Q&A: Stalking and Moving On

by Katy Mersmann 0 Comments

As women in media, we often face unique threats to our well-being and safety, both in person and online. That’s why we’re hosting Stepping Up Safety: A Panel on Personal Security in the Field and Workplace on October 7. Leading up to the panel, we’ve asked industry professionals to share their stories, advice and personal experiences.260

Lola Alapo works in public relations for a university in the South. Before transitioning to PR, she worked for a newspaper as an education reporter, where she was stalked, harassed and threatened by one of the subjects she covered. She shared her story and the lessons she learned with us.

Can you describe what happened?

At the time, I was the education reporter at the newspaper where I worked. I covered the school board and we had a school board member who was a bad egg. He was arrested for pulling a gun on his wife. I was on vacation when it happened, so a male coworker ended up covering the story first, then I picked up where he left off when I came back from the holidays.

In the beginning, the school board member acted like my male colleague was “just doing his job.” But when I started writing about him, he claimed that I was out to get him and destroy his reputation. When my coworker wrote about it, it wasn’t a big deal. But when I’m writing about it, he all of a sudden thinks I’m out to get him.

We figured out that he was probably a misogynist. He continued to get into trouble regarding his wife. If you’re a public official and you’re arrested for that kind of stuff, you’re going to be in the news. I happened to be the one writing those stories.

The irrational behavior began when he would see me at school board meetings and lash out. He would say things like “You need to leave me alone.” In one meeting, during a break, I’d gone up to talk to the board members about something. When the meeting started again, he said “Let it be publicly known that Lola was rifling through a board member’s media packets,” which I was not. But he was saying awful things about me to my face and in a public meeting.

And then it got worse. One night I was on my way home and a car started to follow me. At first, I thought it might be a drunk driver, but there was something that this driver was doing that made me realize this wasn’t a drunk person. This was somebody who was intentionally following me.

Instead of going home, I went to a fire station near my house and ran inside because I didn’t want the person following me to know where I lived. Because it was around 10:30 at night, I couldn’t see who the driver was, but I knew it was the school board member. It was pretty clear from everything that had happened previously and his reactions to me that he was the person in the car.

I was scared because that was the first time really that I thought, “Wow, my job is dangerous.” Not to be dramatic about it, but realistically, if this man knows where I live and he’s already pulled a gun on his wife, who knows what he’ll try to do to me?

I talked to my neighbors and let them know what happened. When I got to work the next day, I let the bosses know, too. We all kind of agreed that the person who was following me was likely the school board member. Even though we knew it was that guy, I didn’t have proof and we couldn’t file a police report. But we became more vigilant.

When I would leave the office, my editors made sure somebody walked me to my car. I decided that if this guy ever is going to try something, I needed a fighting chance. As a result of that experience, I started taking Tae Kwon Do, which is a Korean martial art. I have to tell you, I now want to thank the guy because I’ve found something that I love. I’ve been doing Tae Kwon Do for about six and a half years. I compete and I love it. I have a great community of friends and am currently a second-degree black belt.

I left the paper four years ago, not because of him but because of a new PR opportunity. He continued to do crazy stuff to the point that whenever he did, my coworkers would text me or email me and say “Hey, your boy’s at it again.” He eventually forgot about me, but he continued to assault his wife. When I was writing about him, he’d been arrested three or four times. Since I left the paper, he’s been arrested more. He kept getting these fourth, fifth, and sixth chances, but the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back was when he assaulted his wife again.

When I started Tae Kwon Do, one of the girls in my class was the daughter of the assistant district attorney. The ADA knew why I wanted to learn Tae Kwon Do and the board member eventually became her case. She made it her mission to prosecute the guy. He kept getting so many chances, but I think he blew one too many of them and they realized he was bad news. The man is now in prison. I think got ten years with probation, so he’ll serve maybe two or three years.

My whole experience with that man made me realize two things. First, that my being a woman did impact my job. The man was okay with my male counterpart was writing about him, but when I started writing, I’m suddenly out to get him.

Second, I realized that this job can actually be dangerous. I also want to put this in perspective. I don’t live in Iraq. I don’t live in Mexico, where reporters are being murdered every day. This isn’t a higher level of widespread media persecution. We’re in America, so we do think we’re safer as journalists here. This was the first time I realized this job could actually be scary.

How did you react to the situation?

I was definitely more vigilant, both then and now. Not that I was scared to go home every day, other than maybe that first week, but I put my neighbors on alert and told them to call the police if they saw anybody suspicious.

I’m on social media. I have a blog. I work for a public university. A lot of what I do is public, but I’m very, very cautious. If I’m out of town, I don’t post it on social media. I’m very sensitive about not using social media to check in places.

I never want anybody to know where I am at any one time. Obviously if it’s a regular day, I’m going to be at work. You can Google me if you really want to know that information. But that’s not the issue. I’m being cautious because so much is public with social media anyway. I’m not going to check in on Facebook to tell you that I’m eating at Panera or whatever. So much of my life is public, which is why I try to maintain some privacy. I think the situation with the school board member made me gun shy about putting so much information into the public realm. And I think being cautious is just good practice.

How did your editors react to the situation?

The reaction, showing how much they cared about my personal safety, was pretty cool to see. They cared about so much more than just my ability to do my job. I had a job to do, but they cared more about me as a person.

I worked at a mid-sized paper. It was big enough that we had a lot going on, but when you work the crazy hours you work with people doing this stuff, you get to know them. A lot of us became friends, or at least acquaintances. I do hear horror stories about people having similar experiences, but they can’t take it to their boss because they fear their boss won’t care or take them seriously.

Where I was — and I would hope it’s the norm, but I’m afraid it probably isn’t — I was fortunate to have editors and reporter friends who cared and checked in on me. After I left the paper and my coworkers were still reporting on that guy, they had almost a sick pleasure in letting me know that he was back in jail. I loved that they were on it for me, even though I wasn’t reporting anymore. When he finally went to prison, they were excited to let me know and that was cool because they followed it to the end.

Did your experience change your outlook on journalism?

I wouldn’t say so. Journalism is something that I loved. It’s something that I choose to do. I love to write and I love to report and that’s still something I do, even though I’m now doing PR. It made me realize how serious of a job I do. We know that it matters. Journalists know it matters. But if anything, it drove home how important it is because if that guy was trying to intimidate me to stop doing my job, then maybe I needed to keep doing my job because we needed to keep exposing people like that. If anything, it gave me a deeper love of what I did, in a weird way.

What did you feel you learned from your experience?

As I said before, just learning to be more cautious. Not that I’m scared and walking around looking over my shoulder, but I’m more intentional about my behavior online. I don’t check in to things. I live my life, but I’m just super sensitive about letting the general public know where I am if they don’t need to.

Do you have advice for female journalists to avoid situations like yours?

Hmm… I don’t know that you can avoid it. Nobody wishes this on anybody. In terms of avoiding it, you have to do your job. It’s a tough one. If something like this does happen, you are more than your job. You need to tell an editor, even if you think they won’t listen. You are more than your job and if you are living in fear, you can’t properly do your job.

Your editors probably care more about you than you might think. And they care more about you, the person, than the job. Your safety is paramount, so I totally encourage you to speak up, use your words and let people know. I understand fearing that someone won’t believe you, but if you don’t say something to begin with, that’s another issue.

Do you have any general advice for young women in media

If media something that you love, then try it out. If this is what you want to do, don’t let anything stop you. Writing has been one of the best ways that I have accessed life. And it’s a beautiful way to do it. Writing is such a cool thing to do. In the world of short texts and social media, people are forgetting to write and forgetting how to write. I’d say go for it.

Answers have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

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