Colleges can’t wait for newsrooms to fix themselves

Newsrooms must treat their people as ethically as their sources and their copy. Journalism schools can jump-start this change.

Category: Ethics & Trust

For all the brave journalism that has been produced this tumultuous and unprecedented summer, some old themes also reemerged: news executives accused of insensitivity, toxicity and bias; fellow journalists accusing a now-fired anchor of rape, sexual misconduct and harassment; publicly voiced frustration by journalists of color.

As disparate as these stories may seem, their connective tissue, their common news value, is not “what” or “who” but “where”: newsrooms, which seem indifferent to basic work values and where bullying is often the norm and sometimes celebrated as good management.

But imagine virtual and physical newsrooms where all journalists —freelance, entry-level or seasoned — are treated as ethically as the copy they painstakingly produce. Imagine newsroom managers who get the best out of their staff without resorting to threats. Imagine the next generation of journalists who improve the news product because they are seen and heard, respected and feel as if they can belong.

As today’s executives reckon with own their newsroom practices, we believe colleges and universities cannot wait. We educators must jump-start progress toward these goals by training future journalists to thrive in newsrooms and to become effective leaders and managers. To become a core competency of the industry, ethical leadership and management must be taught and not just assumed.

Newsrooms — and by extension, journalism schools — understandably are fixated on producing timely content accurately and ethically. Our research shows that journalists, who see their job as solely producing news content, view themselves exempt from proven techniques about effective and ethical leadership and management skills. In fact, many of those leading our largest newsrooms have received little to no training at all during their careers.

This outdated culture doesn’t reflect or serve today’s America. Recent studies show that young women and young people of color leave the news industry at disproportionate numbers after facing ill treatment, a lack of respect or worse. This is a leadership issue; managing people and being an ethical colleague must be as necessary as fact-checking and powerful prose.

Specifically, our research documents that sexual misconduct thrives in newsrooms that act as “networks of complicity”— social networks that enable persistent unethical behavior. The headline-grabbing litany of star journalists who lost their jobs because of sexual misconduct spans journalistic fields and platforms. This is more than a few bad apples. In some cases, knowledge of these unethical behaviors appeared to be widespread and ignored by others within news organizations.

Our research shows the problems are systemic. They are deeply embedded in toxic cultures that have been supported by highly problematic organizational practices and policies in the U.S. press over decades, which despite our country’s evolving demographics, have not kept pace and remain primarily white and male-dominated.

It’s time to end newsroom “gaslighting,” in which people who look different from newsroom leaders or did not grow up in privilege are made to feel as if they don’t get it, with “it” as a moving target. It’s time to end the pervasive gossip and reputational harm, bullying, incivility, and disrespect. It’s time to end a reliance on freelancers and “permanent temps,” which may control costs but disrupt careers and destabilize newsrooms. It’s time to lift the veil on hiring and promotion practices, to lessen toxicity and workplace politics.

Diversity and inclusion are important to measure because something is broken when only a certain demographic rises to the top. It’s also critical that we move the conversation beyond the pigeonhole of identity and ensure that journalists of all backgrounds understand the behaviors and competencies of leading and managing ethically. We believe today’s journalism majors of all races, ethnicities, colors, genders, sexuality and religions will eventually help change this culture. In the meantime, we will equip them to recognize and ensure safe workplaces for all; manage themselves and manage others; and understand how technology and economics affect editorial decisions.

This isn’t coddling. Today’s journalism majors are just as tough — if not tougher — than graduates of the last century, when industry profits were fat, newsrooms were more robust and the public was less hostile. These young people, born after 9/11, have seen their families suffer through the Great Recession and now the COVID-19 health and economic disasters. Their parents and relatives might have fought in wars overseas while facing injustices at home. Meanwhile the price of education skyrocketed and the number of internships (often unpaid) needed to get a newsroom job multiplied.

Students gutsy enough to seek journalism as a career will benefit from understanding how ethical newsrooms operate, as well as learning how news is produced. Those two efforts are more intertwined than the news industry has acknowledged in the past.

Newsrooms can treat their people as ethically as their sources and their copy. Everyone may not get a seat at the table, but in ethical newsrooms, more journalists have a fair shot. More voices, more ideas, newer ways of running a business can only make the news product better.

The authors are designing a course and an open-source curriculum on ethical newsroom leadership, developed at the University of Texas at Austin in partnership with The Press Forward: Minette Drumwright, director of UT’s Communication and Leadership Degree Program; Kathleen McElroy, director of UT’s School of Journalism and Media; and Carolyn McGourty Supple, cofounder and executive director of The Press Forward and a visiting professor at the University of Texas at Austin. To learn more, go here