News Leaders Focus On Journalist Protection, Stress In Fraught ’24

Top news executives from Tegna, Hearst Television, Spectrum News and The Weather Channel told a NewsTECHForum panel last week that safety, security, mental-health services and higher pay are all top prerogatives in a more dangerous and stressful newsroom environment.

Journalism has always been a stressful career — one of constant deadlines, low pay and public scrutiny — but since the pandemic, stress levels have amped up to sky-high levels, causing newsroom leaders to reevaluate how they manage their teams, said a panel at TVNewsCheck’s NewsTECHForum in New York City last week.

“My job is to be the champion of our news directors, our news leaders across the country, and the stress that they are under is different than I’ve ever seen before,” said Ellen Crooke, Tegna’s SVP of news. “So many of the day-to-day conversations that I have with news leaders are about dealing with the stress of the journalists due to the type of stories they face.”

Frequent mass shootings and other dangers have forced TV-station newsrooms to carefully consider every decision to send a news team out to cover an event and even to reduce exposure by choosing not to report from the field when it’s not deemed necessary.

“That’s one of the things I think that’s changed the most,” Crooke said. “When I started, news leaders were in charge of safety and security. It’s too much now.”

Newsrooms today are employing security consultants and teams and holding careful conversations to determine the best course of action before sending teams out in a knee-jerk reaction to breaking news.

“Good leaders will evaluate every story, every assignment, every situation to ensure that when we need more than what we have, we’re providing that,” said Barb Maushard, SVP of news, Hearst Television.


And those conversations aren’t only around news teams, but around all teams going out to cover any event, including the weather.

“A few years ago, we hired a head of security, but we also mandate that security teams go with every single crew that’s out in the field,” said Nora Zimmett, president, news and original series, Allen Media’s The Weather Group.

Weather is another area that’s changed dramatically in recent years, as reporters and producers increasingly face dramatic weather situations.

“I was raised in the business when it was like ‘suck it up,’ but we don’t do that anymore,” Zimmett said. “There is no mandate to go out and cover anything. We have people who are like ‘OK, I’ll do snow and hurricanes, but I no longer do tornadoes,’ or ‘I’ll do tornadoes and snow. I don’t do hurricanes,’ and that’s OK. Because there is nothing worth that level of stress, that level of PTSD.

“It was a shift for myself, my direct reports and our executive leadership team that just because we were taught that you just deal with it, that doesn’t mean it’s right,” she added. “And that also certainly doesn’t mean you’re going to get the best out of your employees. If you have a reputation in your shop for throwing caution to the wind, you’re not going to retain the best talent. That is not a way to lead your team. I think the news industry has to evolve out of this sort of militaristic attitude of ‘it’s our way or the highway.’”

Newsroom leaders also have had to take steps to support employees’ mental health, which can become fragile while performing difficult jobs in stressful situations.

“Back in the day, it was ‘go do this and write this and send it in,’” said Sam Singal, group VP, Charter Communications’ Spectrum News. “Now I find that we spend a lot of time walking through the newsrooms, pulling up a chair and talking to people and understanding what they’re going through.”

Companies also have made mental health services available to employees.

“We’ve made sure that our employees have places to go to seek support for those who want to stay in and want to be able to manage the challenges of the job,” Maushard said.

Of course, part and parcel of these conversations is the issue of pay — journalism has always been a notably low-paying field except for perhaps the biggest names. But companies have recently been forced to increase salaries as it’s become harder to retain employees.

“We are actively and constantly looking at equity and analyzing what are our competitors paying what our colleagues paying just to make sure that we’re up to par with everybody else,” Singal said.

“We have to pay the right amount of money for the jobs, whatever that amount is supposed to be,” Maushard said. “But I think it’s more than that. It’s about the benefits. It’s about the environments we create. It’s about the purpose. It’s about people wanting to do this and then us having to make these into the kind of environments where they’re going to want to be because our communities depend on it. Democracy depends on it.”

Adding to the stress is the cadence of the 24-hour news cycle — including at TV stations where streaming apps and FAST channels have increased the content burden — as well as the pressure to stay connected with audiences through social media. Technology that automates some of those tasks can help, said Joe DiGiovanni, head of North American sales at The Weather Company.

For example, if a station group like Tegna, which owns 64 stations in 51 markets, is covering one weather crisis in one market and a completely different one in another, technology can help stations communicate with and assist one other.

“There may be somebody out West who is an expert in wildfires, while there may be somebody down South who’s an expert in hurricanes. That’s still a news story in other markets, but they may not have that content. So, through our cloud technologies, they can grab that content from those markets and use it in other places,” DiGiovanni said.

In addition, storing content on the cloud in searchable databases means it’s easy to find in crisis situations.

The Weather Company also provides weather forecasting technology that helps meteorologists tell weather stories to viewers in a way that’s comprehensive but also easy to understand. That type of technology has become increasingly essential as climate change has become a central focus of newsrooms’ ongoing coverage.

“Our job at the Weather Channel is to predict the future, and this uncertain future is scary,” Zimmett said. “We view our job now as not just to predict what’s going to happen in terms of extreme weather, but what’s going to happen to your mortgage, what’s going to happen to your insurance? That is something that is now a fabric of our coverage.”

“It’s not about climate change from where we sit. It’s about climate and weather impact,” Maushard said.

When covering anything from climate change to financial markets, political campaigns or even local traffic, technology remains both a useful tool and a potential threat, especially as newsrooms experiment more and more with artificial intelligence (AI).

“We look at AI in three different ways,” Crooke said. “The first is ethics: How will we as journalists use AI appropriately and transparently? Second: how can we innovate using AI? And third, which is what worries me most: How will we be duped by AI, especially in the 2024 presidential election?”

To avoid the third scenario, Tegna is training all of its journalists in the first quarter of 2024 on how to detect and deflect disinformation propagated with the use of AI.

Because journalism is more stressful and challenging than ever, it’s even more driven by the passion and purpose of those who pursue it, panelists said. That’s the secret sauce that keeps people in the business.

“News really is a calling. You have to have a passion and want to do it because you’re gonna make sacrifices,” Maushard said.

“One of the things that makes people stay in their jobs is feeling that they are part of a purpose, that they are doing work that matters,” Crooke said. “I think we’ve seen so much loss in journalism because there’s not always strong work happening that’s making a difference in our communities. The more we focus on purpose, the better our retention will be.”

Read more coverage of NewsTECHForum 2023 here.

Watch this session and all the NewsTECHForum 2023 videos here.

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