News Directors: Support your people

August 5, 2014 01:30

By Forrest Carr, RTDNA Contributor
I’ve been out of a news director’s chair for a little less than a year and a half now, but I still get calls from friends, colleagues and former protégés seeking advice, feedback and counsel.  Sad to say, one common question I get is along the lines of, “What can I do when a newsmaker attacks me and my boss doesn’t support me?”  Based on the anecdotes I hear, all too often news directors are less than enthusiastic when faced with the challenge of defending reporters who come under fire for doing their jobs.
Let’s face it:  TV news done right is a blood sport.  If you air a story placing some person or some organization in a negative light, then that person or organization is likely to fight back.  This reaction is entirely human.  When you throw a punch, it’s unreasonable not to expect a return swing.  News directors should be prepared for them and have a plan to deal with such pushback when it comes.  But based on many years of personal observation and also on the aforementioned feedback, all too often no such plan—or support—is in place.
Here is an entirely hypothetical example:  Your reporter, Jane Sittenfijit, is out doing a story on why one particular law enforcement agency was slow to respond to a woman’s burglary call.  She contacts the police PIO, Fred Stiffarm, who agrees to provide a lieutenant for an on-camera interview about this and related incidents.  During the interview, Jane cites figures on response times that she had been compiling, and asks for an explanation.  The lieutenant hems and haws, looking confused, and ultimately denies there’s any kind of issue.  Jane’s story shows definitively that there is indeed a problem, contradicting the lieutenant.  After the story airs, she gets a call from Stiffarm, who proceeds to scream at her, using foul and sexually abusive language, and who vows that not only will the department cut her off from any and all information going forward in retaliation for her “hatchet job,” but that it will contact other official agencies and urge them to do the same.  Jane, now extremely distraught, comes to you seeking support and guidance, and states that she fears her reputation and livelihood are in danger from this attack.  You investigate and find that the facts in her story are well documented. 
Now what do you do?
A.  You tell Jane that you aren’t mad at her, that the dispute will blow over and not to worry about it.
B.  You scold Jane for airing a story that was guaranteed to anger the law enforcement agency in question and thereby damage your station’s relationship with it. 
C.  You scold Jane as indicated above, and then take the additional step of ordering her to apologize to the PIO, or you call and do this yourself.
D.  You commend Jane for asking tough questions.  You then call the PIO to demand an apology for his unprofessional conduct.  If he blows you off, you take it up with his superiors.
My personal choice would be option D.  I have no idea what percentage of news directors would actually do it that way, but I can tell you that, based on what I’ve seen and heard, some, perhaps many, would pick A, B or C.
It’s only natural for stations to want to avoid what could become a public fight.  But the alternative is to surrender your ability to do real news.  The problem with hoping that such incidents will simply blow over and be forgotten is that all too often this wishful thinking leaves the reporter twisting in the wind.  The vast majority of news sources and PIO’s I’ve encountered over the years are professional and courteous.  But every now and then you’ll come across a real bully who will make the kind of threats outlined above and then carry them out.  If left to fend for themselves without official support, reporters targeted in this fashion might suffer great professional harm.  Once newsmakers realize they can blow such reporters off, they do, making their jobs untenable.
What’s the alternative?
The alternative is to do what it takes to support the reporter.  News directors should be willing to hold themselves and their newsrooms publicly accountable for their actions, conduct and journalism.  But they should also apply that same accountability principle, with equal vigor, to those they cover. 
Before you can proceed down such a road, it pays to pave the way.  In every newsroom I’ve led, I published a statement of ethical principles that said, among other things, that the station will hold itself accountable to the public, and that means that it will respond publicly and explain itself when its journalism is challenged.  I then set out to live that promise.  Sometimes, this meant that I might have to publicly apologize for the actions of a reporter.  But most of the time, it meant that I would simply explain the reporter’s actions in light of our stated coverage principles, and then leave it up to the audience to judge whether our conduct was appropriate.  On occasion, in discussing the issue I would explain not only the nature of the newsmaker’s challenge to the story but also the conduct of those making it.
It’s always surprised me to see how willing certain public servants and officials are to show great professional discourtesy, up to and including f-bombs, sexually or racially demeaning language, professional threats—and even physical ones—to reporters.  Some seem to assume that when a camera isn’t rolling, the conversation is safe.  It isn’t, not for any reporter armed with a notepad—and certainly not when a fast-typing news director armed with a keyboard is on the line. 
In addressing such conduct, it’s my goal to get an apology and repair the relationship, not to air a sensational story about someone’s misbehavior.  In cases where my newsroom was the offended party, I have withheld from the newscast incredibly damaging emails, voice mail messages, and even abusive conduct caught on video, when I was able to obtain an apology.  If not, then I’ve been perfectly willing to proceed with a story making use of that material, and have done so on more than one occasion.  Sometimes I have been able to obtain an apology for the bad conduct, but the PIO or newsmaker in question will continue to press the complaint about the story itself.  In such cases, I’ve proceeded with a follow-up news story or a web posting addressing the complaint without mentioning the unprofessional conduct.
There are varying schools of thought on this kind of thing.  Some news directors don’t want a public fight under any circumstances, under the belief that viewers do not care about what they will perceive as petty bickering, and will hold both sides in equal contempt.  Plus, some news managers and GM’s are concerned that if they stand up to misbehaving newsmakers or PIO’s, they might face a retaliation that would cut off the station’s access to the news.  But other news directors might seize on the email, audio or video documenting the abusive behavior and would consider it their duty to air it, regardless of whether the offending party apologizes.  Some, in fact, would air the material without bothering to first seek an apology, for the sheer shock value.
I suggest a middle way.  I can imagine exceptions, but for the most part I see no purpose in blowing up a newsmaker by airing an embarrassing story about his or her conduct toward one of our reporters if I have a sincere apology in hand.  But I’m perfectly willing to air such a story if the misbehaving official stands by the inappropriate behavior; the public can then decide.  Relationships with newsmakers are valuable and worth preserving, all things being equal.  However, a station that can’t gather the news without the aid of official gatekeepers is pretty pitiful.  I’ve had two instances where PIO’s announced that they would cut off my newsroom from any further information, and then proceeded to do so.  In both instances, we explained the boycott and the reasons behind it to our viewers on the air, and the hostility quickly ended.  In one of the two cases, relations with the official agency were fine afterwards.  In the other case, relations grew to be fantastic.  This happened because the agency came to realize over time that journalistic principles, not the unbridled pursuit of lurid sensationalism, guided our actions.
In more than one case, accountability reporting of this nature has led to PIO’s or other official newsmakers being held appropriately accountable by their superiors.  And in no case did any news boycott deprive my station of any real news.  In fact, we always got more tips and more good information during such periods, not fewer. 
Why would the latter be the case?  I would venture to say that, just as most news directors suspect, many in the public don’t much like reporters and don’t have much sympathy for what might be perceived as whiny complaints about access.  But many do realize the importance of the role a free press plays in our society, and they act accordingly. 
To give one example of how this can work, one governmental agency, upset over a series of investigations my newsroom had aired, told us it was cutting us off, and refused to provide a document that we had requested, even though it admitted the document was public.  We reported this conduct to our viewers.  The very next day a mole within the agency dropped the document off on our doorstep, which led to another hard-hitting exposé.  The agency then dropped the boycott and publicly apologized.  Afterwards, relations with the agency were cordial and professional.
What if the journalism in the example cited at the top of this article had been flawed?  In that case, I’d publicly retract anything that was wrong and issue the necessary apologies, while still seeking an apology from the agency in question for its offensive conduct.  The former course of action would not be predicated on the success of the later.  Remember that “support” for a reporter does not mean a knee-jerk defense of everything he or she does.  “Support” also means providing the proper feedback, counseling, coaching, mentoring, and—if necessary—discipline.  But it definitely means defending that reporter when and to the extent necessary.
At this point, if you’re a working news director you’re probably wondering about the impact of this kind of coverage strategy on ratings and on a station’s public image.  In every instance where I’ve employed this philosophy, ratings increased, and research indicated that the audience respected the station’s journalism.  At one station, we went from #3 to #1 in a very short period of time.
Bottom line:  support your people, in every sense of that word.  Don’t be afraid of a public fight if that’s what it takes.  Trust that the public, even in this cynical age, ultimately will recognize the value of defending your journalistic principles.  Your newsroom will be better for it.  And as a side benefit, your reporters will really appreciate it.