“If you’re dumb, surround yourself with smart people. If you’re smart, surround yourself with smart people who disagree with you.”
Journalists are taught in journalism school to question authority and speak truth to power. In many cases, they’re actually doing this well before attending college. In some respects, journalists are natural-born contrarians.
Unfortunately, while most editors, publishers, and news directors want reporters who question the authority of elected officials, they aren’t terribly keen on having that questioning extended to their own offices.
Allowing contrary opinions and questioning is just as important within newsrooms as it is outside of them. If you are a newsroom manager, you should be listening to the voices within your organization that disagree with you. You don’t necessarily have to take their advice or suggestions, but you should definitely listen and strongly consider what they have to say.
The contrary voices are the ones who allow your news organization to push the envelope, to grow, to break institutional biases, and to break the age-old problem of doing things the way they have always been done before.
Reporters are on the front lines in the community. They are talking to more people, gathering facts from a more diverse group, and usually have a good handle on the pulse of the audience. That isn’t to say that editors and publishers don’t, but the higher up in a news organization one gets, the more likely they are to come in contact with a more influential, more powerful and less diverse group of people than the average member of their audience.
This can compromise your news organization because suddenly the interests of the powerful voices outweigh the interests of the average reader or viewer. Instead of speaking truth to power, you run the risk of becoming the mouthpiece of the powerful — and this happens gradually and subtly over several years.
If you value the integrity of your news coverage, if you want to be the voice of the people and continue to speak truth to power, you need to make sure you are allowing those who work under you in the newsroom to speak truth to your power. It keeps everybody honest and creates a more collaborative environment for your team.
Another key aspect of this is making sure your newsroom actually contains contrary voices. A lot of newsrooms are overly caucasian and overly male. If that’s your newsroom, are you listening to the voices of your female staff members? Do they have as much input as everyone else? Does the makeup of your newsroom mirror the diversity of the community you cover? If it doesn’t, you’re not going to be in tune with the issues that are important to your audience.
What about politics? Do the people in your newsroom share the same political viewpoints? If they do, even if you’re doing the best you can to keep bias out of your stories, you need to listen to — and hire — people who disagree with you to make sure that you’re covering the stories that are important to all sides of the political spectrum.
The quote at the top of this post comes from Aaron Sorkin’s television show “Sports Night” and it needs to become the philosophy of every newsroom manager. If you’re dumb, you really need some smart people around you. In fact, you probably ought to step aside and let one of them run the show. If you’re smart — and I’m betting you are — you need to make sure that you are surrounding yourself with smart people who might disagree with you on occasion and who won’t be afraid to tell you when they do.
The best reporters I’ve ever worked with have been the ones that weren’t afraid to tell me they disagreed or had a better idea. Usually, they were right, and I always respected the contrarians more than the sycophants.