What newsrooms need to face their biggest threats

September 9, 2020 01:30

The latest RTDNA newsroom survey shows that local TV news managers view fragmenting, eroding audiences as their biggest threat, followed closely by challenges recruiting and retaining qualified staff. Local radio news managers cite revenue challenges as their newsrooms’ main threat, followed by fragmenting audiences, then staffing challenges.

The just released installment of the newsroom survey shows that the key to addressing these challenges has been looming with increasing urgency for more than fifty years.

While newsrooms have faced unprecedented new challenges during 2020, they’ve also adapted quicker than most news mangers ever thought possible.

Newsrooms are delivering critical information and they’re delivering it differently, not only on new platforms but in fundamentally new ways, valuing audience relationships more than ever.

But two recently released surveys from Gallup/Knight and from the Pew Research Center show that news audiences are losing faith in the news media overall including, to some degree, local news.

It’s time for newsrooms to fully commit to their changing audiences – by changing themselves.

In addition to perceiving bias and a lack of accuracy (primarily among national media), news audiences, according to Pew, say they don’t feel understood or valued by news.

Gallup/Knight found that 40% of those surveyed say the news does a poor job reflecting the diversity of the community and country. 80% or more say that hiring reporters with more diverse backgrounds – racial, ethnic, political, economic – would help heal political divisions.

Recruiting and Hiring
Recruiting and hiring is a common starting point for newsroom diversity discussions.

It’s also an easy way to deflect: Journalism schools aren’t producing enough qualified candidates of color. We put a job notice out, but no candidates of color applied. We’re just hiring the best fit. Every news managers has heard or even said things like this.

A few intentional steps by every hiring manager can banish these phrases from newsrooms.

As Chris Thomas, ABC 10, said in a recent RTDNA town hall, “You have to put time into things that you claim you care about. It’s one thing to talk about it. It’s another to do it.”

At the same event Shamarria Morrison, WPSD, said it more bluntly: “Upper management is complicit with why our industry is where it is as far as not having enough representation,” continuing, “It’s not enough to say we want Black people in these positions. You have to actively go out and recruit them.”

The Society for Human Resource Management describes some concrete ways to reduce bias and increase diversity in hiring:
  • Review job descriptions for inherently biased or stereotypical language.
  • Structure interviews, using predetermined questions and sticking to them – likely to pose a challenge to journalists accustomed to a different interview style, but key to reducing implicit bias in the interview process.
  • Practice collaborative hiring, having more than one person review candidates at each stage of the process.
  • Consider recruiting channels and focus more on community colleges, schools with diverse student bodies and non-traditional pathways.
Some additional ways to combat unintended bias in hiring include:
  • Frame job descriptions in terms of aptitudes or skills rather than time-based experience.
  • Use a scoring tool or rubric to rate candidates on skills.
  • Decrease reliance on non-quantifiable measures like “fit” or “look,” and dig deeper into these assessments of candidates to uncover potential unconscious bias.
  • Broadcasters in particular should be cognizant of cultural biases in assessments of physical appearance and voice, which have historically been used to exclude candidates of color.
  • Review the diversity of candidates who apply for each role and if the applicants are not diverse, consider extending the application window and modifying your outreach.
  • Be transparent with all who apply about where the process is and where they are in it, including sending rejections and opportunities to provide feedback on the process.
As Vinnee Tong of KQED recently put it in a discussion of recruitment and retention in public media, hiring managers have an opportunity to be human sentries building a defense against systemic racism in the hiring process.

Most of the strategies above are focused on formal hiring channels, but we know that in practice hiring connections are often made via informal channels – networks of access and privilege underrepresented talent may not have access to.

Hiring managers can actively combat this system by broadening the horizons of their networks.

During the public media discussion, Doug Mitchell, founder and project leader of NPR’s Next Generation Radio program, which recently marked 20 years, reminded news leaders that recruiting is like sourcing, where journalists dig deeper, ask who else they need to know and get comfortable making connections and building networks. In practice, Mitchell said, broadcasters now need a host of digital and business skills that can have origins outside traditional pathways to journalism and must put in the time and effort to build those sources themselves, rather than relying on others’.

Further, according to Tong, Mitchell and a host of journalists of color who have spent careers advocating for media diversity, the recruiting process must be continual, intentional and based on developing relationships and community, not completing transactions.

In other words, the pipeline is pumping, if news managers only build their lines of connection to it.

Culture and Retention
Hiring more diverse candidates is only a first step. Diverse hiring alone will never be successful in truly diversifying newsrooms unless it is accompanied by broader changes to newsroom workplace cultures.
Too often new hires are set up to fail.

Newsrooms are inherently high stress workplaces. That stress can be combatted by a sense of mission and belonging – or compounded by toxicity, lack of support and roadblocks on pathways to advancement.

When newsrooms focus on diversity but not also on inclusion, too many promising journalists motivated by public service exit their newsrooms and the industry unable to actualize their potential.

A recent survey of 101 “leavers” found that journalists of color who no longer work in journalism cite workplace stress, low pay and toxicity in their newsrooms as reasons for leaving. Most left mid-career, the drive to public service no longer outweighing the need to build a livable, advancing career.

While the survey sample was small, it is corroborated by a persistent gap in representation in the leadership ranks of local newsrooms.

“Racism is built on a foundation of other destructive behaviors that are completely acceptable in our lives, in our communities and in our culture,” WTOP’s JJ Green said in RTDNA’s recent town hall.

In newsrooms, those destructive behaviors range from overlooking underrepresented voices in the newsroom to incivility to, as one “leaver” said, an unspoken newsroom rule that white men appear most authoritative as investigative journalists, limiting that path to others.

The Society for Human Resources Management recently found that more Black workers than white workers say they see race or ethnicity-based discrimination in their workplaces, and fewer feel valued at work overall.

Just as news viewers value news sources that understand and value people like them, generations entering the workforce are increasingly diverse and increasingly value wellbeing at work.

An industry-wide focus on proactively facilitating cultures of support, pathways to growth and viable mid- to later career opportunities will be required for today’s newsrooms to successfully face their biggest threats.

Newsrooms were able to adapt to the challenges 2020 threw at them.

Now newsrooms must embrace that ability to change in recognition of today’s mandate for fundamental cultural shifts.