TV News in a Postmodern World

The Defensive Newsroom

by Terry L. Heaton
The ugly confrontation during game 3 of the Red Sox/Yankees championship series has been dissected and analyzed a thousand times, but nobody did a better job that day than ESPN baseball analyst, Harold Reynolds. For those who missed all this, the fight broke out when Red Sox batter, Manny Ramirez, angrily approached Yankees pitcher, Roger Clemens. Ramirez thought Clemens was trying to hit him with a pitch in retaliation for an incident the previous inning when Red Sox pitcher, Pedro Martinez, hit the Yankees' Karim Garcia with a pitch. That's the way it goes in baseball. If your pitcher hits my guy, my pitcher's going to hit your guy. That the pitch Clemens threw wasn't really close to Ramirez was irrelevant, as Reynolds brilliantly pointed out. The real issue was that Ramirez was expecting Clemens to throw at him. Reynolds showed videotape of the previous pitches to Ramirez, each of which was out over the plate. With each pitch - and for just a brief instant - Ramirez was seen leaning backwards as the ball approached the plate. He was, indeed, expecting to get hit.

The point is if you're expecting to get hit, it alters your behavior, and this goes way beyond the baseball diamond. It's a universal truth in human relations. It's really about fear, and it has a lot to do with the current state of affairs in local television around the country. Fear has become the dominant influence in newsrooms everywhere, and it's one of the reasons viewers are turning away.

I know an award-winning TV News photographer who shot some rather dramatic video of a search and rescue operation but declined to tell his station, because he was afraid of losing his job over it. It seems the young man had taken his company vehicle on a personal R&R trip, and while he was there, shot the footage involving the search for a drowning victim from his market. It was the lead story on all the stations the next day, but no one had any actual footage from the scene. This photographer struggled with the decision, but in the end, his need for a paycheck came out on top. He was afraid of the repercussions of violating a company policy on personal use of a company vehicle. He had seen too many people get fired for violating other rules. He had a family to support.

This would never have happened in the newsrooms of yesteryear, not because we were any more magnanimous than the managers of today, but because getting the story was always the top priority. Everything else, including the rules and regulations of the company, took a back seat to the mission of covering the news. In my day, this photographer would've been rewarded for the footage, even while being reminded that he'd violated policy during the process of obtaining it. Fear of getting hit by the pitch was never a part of coming to work in those days. Of course, people got fired, but it took a series of major screw-ups for it to happen. There was a M*A*S*H-like esprit de corps that existed, for our common enemy was the clock, not the management of the TV station.

I believe that the fear-based culture that exists in many TV newsrooms today is directly connected to declining viewership, because a defensive business can't respond to change.

Four years ago, the newspaper industry had a come-to-Jesus meeting about where the business was heading. They created The Readership Institute and gave it a 5-year mission to research and report on ways to increase readership. The ground-breaking research by the Institute in 2000-2001 was a multipart "Impact" study of 100 daily U.S. newspapers. One of the key components of this research was the culture of a newsroom.

Newspaper readership has continued to decline for three decades despite extensive research into reader issues and many reader-growth activities at newspapers across the country. So from the outset of the Impact Study, the Readership Institute felt there must be an internal, organizational factor at play that was keeping newspapers from doing the things they knew they should do. The hypothesis was that culture would be linked ultimately to readership.

This, in fact, proved to be the case. Impact research shows that newspapers with constructive cultures tend also to have higher readership. The finding echoes results from hundreds of studies in other businesses that link the culture of the workplace to employee satisfaction, customer satisfaction and business outcomes, such as profitability and shareholder returns.

If that's true for newspapers, it is equally true for TV news departments.

The Impact study defined "culture" as the shared beliefs and values that shape employees' thinking and behaviors - or more colloquially, "the way we do things around here." About 5,500 employees at all levels in news, advertising, circulation and marketing at 90 newspapers completed three surveys to diagnose the prevalent operating culture at their newspaper and its effect on people and the business. They found that cultures could be divided into two types: constructive and defensive and that over 80% of the newspapers in the study group were functioning in defensive cultures.

Constructive cultures tend to be outward-looking and responsive to market and technological changes. They expect achievement at both the individual and the group level. Collaboration and coordination across departments are not optional - it is how they operate. In businesses generally, those with a constructive culture deliver superior long-term performance and more satisfied customers and employees.

In contrast, defensive cultures resist change. People are expected to focus on how well they are doing, as opposed to how well the group or the organization - or customer - is doing. They tend to operate in departmental silos.

The study went on to define three types of defensive cultures found at the newspapers.

Aggressive Defensive. The primary behavioral style in these newsroom is perfectionistic, because people are expected to approach tasks in forceful ways to protect their status and security. "People feel they must avoid all mistakes, keep track of everything and work long hours to meet narrow objectives." It is a classic stress creator. The secondary behavioral style is "oppositional," wherein confrontation is the norm. It is a culture that focuses on avoiding mistakes rather than making improvements.

Passive Defensive. Here, people do what it takes to please others and avoid interpersonal conflict. Rules, procedures and orders are followed without question. Jobs are narrowly defined and supervision is intense. "Managers rarely catch employees doing things right, but never miss when they do things wrong."

Passive/Aggressive Defensive. This is a combination of both of the above.

Is any of this beginning to sound familiar?

Constructive cultures, on the other hand, encourage workers to reach their potential, resulting in high levels of achievement, job satisfaction, sales growth, and service quality. They are humanistic in their approach to people, and the emphasis on achievement generates excellence and problem-solving.

The Institute also asked those 5,500 employees to define their ideal work culture, which produced significant gaps between the existing culture and the ideal. The biggest things lacking in the newsrooms?

  • Giving positive rewards to others
  • Encouraging others
  • Helping others to develop
  • Enjoyment of work
  • Opportunity to think in unique and independent ways
  • Maintaining personal integrity
Fear is a corroding thread that reaches out far beyond the newsroom in which it exists. It touches everything with which it comes into contact, and that includes the audience of a television news show. If our newspaper brethren can safely conclude that defensive newsroom cultures turn away readers, why can't we see that it does the same thing to television news viewers? People who consistently come to work in fear of their jobs simply cannot do a good job of reporting and presenting the news.

There's an old adage that newsrooms take on the personalities of their news directors, so news managers must bear much of the blame for a defensive culture. However, I know many news directors who regularly fear for their jobs as well, so compassion for newsroom employees must also extend to the managers. Who's really to blame? Well, we all are, but assigning blame isn't going to fix the problem. Besides, it's another defensive trait.

Each of us must decide - at one level or another - that we're simply not going to accept working in a defensive culture. Regardless of your place in the newsroom pecking order, you can make a choice that today will be different. What can you do? Here are some ideas:

  1. The clock is your only enemy. This is the universal truth of television news and what makes our business so different from anybody else's.
  2. Emphasize what was done well over what was done poorly. Do this with yourself and with everybody around you. You'll never overcome a negative mindset by dwelling on negatives. It's a waste of energy. Congratulate yourself and those around you - even in things that seem minuscule - and you'll be amazed at how much different it will be when you come to work the next day. Don't dwell on mistakes; not yours; not the other guy's. The clock doesn't care.
  3. Always thank your co-workers before you go home at night. No matter how "good" you are, it takes an enormous team effort to get anybody's work on the air. Everybody's important, and so much of our business requires that little "extra" or "above and beyond" that we tend to take it for granted when somebody takes a risk to get the job done. We need those risks and nothing will produce them like an environment of appreciation.
  4. Expand your responsibilities to include those around you. Always ask where you can help somebody else. This seems so obvious, but it's amazing how many people in newsrooms won't go beyond their own cubicles in pulling together the daily product. A newsroom is a living entity with a real enemy. I am my brother's keeper.
  5. Your boss is not responsible for your happiness. We're not victims of bad bosses or bad general managers or bad corporations. We're victims of the way we react to them. No matter how lousy a manager you have to work for, your misery is your choice. If you give the power of your happiness over to somebody, anybody else, you'll always be living for them.
  6. Stop comparing yourself and your work to others - especially those across-the-street. Your audience isn't watching them. They're watching YOU.
The last few years have witnessed an escalating animosity between management and labor and a general disrespect for co-workers in the local news business. This is demonstrated over and over on Internet bulletin boards such as the Watercooler and Newsblues. It's beyond sad. It's tragic, and I believe it can be directly attributed to the defensive cultures of most modern TV newsrooms. Like our friends in the newspaper world, we need to address this, because competing in a fragmented, Postmodern world demands that we be able to quickly respond to change.

That's hard to do when you're expecting to get hit by the pitch.