Should the Associated Press have sent a safety bulletin over the Clinton report backlash?

June 10, 2016

Jill Geisler teaches and coaches managers worldwide. She’s the Bill Plante Chair in Leadership and Integrity at Loyola University Chicago, the author of the book, Work Happy: What Great Bosses Know, and the Q&A: Leadership and Integrity in the Digital Age podcasts on iTunes U.

Liz: Only two questions for you, Jill, but they’re long ones. Among the headlines this week was a decision by the Associated Press to announce that Hillary Clinton had captured the Democratic nomination after an extensive delegate count by the newsroom. The news came a day before voters in states including California had a chance to cast their ballot, and it prompted an angry outcry from Bernie Sanders supporters who felt that AP’s quick trigger was interfering with the election. Some Sanders backers were so incensed that they apparently thrashed out at AP staffers on social media, and in emails and phone calls. Here’s the management issue. AP’s leadership went so far as to warn the entire US staff to practice “situational awareness” around AP offices, posting tips for personal safety, while also saying there had been no specific security threats. I’m wondering: Is putting out a bulletin to thousands (that would surely get leaked) the right way to turn down a boiling pot? Granted, a bad call can be a dangerous one with real consequences. Then again, don’t many newsrooms deal with threatening words over social media?

Jill: When the AP “called it” for Clinton, the reactions were swift. Some journalists saw it as ethically questionable. Why announce on the doorstep of several primaries? Isn’t that tantamount to leaking exit poll data on election day, thus potentially influencing voter behavior? AP’s response was straightforward, essentially showing its math (delegate numbers, that is, not names.) Confident in its methodology, AP released its conclusion. As AP Senior VP Kathleen Carroll said: “That is news, and news is what we do.”

While I share a concern about election influence, I don’t think it overrides the withholding of information in this case. Voters could still cast their ballots, knowing that in spite of AP’s numbers, the deal isn’t done until the convention.

Now, what about the social media blowback? Experience tells us that political passions can get downright poisonous on social media, and apparently did in this case.  And when messages get even modestly threatening, I think newsroom managers are obligated to fly cover for their teams. It’s not enough to tell people to ignore the insults, sexism, racism, epithets and creative calls for the recipient’s demise. At the very least, they need to send out alerts and report on the threats.

But don’t take my word for it. Heed the words of my friend Marci Burdick, senior advisor for Schurz Communications, the owner of WDBJ-TV, when two newsroom employees were murdered on live television last year. What she experienced in that newsroom (including harassing social media posts) in the aftermath of that tragedy led her to share this response when I asked her about the AP safety alert:

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“It was measured, thorough and transparent, and would not cause undue alarm. Having said that, I have learned the hard way that one cannot minimize the safety of journalists no matter how mundane the assignment might be.”

I think Marci’s point is well taken.  Telling staff to practice “situational awareness,” may not be a way to turn down a boiling pot filled with stewing partisans, but it’s a newsroom leader’s obligation.


Liz: Now, a more tragic and tangled case for you to consider. The union representing the Toronto Star’s newsroom is calling for an independent investigation after a reporter committed suicide, a managing editor was removed and another editor was fired. The incident starts with a young woman on the staff who, after taking her life, left a note asking the paper not to publish an obit or write stories about her death. The paper obliged that request. But it came out in other news outlets that the woman may have been involved with another editor in the newsroom, who in turn was involved with someone else. The two editors have since been removed from their jobs, but relatively little has been said officially about the incident. This is a rare case, but it raises more common issues of how to weigh privacy concerns of employees against larger issues that may impact the whole newsroom. Thoughts?

Jill: What a heartbreaking story, Liz, one that indeed intersects the personal and professional. It’s a situation in which newsroom managers have to deal with multiple challenges and responsibilities. They have an obligation to investigate on several levels: to look at potential wrongdoing by individual managers, but also to determine whether there are systemic problems. As all this is going on, they also have a journalistic responsibility to cover their own story with the same rigor they would apply to any other business facing a similar situation. The newsworthiness quotient is raised by the public profile of the organization in which an event happens. And in the midst of all that, there were grieving employees, a suicide note from the reporter asking for no coverage, other media publishing or commenting on the tragedy, including the call from the Star’s union for an outside investigation.

I give credit to the paper’s public editor, Kathy English, for gathering together all of those responsibilities, even as they conflicted with each other. I recommend her column as an example of the kind of transparency we must strive for, even when it tortures us. She did her best to treat the reporter with dignity. She noted the complexity of covering suicides. She named the names of those who conducted the internal investigation and their positions in the organization. She outlined the limitations of what she knew and what the privacy of personnel records prevented her from sharing. She named the managers who were sanctioned. And she wrote a haunting line, “I have worked in newsrooms for 40 years and have never seen anything like the level of grief and anger exploding here.”

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Liz, you’ve been a newsroom leader and now you, too, are moving on to become a public editor, the sixth in the history of the New York Times. You’re probably ready to take your editor’s pen and strike out this part of the column, since I’ve turned the attention to you – but grant me this indulgence, because feedback is in way too short supply in media organizations, and you deserve some.

I’ve enjoyed our monthly conversations. Your questions were always provocative and your editing suggestions spot on. You’ll now take on a job that can be very lonely. The conversations may be more contentious. Public editors deal with critical, often demanding readers and smart, often defensive journalists. Satisfying one group often ticks off the other. Just remember the values that guide you: truth-telling and transparency – and have fun, my friend!

(Liz: How tempting to just hit the delete key on this last comment of yours! Thank you for the wise words, as usual.)

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Elizabeth Spayd is the editor in chief and publisher of CJR.