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Why the Harvey Weinstein story became such a major news event

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Once The New York Times and, later, The New Yorker published blockbuster stories revealing multiple allegations of sexual harassment and assault against film producer Harvey Weinstein, it was as if a dam had broken.

There was soon an outpouring of stories, not just from women who said Weinstein had harassed or assaulted them, but also from women and men who recounted experiences of sexual assault from a number of predatory men in Hollywood. The controversy soon became a week-long news event, as women accused Ben Affleck and Steven Seagal of sexual assault and harassment.

Why did all of these stories suddenly come out now?

As Rebecca Traister wrote in New York Magazine, Weinstein’s career is no longer at its peak so he has less power than he did years ago, which may help his alleged victims feel safer coming forward.

But there are other reasons that these stories have resulted in a week-long news event, rather than a blip on the radar of a busy news cycle that also includes the president’s incendiary tweets and the latest natural disasters, according to media experts and critics. The changing nature of social media and the expectations it puts on celebrities to respond to scandals, as well as the decision from two high-profile newsrooms to make sexual harassment stories a priority, helped the story get out and helped keep it in the news for days.

Social media helped keep the story alive

To be sure, social media is not empowering for everyone, especially those who are not verified on Twitter, according to Jennifer Grygiel, an assistant professor in communications for Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Public Communications whose career has focused on social media and social justice.

But Grygiel, who uses the pronoun “they,” said that despite the limitations of social media, these platforms have still facilitated a helpful feedback loop. Once allegations come out, more allegations often follow — and an increased number of people talking about these allegations helps them get taken more seriously.

For instance, Shanice Brim, a writer, tweeted this week that Ben Affleck groped Hilarie Burton when she was on the MTV show TRL with him many years ago. Burton saw the tweet and responded to confirm that this alleged assault made her feel uncomfortable — which led far more people to talk about it. Soon other women were also discussing their experiences with Affleck.

Although someone with just a few followers may not seem influential, social media users know that collectively, their retweets and shares are meaningful and use them as Reddit users use up votes and down votes. That makes them difficult for publicists to ignore, Gyrgiel said.

“When a large amount of readers in the public engage, even by just liking the post or sharing it, these things can be measured. And they will make it back to a publicist who works with someone who may have worked with Harvey Weinstein,” they said. “It will be a barometer for how engaged and interested and concerned, in this case, the public is around this issue.”

When sexual assault survivors see intense interest from the public in speaking out against sexual violence, that in turn provides a support network for survivors who haven’t spoken up yet and want to, Gyrgiel said.

“They do provide an outlet for people who are victims to reach the public in ways that might not have been possible before to tell their story without a filter.”

Makana Chock, an assistant professor in media studies at the Newhouse School of Communications at Syracuse University, agreed that despite the social media harms often done to women who speak out publicly about sexual violence — such as getting trolled and threatened via platforms that don’t protect them from abuse — these platforms can be useful because they don’t have as many gatekeepers.

“They do provide an outlet for people who are victims to reach the public in ways that might not have been possible before to tell their story without a filter,” Chock said.

Actress Rose McGowan’s tweets accusing Weinstein of raping her — and accusing those around him of excusing his behavior — are a good example of both the upsides and downsides of Twitter for sexual assault survivors. As a famous person, McGowan had a platform to bring abuses of power in Hollywood to light, and she succeeded in many ways. But then Twitter locked her account. Twitter announced later that the account was temporarily locked because one of McGowan’s tweet included a private phone number. But some journalists and activists pointed out that its decision was inconsistent, since right-wing harassers on Twitter have often threatened people with violence without consequence. McGowan’s account is now active again, however, and she is continuing to name people she says were complicit in her alleged assault and tweet at actors such as Ryan Gosling asking what they plan to do to prevent sexual harassment in the industry.

Grygiel added that the rapid turnaround on social media that is required for today’s news cycle has helped fuel the story and kept the conversation going. Once someone is accused of being too close to Weinstein or of engaging in the same behavior as Weinstein, they have to respond quickly.

“You need to monitor and be aware of your online reputation now. So if you were named in a story, the news cycle moved much faster and it’s something we all have to deal with now,” Gygiel said. “If you’re going to respond, and people feel they need to respond, the response time is much shorter than it used to be.”

“If you’re going to respond, and people feel they need to respond, the response time is much shorter than it used to be.”

For example, in the wake of the Weinstein scandal, a 2011 video of Jason Momoa joking about how he could “rape beautiful women” as his character on Game of Thrones resurfaced on social media; within just a few hours, he responded with an apology for his comment.

Feminista Jones, a mental health social worker, feminist writer, and community activist, said the ability to confront people about their actions in real time on social media has changed the conversation on sexual harassment in crucial ways.

“When you look at how people are talking about Ben Affleck and all these other men, they are speaking directly to them and they are being held accountable in ways they weren’t when Anita Hill was going up against Clarence Thomas,” Jones said. “If we had social media back then, I think the entire thing would have gone totally different.”

There’s more coverage of these stories

It took a very long time for these stories to make it to the public. Weinstein had a powerful team of lawyers and public relations people behind him, which may have worked to intimidate news outlets from pursuing stories in the past, as well as to keep women from speaking to those outlets. Historically this has not been uncommon for stories in this area. Jones herself said that she kept Bill Cosby out of a 2013 Salon story about how society’s reaction to sexual assault allegations can be affected by the race of the perpetrator out of fear of the potential consequences.

But media attention on these issues has increased in recent years. When Cosby rape allegations eventually resurfaced a few years ago, and accusations against President Donald Trump multiplied last year, those news events created an environment where more women felt comfortable speaking out.

As these allegations multiply, Chock, whose research includes media psychology, said she has noticed some better coverage of the issue. For instance, she noticed fewer journalists asking why some of the women who said they were harassed by Weinstein still socialized with him or didn’t speak up sooner, compared to discussions of past stories of harassment.

“I have not seen quite so much of that pushing the responsibility of pushing the crime onto the victim.”

“I think more people are aware of why women felt unable to come forward, and so I have not seen quite so much of that pushing the responsibility of pushing the crime onto the victim,” said Chock. “A lot of male journalists and female journalists have now gotten the answers and they’re less likely to ask the question again and again and again.”

It also helps that major outlets the The New York Times and The New Yorker are now deciding to pursue these stories. Jodi Kantor, one of the reporters who broke the Weinstein story for the Times, told Slate in an interview this week that some sources agreed to speak with her because of Times’ strong reporting on sexual harassment in Silicon Valley and at Fox News. The Times made the story a priority and its past attention to sexual harassment made victims feel more comfortable coming forward.

The gender of reporters pursuing these stories can play a role, too.

“A couple of sources said they spoke to us because we are women reporters with a long history of reporting on women. There were sources who had never spoken to any other journalist who said things like, ‘Every other journalist who has approached me is a man and I want to speak to a woman about this,’” Kantor told Slate.

But the media still has a long way to go

We’ve come a long way from using the term “bimbo eruptions” for sexual assault and harassment accusations. But there’s still a long way to go.

This week, journalists penned opinion pieces suggesting that drinking and mixing leisure and workplace activities were responsible for sexual harassment. And women in the media were criticized by other journalists for creating a document to protect themselves from workplace harassers in the extremely rare event that a man who has verbally harassed a woman would “never work again.”

While it’s great to see outlets like the Times prioritize these issues, media experts say more publications need to do that if they hope to publish stories that break major news on sexual harassment and violence in the future. And that’s partly about ensuring the journalism industry is more diverse.

Newsroom leadership is still overwhelmingly male, Chock said. This gender imbalance affects which stories are prioritized. As a result, sexual assault and sexual harassment, which affects everyone but is done primarily to people on the feminine spectrum, may not receive the attention it deserves.

“Imagine if you saw this every day when you opened up the New York Times, you saw a story like this. It would make you want to act.”

Women made up 39.1 percent of newsroom employees in 2017. The percentage has barely budged since 2001, when it was 37.35 percent. Of newsroom leaders, 38.9 percent were women.

It’s not shock then, that most bylines on stories about sexual assault belong to men, at 55 percent versus 31 percent for women, according to a a 2015 Women’s Media Center report. Male journalists used fewer female sources and just 10 percent of men quoted in these stories on sexual assault talked about the effect of the alleged crime on the victim, while 22 percent of female sources did. Male journalists also used quotes about impact on the perpetrator slightly more often than their female peers.

Jones said people are often surprised by the information on her blog, which tracks stories she’s seen of women, many of them women of color, who were killed by their male partners over the years. Because these stories rarely make it to the front page of a major newspaper, people are shocked to learn how common it is.

“I say, ‘Imagine if you saw this every day when you opened up the New York Times, you saw a story like this. It would make you want to act,” Jones said. “Media shapes our narrative. Media tells us what to think about, how to think about it, how to prioritize it. All of these things shape our collective consciousness, so if media is proactive and prioritizes these kinds of stories, we would see a major societal shift that forces us to consider it.”

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