In this month’s edition, CJR Editor Kyle Pope and resident management guru Jill Geisler discuss turmoil at Sinclair stations, how to hire interns, and the key to maintaining newsroom loyalty amid layoffs.
Kyle: The viral video of Sinclair anchors reciting a mandated corporate message has generated plenty of scorn. How should we think about those anchors? Have they sold out, or are they victims? What options do they really have? What about their news directors and general managers?
Jill: Imagine being one of those local anchors. You edit copy every day, from news stories to news promos. You’re picky about accuracy, context, and “voice.” After all, it’s your credibility on the line as you deliver those words.
Now imagine that your company hands you a script that you know to be politically charged, contains no facts to back up its assertions, attacks your own profession—and orders you to read it verbatim.
I’ve talked with Sinclair anchors who tried to push back, knowing they were:
- At risk of discipline if they refused to comply
- Under contract, with potential penalties for quitting and/or noncompete clauses that block them from working across the street
- Hoping their news directors and general managers would run interference for them with corporate
The mandate remained and we know the result—widespread criticism, from journalists, ethicists, and viewers. And Deadspin’s masterful montage that played to every plastic, prompter-bound stereotype out of Anchorman.
Even worse, Sinclair’s leadership is unrepentant, defiant, and clearly wrong. Its chairman, David Smith, told The New York Times: “Do you understand that as a practical matter every word that comes out of the mouths of network news people is scripted and approved by someone?”
His ignorance of the editing process in journalism is chilling. Anchors and their newsroom colleagues routinely do the scripting and approving, with authority and independence his Sinclair employees were denied.
I teach leadership seminars for TV news anchors (RTDNA and Loyola have one coming up in July). The best anchors sweat the details. Now the Sinclair newscasters are sweating under apparent pressure to help carry out a corporation’s political agenda.
An anchor-delivered statement with Trumpian talking points disguised as a “We’re the Good Journalists” news promotion has crossed a line that even Sinclair hasn’t ventured over before.
And then there’s this: When the National Press Photographers Association’s board delivered a measured, thoughtful critique of Sinclair’s actions, it took Sinclair less than 24 hours to rescind a $25,000 pledge dedicated to legal advocacy. How can that be seen as anything other than vindictiveness against an organization that represents the best interests of its photojournalists?
With the midterm elections nearing, I’d recommend close scrutiny of all Sinclair “must-run” content, from commentary to promos to news stories. Especially national political stories, which research shows have increased by 25 percent at Sinclair-acquired outlets.
Boris Epshteyn’s opinion pieces are labeled as such. But there’s no transparency with viewers about Sinclair’s must-run news pieces. When Sinclair stations air their local newscasts, only the employees know the truth about the content—which stories were independently created and selected for their communities, and which came from Sinclair, with orders to run them.
Kyle: It’s internship season. What are some of the best ways for news organizations to integrate interns into their newsrooms? What’s most beneficial for both sides?
Jill: Let’s start with what interns should NOT be:
- Free labor to fill the gaps in understaffed workplaces
- Personal assistants who run errands but gain no valuable new skills
- Novices dropped into the workplace with no formal orientation
- Pests to be ignored
- Targets for harassment by predatory staffers
At their best, internships are extended job interviews, auditions for employment, and opportunities for growth. The best internships are paid positions, so they don’t exclude young people who can’t afford to work for free. They have structure and supervision, with an onboarding process that introduces interns to the organization’s tools, systems, and culture.
The duties interns perform allow them to build tangible material for their portfolios and skills they can demonstrate. Good internships end with a debrief that lets all parties know how well things worked.
We now know internships need one more component that we’ve traditionally missed: a briefing about what interns should do in the face of misconduct of any kind—harassment, discrimination, or incivility. They need to hear it from their universities and from their host organizations. (Here are resources to help, from the Newseum’s “Power to the Interns” program.)
The #MeToo movement has taught us that power disparities set the table for misconduct—and there’s no one less powerful and more eager to please than an intern. Let’s take good care of our future leaders.
Kyle: The wave of layoffs and consolidations in newsrooms never seems to end. To me it raises serious questions about loyalty. How do you stay committed to a job when your employer seems in constant downsizing mode?
Jill: I tell newsroom managers they should assume that every employee on their team is working with one eye on the door. You can’t expect loyalty from people to whom you don’t provide it.
When people are obviously expendable, treated as “headcount” instead of humans, they are sticking with you for a few limited reasons: They may love the work but not the company; they may not have better options right now; and you might be a good boss to work for, so they still give you their best.
My hat is off and my heart goes out to every news manager whose leadership still inspires and motivates their teams when times are toughest. They know that good journalism is the best antidote to bad morale. They treat their people with genuine empathy and absorb a whole lot of pain and anger from layoff victims and survivors. (And yet, why is it that when the big corporate salaries and bonuses are reported, they don’t include those frontline leaders?)
As for the journalists in traumatized newsrooms, I encourage them to think on “parallel tracks.” Do your best work every day, because that’s your legacy, but scan the horizon for employment options that are equally meaningful but far more reliable. I believe that within the universe of journalism, in spite of some media owners that starve it, there remain opportunities to do great work that benefits both you and society.