Leadership advice

Newsroom change must be systemic, not symbolic

Advice from Jill Geisler, Bill Plante Chair in Leadership & Media Integrity, Loyola University Chicago and Freedom Forum Fellow in Women’s Leadership

The state of Mississippi voted Sunday to replace its state flag, the last in the U.S. to feature the Confederate battle emblem. 

Errin Haines, editor-at-large for The 19th whose journalism has focused on the intersection of race, ethnicity, politics and culture, tweeted a response

“Dismantling systemic racism does not happen in one day or with one decision, no matter how hard. And changing symbols without addressing structures does not fully address the institutional racism being confronted in this moment.”

Her message should resonate with news organizations, as they undergo their own racial reckoning with employees, past and present, speaking out – about staffing, promotions, coverage and culture. 

A few new hires and task forces on racial and gender equity are symbolic actions. But digging into the very structure of news organizations – the values, skills, tools, assumptions and systems that drive them – is the real work ahead. 

This work demands exceptional leadership, something that doesn’t automatically come with the title of “manager.” Newsroom supervisors are often promoted for their craft skills, but what made them good at front line journalism doesn’t guarantee they can challenge, re-imagine or dismantle the very structures they supervise.

This is a moment for news managers to look inward. To truly lead change, they need to ensure they can do the important work ahead. 

So let’s be clear on what you must not do in this important moment:

  • Don’t default to defensiveness when criticized. It’s common to protect one’s own sense of self-worth in the face of negative feedback, but leadership requires the ability to tamp down that impulse. Rather than jumping to defend your intentions or worse, attacking those who call attention to your shortcomings, leaders need to listen with an open mind and be prepared to find the truth, rather than first looking for flaws in criticism.
  • Don’t hear critiques of organizational practices as personal attacks on you. Your company’s track record of racial and gender equity may be deeply flawed, even as  you, personally, have worked for change. If you haven’t worked for change because you didn’t see the depth of the problems or felt you lacked the power to change things, do your part now.
  • Don’t resist change, especially as it affects things you created or supervised. You may have developed strategy, assigned beats, launched programs or teams – and now need to determine whether any of your creations is contributing to inequity. Don’t protect your turf, perfect it.
  • Don’t invoke rules and standard operating procedures without examining their history, application and impact. There’s comfort in citing rules or guidelines, but not when those traditional constructs are contributing to injustice. Re-examine style guides, language use, social media policy and even your definition of objectivity through the lens of how they do or don’t foster racism.
  • Don’t focus on incremental successes rather than institutional failures. This is where the symbolic can’t overshadow the systemic. Quick wins like new hires, salary adjustments, and new assignments aren’t insignificant. They prove good intent – and should be the start of a new story, not proof of “mission accomplished.”
  • Don’t assume the absence of complaints is evidence of success. When people don’t feel safe, they talk to each other, not you. Even in this historic moment of reckoning, people have genuine concerns about their job and career safety and may hold back unless you make it safe to speak up.

Finally, don’t see humility as a weakness. While confidence is seen as a positive attribute of  leaders, those with intellectual humility confront their blind spots, reflect, learn and apologize, all of which help build the trust and credibility that are essential to creating meaningful change.

Click here to read Jill’s previous posts. Click here to subscribe to Covering Coronavirus.


Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments