WASHINGTON — Action, accountability and training starting at top leadership levels are crucial first steps toward combating sexual harassment and creating safe and fair newsrooms, two former journalists who founded Press Forward said Tuesday. 

Launched in December, Press Forward seeks to elevate the status of women in U.S. media organizations and foster safe work environments by collaborating with various institutions and movements like the Time’s Up legal defense fund, #MeToo and the Poynter Institute to research the state of industry culture and make concrete recommendations for change. 

“This [initiative] is important to ensure the integrity of the press, and getting this right is critical to the future of the news,” Lara Setrakian said. “The press speaks truth to the American people, and until journalists can work in an environment that’s civil and respectful, we really can’t do our jobs and successfully deliver on the most basic of American constitutional values.” 

Carolyn McGourty said that implementing innovative sexual harassment and assault training programs, hosting workplace culture assessments at media outlets around the country and creating a legal defense fund to ensure women have access to legal advice when they face discrimination in the workplace are the initiative’s primary goals for reform in the coming year.  

“We’re really at this watershed moment in time in terms of class and culture change in the media, and by working together we really hope we can press forward,” she said. “This is an all-volunteer core of women distributed across time zones who have one thing in common: they care about the freedom and future of the press.”  

A recent study by the Columbia Journalism Review found that out of the 310 staff journalists and freelancers surveyed, 41 percent said they’d experienced sexual harassment in a newsroom and 28 percent said they’d witnessed another journalist being harassed. In addition, 53 percent said they either didn’t know how to file a report, or were unsure if they would know how to do so, suggesting that media organizations are failing to adequately communicate with their employees. 

“I’m impressed by the passion of what all these brave women had to say,” former ABC Nightline anchor Ted Koppel said, referring to Press Forward’s board of advisors. “I wasn’t aware of this outrage with regards to sexual harassment, and I should’ve been.”

Jake Tapper, chief Washington correspondent for CNN, said that a major hurdle is that many journalists don’t regard human resources departments as there to protect workers, but rather to protect company interests.

“There’s so many brilliant women with whom I work, and the notion that any of them would walk away due to harassment is such a loss for the workforce,” he said. “I heard from individuals in the last few months about their negative experiences in newsrooms, and when they tried to tell someone in managing about their situations were told not to rock the boat. … That’s where Press Forward can step in to change that culture.”