What newsroom leaders can do now to prepare for disaster coverage

November 21, 2018

In this month’s edition, CJR Editor Kyle Pope and resident management guru Jill Geisler discuss how to be disaster-ready, race and newsroom culture, and how to give thanks to journalists and employees.

Kyle: What can and should newsrooms be doing to prepare for disaster? We talked recently with the editor of one of the papers in the California fire zone, and it struck me how unprepared newsrooms can be to deal with something like this.

Jill: Not every newsroom excels at covering spot news—and disaster coverage is breaking news on steroids. It demands planning, investing, communicating, improvising, and coping.  

Let me share a five-part framework I use for organizations that want to upgrade their cultures. Focusing on values, skills, tools, systems and assumptions provides a road map for filling in their gaps—whether it’s building a culture of investigative journalism, multiplatform publishing, or breaking news/disaster coverage readiness.

So, let’s walk through each as they apply to journalism in the worst of times:

Values: What values guide us? Getting info first and right? Providing coverage as a public service so long as it is humanly possible? Compassion for victims? Transparency in our methods? Ethical decision-making under pressure?

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Skills: What are the basic skills we require of all staffers? Ability to share info on all platforms? To capture images? To serve as a “live” reporter, no matter one’s title or role? To make ethical judgments in the moment about safety, graphic content, causing panic, identifying victims before families may have been notified, shifting from reporter to rescuer, careful use of language (example: who’s a “looter” and who’s a “desperate scavenger”?)

Tools: What hardware and software have we invested in? Do we have safety gear that withstands fire, flood or cold? Batteries and fuel sources? Backup generators? Alternative sites to use if we must evacuate our building? MREs for hungry field crews? Cash – because banks and ATMs may fail us?

Systems: Do we have clear processes in place to make things run as smoothly as possible? Do we have a basic breaking news plan with clear roles and responsibilities? How do we alert and track staff? Can we produce from the field in real time? Use social media strategically? Collect and curate key information for the community, from status updates to missing persons to calls for assistance? Provide support and counsel to employees in need?

Assumptions: What do we know and do automatically in the worst of times? That we should respond to a big breaking story, wherever we are, without waiting to be asked? That we can buy what we need during emergencies without waiting for permission? That the company looks out for our safety? That we can say “no” to an assignment that endangers our lives? That we won’t exploit the suffering of others? That we will collaborate with competitors if it serves the community?

There are many more questions newsrooms can add to each of these five aspects of a breaking news/disaster-ready culture. But if you truly want to upgrade your culture, the project must start in quiet times, not when a major story is upon you.

RELATED: How newsroom managers balance community engagement and reporter safety


Kyle: The recent CJR print issue dealt with race and diversity. We covered a lot of ground in terms of what’s working—and what is not —to make newsrooms better represent the communities they cover. What helps a newsroom turn around its culture when it comes to race?

Jill: That CJR issue is essential, if painful reading about how far we have to go. And there’s little hope society will improve if journalism fails to right its own wrongs regarding race and diversity.

Through my work with ASNE’s Emerging Leaders Institutes and the Freedom Forum Institute’s Power Shift Project, I hear the concerns and the advice of journalists of color, which I’ll gladly share.

Staffing is just the start: Newsrooms may increase the racial diversity of staff, but if the balance of power still tilts away from people of color, the work is incomplete. So, celebrate your successful efforts at recruitment, but reach another level: empowerment. In newsrooms, that’s measured by the ability to have one’s ideas become stories. To shape the framing and language of journalism. To influence the images that illustrate information. To guide policy-making, hiring and promotions. To be heard, not as an advisor, but as an authority.

Don’t delude yourself into thinking your newsroom is bias-free: Journalists hear so often that they’re all a bunch of flaming liberals, that they might assume they’re incapable of discriminatory behavior.

Well-meaning white journalists can take offense to the idea of unconscious or implicit bias, but it’s real. It percolates in conversations about standards, humor, tradition, crime, job-readiness or fit – or politics and current events.

It happens, as one editor of color told me, when she sees white colleagues roll their eyes at video of a Black Lives Matter march. Or hears a discussion of Colin Kaepernick that’s framed around the military overseas  rather than the death of young Black men in the United States.

It happens when the recent focus on sexual harassment drifts into discussions among or about white women and fail to recognize how much worse things are for those who live at the intersection of race, gender, class, age, health, or sexual orientation.

It happens when people like me are tempted to tell the virtuous story of how we scrimped and struggled our way into journalism jobs with no special connections to get us there. After all, my dad installed telephones and my uncle was a garbage man. But I’ve since realized that those unglamorous gigs were good union jobs in their day – and often denied to people of color. And humbly, I need to acknowledge that systemic racism gave a phone installer, a trash collector — and me – an advantage. And that’s privilege.

Credit “invisible work”: I was struck by Vann R. Newkirk’s essay, “Diversity as a Second Job” in the CJR Race Issue, which detailed the amount of volunteer effort he puts in on behalf of social justice.

I call it “invisible work” and it happens in media organizations everywhere. Traditionally underrepresented staffers are invited to be part of diversity committees, or serve on other committees to ensure diverse participation, to mentor colleagues, to help recruit, to attend job fairs or community meetings.

Meanwhile, they field informal coaching requests from other minority colleagues (“How do I get this story approved when my editor doesn’t see value in it?” “Is it just me or does Joe cut you off in meetings, too?”) They get an earful from friends and family about coverage and have to explain the newsroom’s editorial process.

It’s all done alongside their regular work assignments, but it may be invisible to their bosses. In fact, management may expect credit for “involving” them in those committees and projects.

But it takes a toll. That’s why I tell people not to do “invisible work.” That doesn’t mean refuse to do it. It means to make certain to talk about it, so it’s acknowledged and appreciated. But above all, its the responsibility of management to give full credit for those many extra assignments and turn that work from invisible to highly valued.


Kyle: The holidays are here, and with them, the idea of gratitude. What should newsroom managers tell their staffs they’re thankful for?

Jill: A great boss should be able to deliver a meaningful message to each employee. That means knowing what matters to them as well as to you.

Let me help you take a mental inventory of your staff.  Consider the following questions. If I’ve described one of your team members, just let that person know:

  • Who’s the one who never fails to be the ethical conscience of the team?
  • Who can deliver on any platform?
  • Who is a walking AP style guide?
  • Who do people always ask for when a work team is being formed?
  • Whose truthful and tactful critiques help others get better?
  • Who always has a “Plan B”?
  • Who collects sources with the tenacity of a hoarder?
  • Whose writing inspires you?
  • Who is a continuous learner?
  • Who isn’t afraid to tell you if you’re about to make a bad management call?
  • Who has the ability to find the story others miss?
  • Who serves as a mentor to others?
  • Who is always the calm in the storm?
  • Who is a master planner?
  • Who knows how to reduce conflict and stress through the sheer power of their positivity?
  • Who has built a great network of colleagues across departments and therefore gets results?
  • Whose creativity simply blows you away?
  • Whose work is a joy to edit?
  • Who is a master problem-solver?
  • Who turns data into remarkable stories?
  • Whose relentless reliability makes everyone else’s job easier?
  • Who is the keeper of your newsroom’s institutional memory?
  • Who’s a curmudgeon with a heart of gold?
  • Who pushes the boundaries in the best possible ways?
  • Who has the potential to replace you one day?

As you share your custom-tailored appreciation, be generous with details. When it comes to feedback with impact, your specificity proves your sincerity.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Jill Geisler coaches managers worldwide. She holds the Bill Plante Chair in Leadership and Media Integrity at Loyola University Chicago. She’s 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.