How newsroom managers should approach union organizing

In this month’s edition, CJR editor in chief Kyle Pope and resident management guru Jill Geisler discuss whether managers should allow staff to become involved with political campaigns, how to handle discussions about “revenge porn,” and navigating union organizing within newsrooms.

Kyle: Let’s talk politics. For years there’s been a redline at a lot of media organizations, forbidding employees from getting involved at all in political campaigns, including donating to them or even attending rallies. I wouldn’t be surprised if the ground around that is now shifting. Should it be, and what should all of that now look like?

Jill: Call me hopelessly old-school, Kyle, but I believe news employees should cover campaigns, not join them. 

Make no mistake: for idealistic young staffers who’ve grown up with community service in their DNA, it’s hard not to get involved with candidates whose messages about the environment, gender equity, homelessness, or racial justice resonate with their core values. But publicly cheerleading for politicians will undercut their ability to bring their reportorial skills to those very topics. You can’t expect to be seen as impartial on the issues if your reporter’s notebook is decorated with a candidate’s bumper sticker.

As a journalist, you may find it galling to see the likes of Sean Hannity shilling for the presidentin person and on airto an audience who confuses his act with news reporting. But abandoning your standards to emulate him isn’t the answer. He’s not a journalist. He’s an operative playing in a newsy environment. Most of all, he’s doing something journalists don’t: he’s selecting, shading, and inventing narratives, setting up straw man arguments, conspiracies, and ad hominem attacksall designed to persuade voters to support his chosen favorites.

ICYMI: Why newsrooms are resistant to collaboration when covering climate

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In the face of this, journalists can feel handicapped by their own ethics. They have to back up their reporting with incontrovertible data, have their copy vetted for accuracy and bias, be transparent about their methodology, run corrections and apologies when they make mistakes, accept no gifts from those they cover, and keep their biases in cages. 

But it’s the right thing to do. Because their job isn’t to deliver votes to candidates; it’s to inform voters through relentless accuracy and rock-solid credibility. Even in the face of a mendacious president and some media outlets that serve as his megaphones, ethical journalists shouldn’t abandon their independence.

Ratherthey should build and flex their best reporting muscles. We’ve seen it happening over the past three years: less equivocation and “both sides–ism”; fewer headlines that echo falsehoods rather than rebutting them; more straightforward callouts on racism, deception, and hypocrisy; well-researched and tough interviews that fact check in the moment. 

As the curse of layoffs continually reduces the number of journalists in the US, I don’t want any of those who remain to take themselves out of the game because of political conflicts of interest. Please stay inside, do kick-ass reportingand then, like any other citizen, exercise your right to vote. 

 

Kyle: The resignation of California congresswoman Katie Hill has generated discussions about the newsworthiness of “revenge porn.” If you are leading one of those newsroom conversations, what should you keep in mind?

Jill: The ethics questions are pretty obvious: Is this material newsworthy, does it involve public policy or abuse of power, are the pictures necessary to tell the story, and do we have alternatives to using the most graphic photos, if we use them at all?

But don’t stop there. As you navigate those questions, recognize that this is one of those moments that define your newsroom culturefor better or worse. People on the team pay close attention to how such sensitive materials are treated in-house. Are they being circulated for ethical decision-making, or for amusement? How are they being described and discussed? Who is in on the conversation?

When newsroom leaders talk about nudity, sex, sexual orientation, or genderwill it reflect critical thinking or reveal sexism and bias? 

Newsrooms often use humor to get through the morass of tough calls and depressing stories, but someone’s “locker room” quip at a time like this can easily be demeaning to others. Are you prepared to respond? It should be proportional to the inappropriateness of the comment, ranging from “Nah, we’re not going there” to “Stop. That was flat-out sexist. ”

Whether you are a manager or a staff member, at times like this you can lead from wherever you are. When you do it right, people remember. 

 

Kyle: There’s been an uptick in union organizing in news organizations. That’s rarely a comfortable time for managers. What advice do you have for them?

Jill: Remember the words of a mentor of mine: unions weren’t formed because management treated the employees too well. As a general manager, he wasn’t a fan of unions, but he understood that at some time in an organization’s history, employees saw a gap between the company’s practices and their needs. They decided that their best shot at improving the workplace was through collective bargaining. 

In a best-case scenario, frontline managers are not among the primary reasons the staff is organizing. The employees have good working relationships with their managers, but they’re looking for better wages, benefits, and job security from the company. In these rocky times, they also hope that union contracts can provide them a better cushion if their jobs disappear.

Some companies see union certification efforts as declarations of war and expect all managers to suit up for the fightto represent the company’s point of view and help (within the parameters of the National Labor Relations Act) persuade the troops to vote no.

I believe wise leaders let their frontline managers be Switzerland: a place apart from tensions that exist during organizing or collective bargaining; a place to stay focused on journalism, even in the midst of informational picketing and social media advocacy by staff; a space where loyalty is measured by faithfulness to storytelling, not what was said in the heat of negotiations.

Because after the votes are talliedunions rejected or contracts signedthe labor lawyers will go away and the newsroom needs to go back to its routine. It’s a new normal that shouldn’t be marked by old grudges.

Frontline managers will be the key to that. They can take a page from my friend Sewell Chan, deputy managing editor of the Los Angeles Times

His nearly thirty-four thousand Twitter followers saw this message on October 31: 

They had cake, too, as the new normal began.

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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.