When an Instagram photo of ABC’s Good Morning America anchor Lara Spencer hugging Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump started circulating around the Internet on Tuesday, the big question was: Is she sitting on his lap?
But while that level of contact—which Spencer adamantly denies—would be egregiously unprofessional, the reality is that it doesn’t really matter whether she was sitting or standing. Just the fact that they look disturbingly cozy is enough: The damage is done.
Concerns about Trump’s views of women aside—and I have plenty of them—seeing a female journalist wrapped around the candidate in this way reinforces the public’s worst stereotypes about women in the profession.
As Aly Colon, Knight Professor of Media Ethics at Washington and Lee University, told the AP, the photo “gives the impression that these people are close to each other in some way … to maintain credibility, it’s important for journalists to keep a certain distance from people they cover.”
For women, though, it goes beyond credibility and impartiality. Like it or not, there’s a public perception that female journalists get stories by virtue of their looks, though flirting, and, yes, by having sex with their subjects.
You see this trope in Hollywood all the time. The Wall Street Journal was kind enough to put together a full post on “a Brief History of Journalists Who Sleep With Their Subjects in Film.” On the list: Amy Schumer’s character in Trainwreck, Rosario Dawson in Top Five, Katie Holmes in Thank You For Smoking. The paper identifies 11 in total. And as you may have guessed, all these fictional reporters are women.
I’m not naive enough to say this never happens in real life. I’m sure it does—and I doubt male journalists are entirely innocent of the practice. But for women, it’s not just about the belittlement and the idea that she has “to sleep with a guy in order to get her story,” as Betsy West, a former ABC news producer and journalism instructor at Columbia University, put it when speaking to the Journal. The issue also affects our ability to do our jobs and the mental calculus we must do every time we interact with a male source.
As Marin Cogan once chronicled for The New Republic, female journalists often receive unwanted attention from the men they interview—in part, no doubt, because of this perception that reporters are open to getting romantic with sources. That would be a nightmare for any woman in a professional setting, but it’s particularly tricky for journalists, who want to keep their sources’ trust and need the information these men can provide to succeed at work.
So, please, Spencer: Do us all a favor—try a handshake next time.