Early in my career I trekked out to the Washington DC suburbs to interview refugee families for a story. By the time I was done it was 7pm and snowing. A coordinator from a local advocacy group offered to drive me back into the city since the trains had stopped running.
As we drove he started to remark on my appearance and asked if I had a boyfriend. I dodged each question, moving back to the story. But at one point he reached across the car at a red light to touch my shoulder. It was just for a moment, but my heart raced. I started to figure out how I might unlock the passenger door, wondering if I should jump out. Instead, I waited until we crossed into the city to quickly get out of the car, insisting that I could walk home.
Years later, that moment remains the first but also one of the more innocuous threats to my safety while reporting as a woman, and a woman of color. Whether in West Virginia, New York or New Delhi, thinking of how to protect myself throughout the reporting process has become a critical part of working on a story. And I’m not alone – most women who work in this industry analyze their text messages to make sure they’re not misconstrued, and carefully choose the clothes they wear to interviews, the type of transport they use and where they stay when reporting.
In a 2018 study by the International Women’s Media Foundation and Trollbusters, 58% of female journalists surveyed had been threatened or harassed in person, and 28% had been attacked. So when a movie like Richard Jewell arrives and perpetuates the tired and disingenuous trope of a woman sleeping with her source, it only serves to make our lives more difficult.
Richard Jewell is Clint Eastwood’s new film adapting the true story of a security guard wrongly accused of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics bombing. But the film’s dubious depiction of history has created a new victim: Kathy Scruggs, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter who broke the story that Jewell was under investigation. Actor Olivia Wilde portrays Scruggs as a seductive femme fatale prone to reckless reporting and poor writing skills.
In a particularly unsettling scene Wilde is at a bar, attempting to lure an FBI agent played by Jon Hamm (a fictionalized composite of multiple real-life FBI agents) into giving her the name of the suspect he’s investigating. “If you can’t fuck it out of [the other police] why do you think you can fuck it out of me?” Hamm says to her, before giving her the name of the suspect. “You want to get a room or just go to my car?” Wilde-as-Scruggs responds.
This scene never happened. Scruggs was indeed a controversial figure in the newsroom – in the nonfiction book that served as source material for the movie, Kent Alexander and Kevin Salwen describe Scruggs as a loud, dogged reporter who wore low-cut shirts – but there is no evidence she slept with any of her sources. In fact, she already knew Jewell’s name when she approached an FBI agent in a bar to confirm this piece of information.
The unverified scene only serves to join the ranks of other on-screen female journalists seducing their sources. There’s Zoe Barnes in Netflix’s House of Cards, Camille Preaker in HBO’s Sharp Objects, and even Rory Gilmore, in Gilmore Girls, as Sophie Gilbert pointed out in the Atlantic. The fiction is spread further by people like Jesse Watters, a Fox News host, who, in a recent segment, claimed that female reporters sleep with sources “all the time”.
Imagine the impact this narrative has on women attempting to carry out the basic requirements of their job. As a colleague of mine pointed out, the trope only exacerbates the fact that women reporters “have to worry about looking credible just in case someone else might sexualize us”. She finds herself deciding whether to wear makeup or choosing whether or not to meet a source at a certain time or place. That can mean losing a tip or a story to avoid any grey area.
Another editor at the Guardian told me she had built a good rapport with a source while planning a story. But when she met him in person he started slipping in comments about her appearance into the conversation. He also ostensibly forgot to tell her that to observe his job operating machinery it would require her to share a tight physical space with him. She ended up watching from afar.
There are the daily negotiations of being a female journalist and then there are the more extreme threats: the horrific sexual assault that reporter Lara Logan endured while covering protests in Egypt; the sexual assault and murder of Kim Wall by a source; or the number of Chinese journalists who say they have been forced into sex. And this is not, as films suggest, happening in secrecy. Even being filmed and on-air with a camera crew does not protect journalists trying to do their jobs: several World Cup reporters have been harassed on screen, and a reporter in Georgia was groped last week while covering a race.
Years after my first stressful encounter in DC I was interviewing someone in the tech industry for a story. I had spent years protecting myself on the job – once breaking my toe while physically running away from someone trying to harass me. In this case, I thought I was perfectly safe. Then he reached down and kissed me on the cheek. Maybe it was a friendly kiss, I thought; maybe he thought it completely innocuous.
Whatever it was, it was a reminder that no matter how professional I was, I would still spend much of my energy being reminded that I was a woman in journalism. And the creators of movies like Richard Jewell would never understand why their sloppy storyline made that even harder.