Is it sexual harassment or misconduct?

by John Daniszewski, vice president for standards on Nov. 21, 2017

With the raft of accusations of sexual misconduct by powerful men showing no signs of abating, here are some guidelines that may prove useful.

“Sexual harassment” has a particular legal meaning. It is, per Webster’s New World College Dictionary, “inappropriate, unwelcome, and, typically, persistent behavior, as by an employer or co-worker, that is sexual in nature, specifically when actionable under federal or state statutes.”

While that definition is broad, encompassing many kinds of misbehavior, the word “harassment” is too mild to describe some of the activities that have been alleged in recent weeks. Beyond mere harassment, these have ranged to allegations of assault, serious abuse, pedophilia and even rape.

In our individual stories, we should be as specific as possible in describing the kinds of behavior that is being alleged or admitted — such as groping, unwanted kissing, disrobing, or verbal or physical abuse or assault.
 
In slugs and headlines, we have decided to adopt the generalized description “sexual misconduct,” rather than “sexual harassment,” because it encompasses a broader range of sexual misbehavior and does not run the risk of diminishing some of the alleged acts. 
 
One other point: 

In this moment, many accusations are being put forth of misconduct by powerful or well-known people in entertainment, media, politics and other professions. While there is clearly news interest, we must not abandon our standards of fairness. Accusations should be well-documented and corroborated in some way before we report on them, including an effort to get comment from the accused individuals or their representatives. 
 
Granting anonymity to accusers should follow AP’s strict guidelines on the use of anonymity. 
 

Participants march against sexual assault and harassment at the #MeToo March in the Hollywood section of Los Angeles, Nov. 12, 2017. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

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