The Cohort: To protest or not to protest? It’s not a simple question

February 2, 2017
Category: Newsletters

The Cohort is Poynter’s bi-monthly newsletter about women kicking ass in digital media.

Earlier this week, I wrote a piece about whether journalists should participate in political demonstrations and online conversations. While the guidance has always been fairly straightforward (simply put: no), the events of the past few weeks and number of political protests have reignited the debate in newsrooms.

More often than not, the answer is still no. But I recommended that leaders provide explanations for newsroom guidelines, as well as space for journalists to talk through those decisions.

For some of you, that’s an unsatisfying answer.

I hear you. I participated in the Women’s March here in St. Petersburg, Florida, last month. It was an exhilarating experience, and I’m glad I did it.

But I didn’t decide to go until talking it over with my boss. We determined that it was appropriate to participate because it was a march, not a protest, and one with equality at its core. I had clear guidance not to hold political signs (I opted for a poster that read “Women Supporting Women”) or take part in political chants (I didn’t). We also discussed what types of demonstrations wouldn’t be appropriate to attend, which was especially helpful as protests on both sides took place throughout the following days.

If I still worked at CNN, I would have been barred by my employer against joining the Women’s March. I would have followed that guidance, but sitting on the sidelines would be especially frustrating.

Newsroom leaders must acknowledge that current events, and guidance that limits reactions to those events, can have effects on journalists that leaders may not always understand.

If a reporter is personally affected by the news, that doesn’t make her any less of a journalist. It also doesn’t make her any less effective at her job, as long as that reporter works in an environment where she can voice her concerns at the appropriate time and place. Without that, there’s a good possibility that her job performance and/or satisfaction could suffer.

Today’s journalists work in a fast-paced, uncharted and sometimes divisive environments. We are also human beings. We have thoughts and values and concerns and questions. As with the cautionary tale of Lewis Wallace, expressing those thoughts and values can sometimes come at a cost. Leaders must foster workplace cultures where journalists not only report the news, but are able to safely discuss what’s going on and make sense of what’s happening. No matter our political leanings, racial backgrounds, religious beliefs or sexual identities, we all deserve that right.

If we’re truly committed to diversity, then we need to create workplace cultures where employees feel supported and safe to voice their perspectives and feelings. For straight, White men — likely the same people who shaped today’s journalism ethics — the decision to not participate in a woman’s march may be straightforward.

But for the female videojournalist who has experienced sexual violence and edited footage of our now-President saying “grab ’em by the pussy,” that decision is much more personal, and much more difficult. The same goes for Muslims, African-Americans, Hispanics, immigrants, LGBTQ people, people with disabilities, and so on.

One group I didn’t acknowledge in my article was freelancers. If determining whether or not to demonstrate is tough for employees who work at organizations that provide guidance, it’s doubly difficult for people who are contractors or work on their own.

While I find it helpful to look at places like NPR for advice, it’s ultimately your call. Figure out what works best for you and know that it’s never a bad idea to reach out to a trusted colleague for a second opinion.

We are journalists. And no matter our employment statuses or beliefs, producing good journalism is often the most effective action we can take. Reporting facts, informing the electorate and holding elected officials on both sides accountable are key contributions to democracy. That work will likely have a greater reach than voicing personal opinions on social media.

For some, it’s hard not to be reactive right now. I know. But the decisions we make about whether or not to demonstrate and share our viewpoints on social networks don’t just affect our personal careers. They influence the public’s trust in us as truth-tellers.


Things worth reading (and listening to)
Shaya Tayefe Mohajer’s take on protesting and journalism is incredibly thoughtful and insightful. I loved Margaret Sullivan’s tribute to Mary Tyler Moore. Yep, single women today are still downplaying their professional accomplishments. Do yourself a favor and sign up for Girls’ Night In — “a newsletter and community for boss women who’d rather stay in tonight.” For more self-care love, check out Aloe. And this is a topic more women seem to be discussing lately: When do you lean back in your career?

Meet Jessica
Jessica Yu announced late last year that she was taking a buyout at The Wall Street Journal. Yu, 36, is leaving her position as Global Head of Visuals and heading to the West Coast to figure out what’s next.

Now in a period of introspection, Yu offered advice to her former self: “Don’t worry, you’re going to have a great time! Oh, and beware of those office candy bowls. Apparently sugar is no longer our friend.” She also mused on her career transition and lessons learned at the Journal. You can read the full interview here.

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The Cohort is part of Poynter’s Leadership Academy for Women in Digital Media. Thanks to Kristen Hare, who’s over the moon about the Beyoncé news, for her newsletter edits and insight.