa. The award bestowed on Ms. 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 Ms. 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. 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 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. 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.” Mr. 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.
The audience applauded. And gasped. Ms. Herger visibly bristled and withdrew from Mr. 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, Mr. 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.
Despite all of this, 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 Mr. Estoril, it soon 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.
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) – and who is 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. (Indeed, WAN-IFRA CEO Vincent Peyregne acknowledged this by saying, “We have a lot more to achieve in the coming months.” Since the WAN-IFRA conference, we have since come up with 14 principles of gender equality for the news industry. #TimesUp for newsrooms, publishers and event organizers worldwide.
Zuzanna Ziomecka is an American-educated, Polish-based media maker professionally involved in print, television and internet projects. She works for Poland’s largest liberal daily “Gazeta Wyborcza” where she is responsible for digital innovations for their women’s brand “Wysokie Obcasy” and is Editor-in-Chief of NewsMavens.com – a news round-up curated exclusively by women from European news organisations.
Photos: 1) Newsroom courtesy Shuttershock; 2) Zuzanna Ziomecka, courtesy of Ms. Ziomecka