‘We needed to work to change the culture of media organizations’

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Freedom Forum Institute

Jill Geisler speaks during the Newseum's Power Shift Summit in January.

Veteran public radio programmer and trainer Helen Barrington recently interviewed the principal creators of the Power Shift Project, an initiative to help journalism organizations create healthy, safe workplaces for all of their employees.

Jill Geisler, an award-winning journalist and former television news director who has guided news leadership and management programs in multiple roles, worked with Cathy Trost of the Freedom Forum Institute in Washington, D.C., to design a curriculum for the Newseum. This week, the Newseum convenes its third Power of Workplace Integrity workshop of the year for news leaders and other staff. The two-day workshops are designed for those who complete the training to present the curriculum within their own organizations.

Barrington completed the workshop in September and described it to Current as a transformative experience. She enrolled out of deepening concern about the bullying, sexual harassment and misconduct within public media organizations. The steady stream of troubling news accounts that began last fall “makes it doubly difficult to recruit young journalists, particularly women and people of color, to work in public media,” she wrote. “This may be obvious, but no one does their best work while being harassed.”

Trost and Geisler also recognized an urgent need to develop a solutions-based approach for eliminating bullying and sexual harassment in media organizations, as they discuss in this exchange with Barrington.

Trost and Geisler responded to Barrington’s questions in writing. This transcript of their exchange has been edited.

Helen Barrington: What are the origins of the Power Shift Project?

Cathy Trost: Last fall, the wave of revelations about sexual harassment and misconduct launched a national outcry about pervasive problems in the media. Jan Neuharth, chair and CEO of the Freedom Forum, saw a need to respond to this critical moment. With Jan’s encouragement, we organized the Power Shift Summit at the Newseum in early January. It brought together more than 130 leaders and human resources professionals from newsrooms, journalism organizations and universities, along with victims, advocates, and representatives of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the National Women’s Law Center.

Freedom Forum Institute

Marie Nelson, PBS VP of news and public affairs, speaks during the Power Shift Summit.

The summit looked at systemic causes and a path to change. We later summarized those findings in a report.

One of the most critical things we learned from the summit was that we needed to work to change the culture of media organizations. It was so clear and so urgent that the Freedom Forum Institute launched the Power Shift Project. It was conceived as an industry-wide initiative to improve the quality and future of journalism by creating safer, more equal and diverse newsrooms.

We reached out to Jill, who had helped us design the summit. We invited her to become the Freedom Forum Institute’s Fellow in Women’s Leadership. In that role, she immediately began developing a customized curriculum, tailored to media organizations and designed to promote workplace integrity.

What do you mean by the term “workplace integrity”? What does it encompass?

Trost: We define it as environments free of harassment, discrimination and incivility, and filled with opportunity, especially for those who have traditionally been denied it.

Jill built the workplace integrity workshop to offer what other training programs often lack. It’s delivered in person and designed to be completely interactive. It presumes participants have plenty of wisdom to contribute to the process. It’s solutions-based rather than shame-based.

How did you structure the program?

Trost: Jill’s vision was to create a “train the trainers” program at the Newseum. Media organizations choose staff to complete two days of training and then deliver in their own shops. People leave the training with a complete turnkey kit of teaching materials to use back home. The in-house training takes one day to complete.

Jill Geisler: I wanted to set the table for conversations people don’t customarily have at work. Rather than a preachy thou shalt not lecture, it focuses on three things:

  • Critical thinking: How we carefully think through how the words we use, the assumptions we have, and the logic we apply — and how all of these affect how we work with each other, for better or worse.
  • Courageous conversations: How we can be proactive by raising issues before they become flashpoints, and how to respond in problematic situations.  
  • Culture of respect and trust: How we create a good working environment by focusing on behaviors and choices, rather than generalities. How to clearly define what a healthy culture looks like within an organization — and what commitment that requires from individuals, teams and the organization’s leadership.

Each session builds on the next. By the end of the daylong, in-house workshop, participants have had candid conversations, worked through case studies framed in real-world media issues and created their own road maps for upgrading the culture.

Trost: Our first class of trainers represented media organizations across the country and they graduated in June. Our second class graduated in September, and we’re rounding out the year with the November workshop.

We are planning a robust schedule for 2019. Dates for “train the trainers” workshops are January 16-17, March 26-27, June 12-13, August 15-16 and October 16-17. The second annual Power Shift Summit will take place at the Newseum on January 15.

For organizations that can’t send their own staff, we have a “Go Team” of trainers. 

What kinds of organizations are participating in the trainings? Both for profit and non-profit news organizations?

Geisler: People from a wide range of media organizations, including public broadcasters, participated in the first two trainings: NPR, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, an NPR member station and a statewide public media network. Two representatives from a public media professional organization are in the workshop we’re holding this week.

Other participants have been from major national and regional newspapers, television networks, digital media organizations and journalism schools.  

Why did you choose the approach of training people from inside to transform the culture from within, rather than outside consultants? Were you concerned about perceptions that consultants may be perceived as representing management?

Geisler: People who work in media, especially journalists, are a tough audience for trainers. I say that with great affection. As I remind the managers I teach and coach: we treasure journalists who question authority and resist spin — until they apply those skills to us.

Any training has to respect journalists’ knowledge, experience and skepticism. Both the trainer and the content have to be credible. The right outsider might earn credibility, but a trusted insider has a special advantage.

Then there’s the practical side: reduced expense and expedited delivery. Consultants and curriculum can be expensive investments. At a time when news budgets are tight, high quality training at low cost is a real gift to the industry. We train a company’s staff and send them home with all the tools they need to teach.  

One key takeaway from the Power Shift Summit was that bullying and incivility are often gateways to sexual harassment. How do news organizations get a handle on these behaviors? In newsrooms, they are often rationalized as how things are in deadline-driven environments, or necessary for ensuring quality work. How do you insist on civility in the workplace?

Geisler: This is a core part of the curriculum that deals with creating a culture of respect and trust. Staff, managers and the company’s leadership work together to describe unacceptable behaviors and how to deal with them.

When your own colleagues agree that bullies don’t win here — or adopt the famous No Asshole Rule promulgated by Stanford Business Professor Bob Sutton — it makes it easier to call out bad behavior early.  With peer pressure, supported by management that sanctions bad actors, there’s a new normal at work.

Are you or participants in the first workshops finding resistance from leadership or HR to the internal trainings that are being done? Or from leaders whose staff want to take this training? What’s the resistance and how do you break through?

Geisler: I’ve heard very little about resistance. Several of the organizations have sent HR leaders and other top managers to the trainings. They become the home town advocates.

It’s understandable for organizations to want to know how the curriculum aligns with other training already underway in their workplace. (It does.) Or whether union leadership should be consulted in advance. (Good idea!) Or why roll it out if there have been no formal sexual misconduct complaints filed in a workplace to date? (It’s no guarantee you’re problem-free.)

Once an organization completes the internal  training, what do they do to sustain the work? This is not a one and done kind of situation. It has to be ongoing.

Geisler: Each person leaves the workshop training with a personal plan. Everyone is invited to document what was agreed upon. Participating organizations often form teams to carry out the changes suggested for building a culture of respect and trust. Managers are tasked with looking for quick wins and bigger, structural changes in processes and policies. The goal is to embed the changes into the culture, until they are so deep they become automatic reflexes, understood by all.

What do you say to leadership that doesn’t want to go beyond online sexual harassment training, which is what the law requires? Some might not see a reason to offer in-person training.

Trost: The EEOC’s Select Task Force on Sexual Harassment in the Workplace looked at traditional anti-harassment training and found it lacking. These programs focus on minimizing legal liability, and much of it is generic to all workplaces, rather than customized. Further, online training doesn’t allow for conversation and interaction among co-workers.

The EEOC task force report, issued in 2016 was prescient. It called for new approaches to training, with close involvement of mid-level managers, a focus on civility, as well as harassment, and in-person delivery whenever possible.

The Task Force reconvened in 2018 for a public hearing. Jill testified about the Freedom Forum’s Power Shift Project and how the workplace integrity curriculum was developed for a media industry that was clearly in need of help.

How do news organizations manage stars or talent who are perceived to be bringing in significant revenue, but violate the principles of workplace integrity?

Geisler: Leaders should remember that staff is always watching how management deals with stars. Employees understand that high-profile talent may be paid more, have a stronger voice in editorial content and enjoy perks, like office space or support staff. But if one of those perks is permission to break the rules that others follow, management creates a toxic environment. When stars can set their own standards regarding ethics, harassment, discrimination or incivility, it kills morale, drives good staff away and undermines the credibility of the organization.

By talking with every hire about workplace standards, being quick to address problems when they first surface, being clear about the consequences of inappropriate behavior — and following through when it does occur — managers build trust among employees.

It’s understood that no one, however powerful, can abuse others at work. Recent scandals have provided ample evidence that managers must value the integrity of the workplace more than ratings or revenue produced by star talent.

What are some of the ways to empower people to report uncivil behavior without fear of retribution?

Trost: It starts when leaders of organizations communicate a clear commitment to fostering workplaces of respect and trust. They need to create HR systems that protect employees as well as employers, and that foster a culture where employees feel confident they can bring their concerns forward without fear of reprisal.

In other words, employees must be assured they can report misconduct without fear of retaliation. Internal workplace systems must back that up. It’s also necessary for organizations to provide clarity about the adjudication of complaints and concerns so there is real transparency about consequences for people who abuse power.

Employee peer support groups can be a real way to help colleagues deal with problems and help guide them, if needed, through the formal process.

Since interns, freelancers, part-time staff, temps, consultants and young women are the most vulnerable to harassment and bullying, what can be done to protect them? Are there additional efforts being made with respect to interns?

Trost: One of the recurring themes of the Power Shift Summit was that young women and interns are prime targets for harassment. They need to be mentored, supported and instructed on how to deal with inappropriate behavior. The companies that hire them need to understand the risk factors and the ways they can prevent such behavior.

One of the first major initiatives we undertook at the Power Shift Project was streamed live from the Newseum in March 2018. It offers practical advice on what educators and employers need to know — and do — to ensure safe workplaces full of opportunity for these vulnerable workers. Power to the Interns: Strengthening Intern Preparation in a #MeToo World was viewed by more than 2,000 people. In addition, there was a session on the same topic, but from the employer’s perspective.

As part of our growing library of educational resources, we have archived the videos online as well as tips sheets for educators, who supervise student internships, employers who hire interns and for newsroom interns themselves.

What are the consequences of not dealing with bullying, sexual harassment and misconduct?

Trost: Environments that enable or ignore sexual harassment cause high turnover among women and others who feel unsafe and unsupported. News organizations lose valuable talent and diverse views, and put themselves at risk of potential legal liabilities and reputational harm.

How do you orient new staff to the organizational culture? Does a description of that culture, for example, become part of the interview process for prospective staff?

Geisler: When workplace integrity becomes the culture, not just a training event, its principles and goals are embedded in all possible touch points of employee life: interviews, onboarding, daily feedback, peer conversations, evaluations, employee surveys and even exit interviews.

Freedom Forum Institute

Geisler and Trost participate in a panel discussion at the Newseum’s first Power Shift Summit in January 2017.

How does gathering and releasing data on newsroom demographics promote changes in culture?

Trost: Diverse newsrooms are critical to the economic survival of the industry as the demographics of news consumers changes. Media organizations need to be transparent about hiring, retention and promotion of women and people of color. One important step is for newsrooms to gather and make public the data on their newsroom demographics. Data should include the gender and ethnic makeup of editorial employees at all levels.

What are you hearing from the organizations that have sent staff to trainings?

Geisler: I recently moderated a U.S. Senate debate on TV in my home state of Wisconsin. When I arrived at the station, the general manager introduced himself and proudly said he’d attended a regional workplace integrity workshop. He felt it opened his eyes to the nuanced issues and enabled him to look at the workplace from the perspectives of many employees. As you can imagine, his feedback was a joy to hear.

Another trainer told me she did a training for a small newspaper in her group. Men were the majority in the room. She said they were engaged and enthusiastic about the exercises and conversations. I think that’s because the format doesn’t presume guilt or shame are necessary for things to improve, but rather presumes people want tools to understand, communicate and do the right thing — and to know what to do when others don’t.

What are your ultimate hopes for Power Shift?

Trost: The goal is stronger, healthier media organizations. While the emphasis is on eliminating sexual harassment and misconduct, we can help make a difference in how all of us, especially our leaders, stand up for creating a culture of respect and dignity in our workplaces. Forging a path to true culture change will help reverse the corrosive effects of power imbalances while elevating gender equity and fair treatment for all.

If you were to give three pieces of advice, in the area of preventive medicine, what would they be?

Geisler: 1) Don’t focus only on what’s legal; think about what’s right. 2) Understand that people are fearful of reporting misconduct and it’s up to leaders to allay those fears. 3) Remember that the language of the leader becomes the newsroom’s stylebook.

Helen Barrington is a public media consultant and chief creative officer at Whiskey Lane Productions in West Roxbury, Mass. She has worked in public radio — at stations and at the national level — for almost three decades. Her current portfolio includes program and podcast development and production. She also co-presents training workshops for content leaders through the Public Radio Program Directors Association.

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