Advice from a recovering journalist – Editor and Publisher

Advice from a recovering journalist – Editor and Publisher

Jill Jackson | for Editor & Publisher

Nearly three years ago, I left journalism. I still loved the work and the adrenaline rush that accompanied a breaking news story but was burning out fast, leading NPR member station KUOW’s newsroom in Seattle.

We were all reeling from covering the pandemic, racial strife and nightly protests requiring bulletproof vests and gas masks. The vests were in such short supply we had to coordinate handoffs outside my house each day. I’d snap a picture of my colleagues as they came by for the vests or other PPE, their eyes smiling behind their masks despite our world falling apart.

For my entire adult life, journalism was also my identity. I’d produced interviews with presidents, 9/11 survivors and CEOs and roamed the halls of Congress following the daily legislative grind.

In 2020, however, my priorities shifted. With one child tackling first-grade remote school and the other a little masked preschooler, it was time for more stability. I chose a new career that I previously considered to be selling out. Journalism is supposed to be a calling, and I was abandoning it for a job.

Luckily, this second career is surprisingly fulfilling. As a communications and public affairs consultant, I’m in the room where critical decisions are made, and our work can influence many — from large corporations to the most vulnerable in our society. I can still make a difference.

In my journalism days, I would have much advice for communications professionals: Don’t send me 10 emails, making sure I saw your first one. Did you even look me up before emailing me about some gadget our viewers would die for? If you had, you’d know I would never cover that. Also, do we know each other? Why the overly familiar tone?

But now, I have some advice for journalists, having seen the institution from the outside and watched a decline in its credibility. Just 23% of Americans believe journalists act in the public’s best interest, and 50% believe the national news media intentionally misleads them — not to mention the news fatigue fueled by negative news bias.

Then there are the ongoing controversies involving celebrity anchors like Tucker Carlson and Don Lemon. These scandals help create a vacuum with younger news consumers following social media personalities to stay informed — reinforcing confirmation bias.

So, I share these five thoughts for my former colleagues to consider in the hopes of turning things around:

Check your premise, and be prepared to pivot.

Too often, a journalist’s pitch for a story is approved, and the reporter is expected to deliver the story as promised. This expectation leads many to shop for an expert who will confirm the premise and only provide a quick, perfunctory quote from someone with a different view. As someone who now fields requests for those “my deadline is in two hours” comments, I can tell you that some truth is left out by doing this. I’ve scrambled in these cases to share data and context that is ultimately ignored in the name of no time.

Journalists must be prepared to challenge their hypotheses and let the research and reporting lead the way, even if it means completely changing direction. 

Check your hero narrative.

The media loves a hero and builds up someone like a rising athlete or CEO, only to later report using the fallen hero narrative. Most of us can probably rattle off numerous examples, from Elizabeth Holmes to Dan Price. Often, the subject of these stories isn’t as high profile, however.

From behind the scenes, I can share that “hero” figures often have power over others who don’t feel they can speak out against them. Or, if litigation is involved, the other perspective can be silenced.

In short, to my former colleagues, challenge this narrative the next time you write that someone is beloved and report on the full complexity of the person and their actions.

When the media herd zigs, zag.

After the tumultuous week when it took Rep. Kevin McCarthy 15 rounds to secure votes for Speaker of the House, a journalist friend told me she was racked with guilt having been on a long-planned vacation. Actually, it was the perfect time to duck out or find a completely different story that others were missing.

With every vote, anyone paying attention received multiple news alerts from many publications, all with the same update. Wouldn’t it be smarter and better for enterprising journalists to go left when the news pack is going right? Alternatively, take that well-deserved break guilt-free. Burnout is real.

Select an array of sources.

Imagine your news organization. Now, imagine that one person most irritated with it shares their perspective with the media. The media then reports their take as if it reflects your organization’s newsroom culture and leadership. One view will never provide the complete picture. Report more.  

Be honest.

I’ve worked with companies that don’t trust the media to give them a fair shake. Many experienced working with a reporter on what they thought was one story, only to be burned by the final product.

This matters because there are so many ways for companies to tell their own stories today using social media, blogs, podcasts, newsletters and paid advertising. The line between editorial and news has blurred, but those paid advertisements increasingly look like real news stories. That isn’t great for earning the public’s trust.

So be honest with sources throughout your reporting if you expect engagement in the future.

Despite journalism’s flaws, I often advise my clients to engage with the media. Transparency matters, which can better the organization and bring attention to its priorities with audiences they care about.

To continue making this case with conviction, however, journalists must think about what they can do to restore trust in the profession through reporting that is fair and just — one story at a time.

Jill Jackson is a communications and public affairs consultant with Monument Advocacy. She is also an Emmy-Award-winning former journalist who served at CBS News and NPR and as news director at NPR member station KUOW.

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