Self-interest is on the job in newsrooms
Journalists seldom like to talk about how they handle the 800-pound gorilla in the newsroom. Some deny it even exists.
But whether they walk around it, close their eyes to it, try to tame it, or proudly showcase it, every journalist in every mainstream newsroom is influenced by the presence of his or her own selfish interests and biases.
For the strategic business communications executive, it is vital to ascertain a journalist’s career aspirations and private motivations. Doing so is certainly as instructive – and I would argue much more essential – than knowing a reporter’s tenure on the job, where s/he attended school, awards won, and positions previously held.
Job survival is self-interest No. 1.
All mainstream journalists – even those at the highest tiers of newsroom management – must navigate the question of what their superiors expect and require of them to remain on the payroll.
How do they measure up versus the competition?
If they are in print, how frequently must they publish? Cover stories? Exclusives? If they are on television or radio, what are their ratings? For Internet-based journalists, how many times have their reports been viewed?
Such considerations do impact a journalist’s news judgment. How many potentially “newsworthy” stories have never seen the light of day because a journalist has calculated that such a report – while potentially meaningful to readers or viewers – isn’t the type that will win plaudits from the newsroom brass?
Does a financial columnist ever dare to place a disclaimer such as this on a column?
“I was planning to write on a different topic, but news events overtook me. So I threw this together at the last minute. My editor would kill me if I told her I have nothing for her. As such, this column is not as well-thought or researched as most of the work I publish. Please don’t adjust your investment outlook based on anything I write today.”
Of course, no journalist would risk such naked honesty. But which financial columnist hasn’t had to scramble to cook up a last-minute editorial omelet?
Heavy-handed editors often revise a journalist’s copy to the point of non-recognition. Seasoned writers and reporters know how to push back; younger hires often do not. To keep their jobs, many young journalists keep their mouths shut. (Often, of course, their more tenured editors are correct in their judgment – which works to protect story subjects.)
But how many young journalists – or journalists of any age for that matter – advise their interview subjects upfront that their copy may be reworked into an unrecognizable form by an unseen editor? Generally, journalists do not like to advertise that the final news product is not fully within their control.
Financial wire service reporters know all too well that they will be scrutinized by how quickly they are able to push out breaking news. What they write may move the markets to the tune of hundreds of millions – even billions – of dollars immediately. Do diligent reporters hold a news release pending clarification – knowing their news rivals will run it instantly – or do they disseminate it as is rather than receive demerits for being late? That is a daily dilemma for many.
And what about career aspirations? Not only do journalists want to keep their current bosses happy, but in the back of their minds some of them are factoring what they can do to impress the editor or editors at the news organization they want to work at next.
I once received a call from the business editor of a daily metropolitan newspaper asking me for advice on what he should include in his Sunday column in order to impress a particular editor who I know well at The Wall Street Journal – where he aspired to work.
The business editor did not ask me my opinion of what his readers would most likely find beneficial. That wasn’t foremost on his mind.
A journalist’s career track and ambition may be the chief undeclared self-interest that holds sway over how reporters and editors cover the business world and interact with communications executives. But professional self-interests alone are far from the only unseen influences that journalists must balance daily.
Family life. Political affiliation. Economic class. Health concerns. Each of these background characteristics skew the prism through which journalists view the world at large and their story subjects in particular.
The facts remain the facts, but journalists have abundant freedom to interpret those details, prioritize them, ignore them and spin them as their professional and personal experiences dictate.
At the most basic level, knowing more – in advance – about a journalist who will arrive soon to interview you or your CEO can prevent awkward moments. For example, making an offhand remark about a news rival, corporate competitor or social cause, without realizing that the journalist’s spouse, sibling, parent or child is closely affiliated with the concern in question.
More profoundly, a journalist who personally has gone through a traumatic experience – such as a cancer diagnosis, bankruptcy, car accident or consumer product injury – or who has a close family member who has faced such a crisis – is simply not likely to report a related story in the same manner as a colleague who never had the experience.
That is not sinister – just human.
The more we know about what drives a journalist – both in the newsroom and at home – the more accurately we can forecast whether a forthcoming interaction with that journalist will be run-of-the-mill, extraordinarily positive, or the onset of a major communications migraine.
What’s in a journalist’s official bio or LinkedIn profile counts. But not nearly as much as what you won’t find there.
Dean Rotbart is the founder of NewsBios.com