The Washington Post on Monday reversed a policy preventing a reporter from covering sexual misconduct issues that she said was imposed because of her outspokenness over being a victim of sexual assault.
After Felicia Sonmez went public on Twitter over the weekend with her criticism of this policy, The Post’s top editors said she is now free again to write stories about people accused of such misconduct.
The issue involving Sonmez revolved around potential conflicts of interest, which have been complicated in the era of social media by journalists sometimes offering public comments about the topics they cover. But it was also colored by Sonmez’s tweets detailing her conflicts with and criticism of Post editors, and by the persistent harassment and trolling she received online when she posted about her experience.
Sonmez, a politics breaking-news reporter, has been open about being a survivor of sexual assault. She has posted threads about her experience and its aftermath, making her a target of online abuse as a result.
The issue first came up at The Post during Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh’s contentious nomination hearings in 2018. Given her public profile on sexual assault, Post editors told Sonmez that she couldn’t cover Kavanaugh, who was accused of assault, or stories surrounding the #MeToo movement.
Mainstream news organizations typically discourage their journalists from personal involvement in the subjects they cover or at least in expressing direct opinions about them in public forums, regarding both as compromising to fairness in reporting.
But it’s unusual, if not unheard of, for a reporter to be banned from writing about a subject with which she is personally familiar or which involves the reporter’s background. News organizations usually value such experiences in that they may offer readers or viewers special insight or perspective.
The issue involving Sonmez flared anew in January 2020 after basketball star Kobe Bryant, his daughter and seven other people were killed in a helicopter accident. Just a few hours after the news broke, Sonmez tweeted a link to a 2016 Daily Beast article detailing rape allegations against Bryant in 2003. Her tweet generated a negative backlash online, including death threats against her. Then-Post executive editor Martin Baron briefly put Sonmez on paid administrative leave, saying her tweets “displayed poor judgment that undermined the work of her colleagues.” The Post provided security, though, and covered the cost of the hotel room she moved into when her address was posted online.
Her temporary leave ended after more than 300 Post staffers signed a letter in support of Sonmez.
The policy keeping Sonmez off sexual-misconduct stories was intermittently enforced, but it kept her from covering several high-profile stories, including recent misconduct allegations against New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) and former Missouri governor Eric Greitens (R).
Last May, she sent an email to her editors protesting the ban, saying it was “humiliating to again and again have to tell my colleagues and editors that I am not allowed to do my job fully because I was assaulted. I believe it’s important for you to know that The Post’s decision on this matter has had negative repercussions for me personally in the past. . . . It’s the tortured explanations I have to give whenever there is breaking news on this topic and I’m not allowed to cover it.”
The issue came up again earlier this month during a newsroom-wide discussion via Zoom on social media. The impetus for the meeting was the sexist and racist online harassment of a Post reporter, Seung Min Kim, several days earlier. Panelists noted that national editor Steven Ginsberg had issued a statement in support of Kim, holding him up as a model of newsroom leadership.
The characterization offended Sonmez, who wrote during the meeting in Zoom’s chat function, “I wish editors had publicly supported me in the same way when I was being harassed rather than suspending me.” She also took her criticism to Twitter, tagging Ginsberg in a thread in which she wrote that the ban on her covering sexual violence had “led to a recurrence of the debilitating symptoms” that followed after she reported her assault.
On Monday, The Post backed off, ending the reporting restriction on Sonmez.
“Following a newsroom discussion two weeks ago, editors began re-evaluating limitations on the scope of Felicia’s work as a breaking-news reporter,” Post spokeswoman Kris Coratti said in a statement. “They have concluded such limitations are unnecessary.”
Coratti declined to say which editors made the decision or why. Ginsberg referred questions to Coratti, as did managing editor Cameron Barr, who succeeded Baron on an interim basis after Baron’s retirement last month. Coratti declined to elaborate.
Barr and Ginsberg are among several candidates who are vying to become Baron’s successor.
Sonmez, in an interview, said she received no apology or explanation from her editors with the news of the change of policy on Monday. She said she felt no “joy” in learning the news and intended to take some time off to recover and reassess her situation. “Every conversation with [the editors] has been traumatizing,” she said. “I don’t feel supported.”
The Newspaper Guild, which represents Post employees, hailed The Post’s change of heart in a statement. “We’re glad to see The Post reverse its harmful stance and allow our colleague Felicia Sonmez to do her job,” it said. “But this decision came only after much public criticism and at the expense of Felicia’s mental health. The Post must do better. The company still has much work to do to rebuild trust — internally and externally — and cultivate an inclusive workplace for all.”