September 28, 2022

Below is an excerpt from The Collective, Poynter’s newsletter by journalists of color for journalists of color and our allies. Subscribe here to get it in your inbox two Wednesdays each month.

When I was a new reporter in Houston, a veteran journalist known for his gruffness and big heart joked to me, “Every newsroom is one big happy family — one big, dysfunctional family.”

I chuckled. Indeed, we had quirky characters in the newsroom who added a little kick to the gumbo.

After working in eight different newsrooms throughout the U.S. and Asia, I’ve learned psychological safety is the most important element to a successful news operation.

It’s not the big exclusive interview or the lucrative sponsored content. It is the health and well-being of the team before they head out the door to gather news.

What does this mean? It means feeling safe to pitch ideas or ask questions without getting shut down. It means knowing your colleagues and managers appreciate you and have your back. It means an inclusive culture where everyone has a voice at the table. That includes interns, who could be your next newsroom superstar.

Fear smothers creativity and innovation. An executive producer who recently left a national cable network told me a senior executive would regularly disparage staffers at editorial meetings.

“I didn’t even want to open my mouth. You were attacked and ridiculed about everything,” the executive producer said. “If I was on vacation, my senior producers did not even want to fill in for me because they’d be ridiculed about their story ideas.”

Another TV newsroom manager in a top 10 market explained to me how they are currently trying to change the company culture. This manager said even seasoned reporters are hesitant to speak up in meetings because they lived through years of the previous leadership’s “my way or the highway” management style.

If you don’t feel safe in your own newsroom, you can’t perform at the highest level.

As I look back on more than two decades in journalism, the time I felt the most unsafe was, ironically, not in the field. It was in a news organization where I survived a period of workplace bullying that happened largely out of public view. The amount of energy needed to navigate the minefield was enormous. I left the company after reporting the behavior.

Psychological safety is built on trust and support. As we emerge from the pandemic, remote or hybrid work is the new office reality for scores of journalists. It’s challenging to strengthen connections when your colleagues are in Zoom boxes.

Keila Torres Ocasio, managing editor of the Connecticut Post and a recent Poynter women’s leadership academy graduate, leans on emotional intelligence in guiding her 15 staffers through a hybrid environment. They are mostly remote and meet once a week in person in the newsroom.

The Uvalde shooting triggered raw emotions for some staffers who covered the Sandy Hook mass shooting in 2012. As they discussed local story angles right after Uvalde, Ocasio sensed some reporters were hesitant.

“I try to be very open with people. If you do not feel comfortable doing this, let me know. There’s always someone else who can do it,” said Torres, who spent a decade as a local reporter before becoming managing editor. “You remember what you liked and didn’t like (about) what your supervisors did. What made you feel comfortable and uncomfortable. I want to align my management style with what I would’ve liked when I was a reporter.”

There are many ways to create a psychologically safe environment for staffers. Here are three simple tips to start:

1. Depersonalize a tough conversation

Words and tone matter. The most effective managers depersonalize an issue so no one is on the defensive. Instead of asking a green reporter why they missed their deadline, it’s more effective to say, “Let’s walk backward and troubleshoot together. Go through the timeline of what you did today and when you did it. We’ll figure out what steps you can eliminate next time.” This approach is productive, not punitive.

2. Don’t yell

If you’re a parent, you know that yelling will trigger one of two reactions: anger or fear. Neither emotion is helpful. It’s no different in a newsroom. If you’re frustrated or angry about something, think through what you want to say then say it calmly. People respect leaders who are tough, fair, clear and calm.

3. Say thank you

Take five seconds to say thank you to someone who might not expect it. Say thank you to the digital producer who got fresh information on the website in record time. Say thank you to the photojournalist who set up extra lights and gels for an interview; tell them you noticed the difference. A show of gratitude goes a long way. In his book “What Got You Here Won’t Get You There,” executive coach Marshall Goldsmith writes, “Gratitude is not a limited resource, nor is it costly. It is as abundant as air. We breathe it in but forget to exhale.”

Subscribe to The Collective for access to subscriber-only features including exclusive Q&As with industry-leading journalists of color.

The Collective is supported by the TEGNA Foundation.

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Pauline Chiou (@PaulineChiou) is an adjunct media professor at Iona University. Previously, she worked as News Director at News 12 Westchester in New York; anchor/correspondent…
Pauline Chiou

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