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Now the Details

Media, ethics, and journalism. What works. What doesn't.

Jeffrey Dvorkin

Friday, October 26, 2012

Newsrooms and the Culture of Bullying

At a recent conference on Media Ethics in Oxford, one of the participants, Professor Angela Phillips, mentioned in passing that in her experience at some of Britain's premier news organizations, bullying was a "normal" part of the newsroom culture. "Endemic," was how she described it.

Hearing from other British attendees, they seemed to agree that British newsrooms were always unpleasant places. In recent years, with the economic uncertainly that affects media organizations everywhere, have newsrooms have gotten worse? And what is management doing to stop it?

In the UK, I was told, it's part of the way the "boys" in the newsroom prolong the way they socialized in school. This is especially the case when senior journalists and managers come from the same public (aka private) school backgrounds.

What about the increased presence of women in the media? Hasn't that made a difference, I asked?

Not much, apparently. Women in management in UK media tend to take on some of the worst aspects of the culture in order to survive. (See Rebekah Brooks).

My own experiences at CBC and NPR were both different and somewhat the same as the Brits.

One of my bosses described the news culture as "a contact sport." That often allowed for a certain amount of creative tension as journalists would vie to get on the front page or be the lede story on the broadcast. That was the good side of an aggressive journalistic culture.

CBC was always (with some shop floor exceptions) pretty civil about insuring that employees were respectful to one another. CBC Radio had a long tradition of bosses who were women and they were for the most part, quite good at creating a non-aggressive environment. There were always exceptions, but rather Canadian, in many ways.

CBC TV was a much tougher place. And newsroom bullies were legion (and a surprising number, now that I think of it, were Brits). But in the 1980s and 90s, there was a regular turnover of about 20% annually. People would come and go, so the ability of cliques to form and have undue influence was minimal.

NPR was different. It may be public radio, but it could be aggressively American, in a public radio sort of way. There was a strong clash of egos, especially among the senior journalists, just below the management ranks. There was relatively little turnover, in part because there are few alternatives to NPR. This created a strong sense of territoriality on the shop floor. And senior journalists would be very conscience of their turf, banding together, keeping potential challengers and outsiders at bay.

The recent series of stories on school bullying has been covered - I sense - reluctantly by news organizations. The fear of having to look at themselves may be too strong for many news organizations to give this story the attention it deserves. 

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