New York Times journalist Katie Benner discusses the challenges of reporting on sexual assault allegations.
This story is part of a series co-produced by J-Source and the Canadian Association of Journalists, and will appear on both websites.
When Katie Benner arrived at the New York Times’ San Francisco Bureau in July 2015 to cover tech startups and venture capital in the Silicon Valley, she didn’t expect to get the ball rolling on one of the biggest stories of 2018: the #MeToo movement.
At the 2018 Canadian Association of Journalists conference in May, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist described Silicon Valley as extremely seductive, filled with geniuses and millionaires who throw lavish parties — and know how to get on the good side of journalists. Although she admits she became quickly enamoured and intrigued by the Valley lifestyle, her access to people also exposed her to rumours of sexual harassment running rampant within the tech industry. As she began to dig deeper, her invitations to private parties and special events began to dwindle.
Benner said she was faced with a monumental conundrum. Should she risk being shut out by some of the best sources in the tech world in order to investigate these rumours only to maybe get a story out or leave it aside for now?
She opted to chase the story.
While putting her trust in victims started a wave of change, it wasn’t a journey without its challenges. One of the biggest problems Benner said she ran into while pursuing this story was finding on-the-record sources.
Many women had stories to tell about being sexually assaulted by colleagues in the Valley, but the vast majority weren’t willing to go on the record.
“The first story featured eight women but I probably spoke to over 50,” said Benner.
Although the #MeToo movement has largely been supported and met with praise for the braveness of the women sharing their stories, every movement has its’ critics. According to former Vancouver Sun journalist Wendy McLellan, people accused journalists of being too quick to believe anyone who comes forward with a claim of being sexually assaulted.
“As reporters, we are interested, excited, energized at the idea of writing about the #MeToo movement because it’s so important and is so meaningful and it matters,” said McLellan. “Perhaps we are too excited and too quick to jump on it. How do we decide on the women’s story?”
Determining credibility can be a tough call, Benner said. She points out that in many cases of sexual harassment, there are no witnesses.
One way to help determine credibility, Benner said, is taking the time to think about each of the accusers personal situations and whether they have any possible agendas to push by alleging sexual harassment.
In the end, Benner said careful research and compassion go a long way to finding and telling stories that have a public impact.
“No one’s going to remember a story where I talk to a venture capitalist about how smart he is — but people are going to remember this story,” Benner said.