One universal and early step in the process of reporting a story is when someone gets an idea. Less universal is what happens after that: Who decides that the idea gets to survive and turn into an actual story? Who kills ideas — and will we ever hear about those pitches? Which reporters get more approvals, and which get fewer? These questions and their answers define our newsrooms’ pitch processes, however informal. And if we aren’t careful, unconscious bias can flourish and thrive within pitch procedures.
Our handling of story ideas can have built-in defenses against the biases that all of us bring to work every day.
Let’s define the problem we’re solving: We all have bias, and therefore, the way we approve story ideas incorporates bias. We have both been nudging newsrooms to change their policies and processes to be more inclusive in our cultures and work processes; Celeste has been working with journalists across public media, while Vinnee has been doing this work internally at KQED with support from senior leaders, such as Chief Content Officer Holly Kernan. As Celeste has said, the first step is to understand that what we refer to as “news instinct” is bias. Your gut thinking is vulnerable to unconscious bias. And, the higher your IQ, the smarter you are, the more prone you are to fall prey to bias.
During a Public Media Journalists Association panel in June, Celeste talked about an example involving reporters pitching to NPR. A Black reporter had pitched a story about VP Kamala Harris. The bureau chief turned it down, and when a white reporter pitched the same idea, it was accepted. Those involved will say that the decision involved a complex range of factors beyond the race of the reporters, and they’re right. Since records are not kept of stories that are rejected, it’s hard to know how unconscious bias contributes to editorial decisions.
We would guess you could find examples like this in any and every newsroom.
Given that, updating our pitch processes can be a high-impact way to improve our cultures and our journalism at the same time. Defending against bias in pitching serves both audiences and our journalists. Here, we share some some actionable ideas for our colleagues in newsrooms around the country.
Policy and behavioral change will bring public media newsrooms to the next level. Here are some questions you could ask yourself about your pitch process:
How many editors are required to consider an idea and give it a green light?
If the answer is one, your process is likely too siloed. If your newsroom has only one or a couple of editors, that’s no problem. But consider sharing decision-making power with a larger group, including reporters, producers and others involved in the editorial process. The more democratic you make the decision-making process, the better your results will be.
Do you keep a record of the story ideas that are turned down?
If no, how do you know whether you might be dismissing ideas that your colleagues — and your audience — might find valuable? Consider keeping a log of ideas that have been shelved, killed or otherwise passed over. The log can be a checkpoint, or a signal, to see whether any particular person needs guidance or a redirection about harmful bias they’re bringing into the newsroom. Also, consider keeping tabs on whose pitches are getting turned down.
How could I design my newsroom’s pitch meeting to prevent bias and promote the best ideas?
One useful concept in designing the meeting is choice architecture, which is essentially how you present choices to a user and how that presentation influences their decision.
- Make pitches anonymous. This helps mitigate positive and negative bias that people have about each other.
- Create meeting roles, including a cheerleader and devil’s advocate. A cheerleader roots for every idea, highlighting its strengths and doing what a cheerleader does best. A devil’s advocate, meanwhile, challenges the story idea and hopefully helps to improve it on its way to fruition. This ensures all ideas get some promotion and increase the chance that people can see ideas from other points of view.
- Make the decision by majority vote. Democratizing the greenlight power is inclusive and has the benefit of leading to better story choices.
- Keep a record. If patterns of bias are hurting story choice, you’ll have a way to track it.
When an idea is accepted, do reporters know why? And do they receive feedback on what could be adjusted or changed in their idea or approach?
The pitch process is a huge chance for people to get useful and productive feedback to make their stories the best they can be. Without a process to consider the ideas and share feedback, it’s difficult to collect input from newsroom colleagues whom you might worry about bothering for fear of taking up their valuable time when they have their own deadlines.
If an audience member asks how you decide what to cover, what’s the answer?
We need to build trust with our audiences more than ever. And if we can’t explain how and why we are making our decisions about coverage, then it’s time we figured that out.
Lastly, ask yourself: What makes for a successful story?
A clear answer can help the entire newsroom have a conversation and pull in the same direction.
We have both met with resistance as we push for changes in the way we work. We’re talking about real changes, not just on staffing or messaging. But this resistance is a big problem in our cultures of inclusion and belonging.
Public media, for all the work we’ve done to improve, has gotten better at recruiting but is still quite bad at retention. Newsrooms across the public media system are grappling with how to adapt into places that are inclusive and welcoming to journalists from untraditional backgrounds and marginalized communities.
“When people are shot down and second-guessed, that makes them feel like, ‘Wow, I don’t belong here, I don’t know what I’m doing,’” Celeste said in June. “There is no point in recruiting diverse people if their ideas don’t change your behavior. You might as well have a monochrome newsroom.”
Understandably, people can feel resistant to changing how they work, leaning on that instinctive belief that change is risking the trust and credibility that journalism had long enjoyed. But that trust is mostly gone and needs to be rebuilt. One way we can start to rebuild is to create pitch processes that enable more people to have a say in which stories get done. Hopefully, those stories can be more reflective of our country and its people today.
Celeste Headlee is an author, consultant and longtime host of public media, anchoring shows like Tell Me More, The Takeaway and 1A.
Vinnee Tong is a John S. Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford University, and on temporary leave as news director at KQED. Previously she was part of the founding team of The Bay podcast at KQED and a reporter at the Associated Press. Vinnee serves on the board of The Daily Californian, the student newspaper where she worked while in college.