A ‘reality check’ for covering newsroom scandals

November 7, 2017

In this month’s edition, CJR Editor Kyle Pope and resident management guru Jill Geisler talk about how newsrooms should cover sexual-harassment allegations that hit close to home and the standards for reporting of such allegations.

Kyle: How do you cover scandal in your own newsroom? As the list of sexual harassment cases grows, newsrooms are finding themselves in the position of writing about themselves. Other than the obvious advice—like being sure to cover yourself aggressively and adequately protecting the reporters doing the questioning—do you have any particular advice for managers in these situations?

Jill: I sure do. Let me preface it by noting that I have friends at NPR and teach there, as well. The pain and anger at NPR and elsewhere is real, raw—and tragic if it doesn’t drive real change. That process may start with even more reports of misconduct from newsrooms. Managers, navigating these waters is tricky, and they didn’t teach you this stuff in J-school.

ICYMI: Prominent journalists accused of sexual misconduct

You have a commitment to accuracy, transparency, and the public trust. At the same time, you have an obligation to the well-being of your people—individually and collectively. You are the steward of your organization’s integrity.

But here’s the challenge: In times of scandal, stewards face a long line of potential stakeholders: the accused, the victims, the witnesses, the staff, the public, law enforcement, regulators, boards, unions, donors, investors, advertisers, and the whole journalism community, to boot.

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While they all expect you to “do the right thing,” at any given moment, one stakeholder or another may be dissatisfied, because of differing priorities and perceptions. That’s the reality of managing through the toughest times.

To understand the complexity and conflict, here’s my “Scandal Reality Check” for news managers:

  • When investigating alleged misdeeds, investigators look at violations of laws, regulations, rules, and policies—but not all wrongdoing fits into those neat boxes. A behavior can be wrong even if there’s no specific rule against it. Consider the impact. Consider the power differential between the accused and those affected. Expect the highest standard of conduct from your most powerful and influential team members.
  • Your organization uses HR and legal departments to ensure fair investigative process—but some employees may not trust them. That seems like an insult to well-intentioned experts, but there’s often a fear that their role is to protect the company first, the employees second. Address those concerns by being transparent as possible about the process.
  • When trust is low and fear of reprisals is high, victims and witnesses are less likely to speak up. Use your own credibility and clout to encourage their candor.
  • Whistleblowers may ask you for anonymity at the same time your staff is asking for transparency about an investigation. Explain your conundrum and ask staff to respect the wishes of their colleagues.
  • The rumor mill will work overtime—and may be a source of solid tips or fact-free gossip. Be both a trusted listener and vigilant myth-buster.
  • Decide the on/off record status of staff meetings or briefings (especially in response to concerns of staff), but know that participating employees aren’t sworn to secrecy.
  • Your vigorous coverage of your own scandal may make higher-ups uncomfortable. Be prepared to shield your reporters.
  • Expect that employees will be sources and tipsters to your reporters and others. If they’re telling the truth, protect them.
  • Don’t let your newsroom be scooped on its own story. (Unless you are convinced that your own organization wants to bury it.)
  • Have a plan for responding to external media inquiries; don’t hide.
  • If your own actions become a core part of the story, recuse yourself from overseeing the coverage. Delegate.
  • Reach out to ethics experts for clear-eyed guidance.
  • Recognize that during a crisis, hindsight bias surfaces—the belief that something was obvious or could have been predicted. That belief may or may not be right—but it’s real.
  • Critical events rip the scab off old injuries. People who’ve had bad past experiences at work, even unrelated to the current scandal, may feel aggrieved anew. Be responsive, not dismissive.
  • Apologize sincerely for bad decisions and missed opportunities.
  • Listen to staff; involve them in the path forward, from rewriting rules to correcting your culture.
  • Assume that your story of scandal will linger in-house for a long time; make it your mission to write new chapters.
  • Resolve to hire and promote for character and talent, not just talent alone. Let no one be considered so indispensable that their bad behavior gets a pass.
  • Lead with integrity; not just an enforcer or rules, but an unabashed advocate of values.
  • Thank your friends. After all this, you’ll know who the real ones are.

Relatedly, different news organizations seem to be using different standards when reporting allegations of sexual misconduct. Some, for instance, require that women go on the record, others don’t. Any tips to help guide our thinking?

Jill: We all know that on-the-record sources are the gold standard of credible reporting. We also know that an ironclad insistence on them can chill victims and kill important stories.

Serial harassers have taken advantage of that reality. They know their victims are unlikely to go public. The cost may be too high.

Little wonder, in this post-Weinstein world, that news organizations are treating harassment victims with the protection they’ve traditionally afforded sexual assault victims, naming them only with their consent.

But that sensitivity has to be combined with journalistic rigor.

ICYMI: You might’ve seen the Times’s Weinstein story. But did you miss the bombshell published days after?

Fairness dictates that we work to independently verify an accusation. We must learn as much as we can about the accuser and the context of the behaviors in question. We can’t let our outrage and empathy cause us to repeat Rolling Stone’s “avoidable failure” in its infamous UVA story.

Reporters need to run any requests for anonymity past their editors, so there are always multiple good minds in on the decision. And at the risk of offending a few good men, I urge you to make certain your decision-makers aren’t all male. They may be blissfully ignorant about the all-too-real indignities women have endured but never before expressed. The women in your newsroom can enlighten them. It’s a perfect example of newsroom diversity leading to better journalism.

Your story should include the reasoning behind your decision to grant anonymity, so the public knows your process and your values.

If you persuade a woman to go on the record, be honest with her about blowback she might not anticipate. Keep an eye on your comments section and social media for attacks by trolls. Don’t reward her courage and candor by being a host for hate.

ICYMI: The secret cost of pivoting to video

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.