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University of Wisconsin–Madison

Author: Olivia Bruce

Transparency and boldness: Q&A with Jill Geisler

“The new year demands extraordinary newsroom management skills andstrategies as an unorthodox, media-bashing president takes office. The Trump administration will challenge norms of engagement with both the public and the press, and may execute on its promise to revise existing laws and policies, making high-quality journalism more important than ever.”

Jill Geisler is the Bill Plante Chair in Leadership and Media Integrity at Loyola University Chicago. CJE sat down with Geisler to discuss her recent article for the Columbia Journalism Review, “10 resolutions for managers leading newsrooms in 2017.”

CJE: Your piece for the Columbia Journalism Review led off with the advice that newsroom managers should remain encouraging during this challenging era for the industry.

Geisler: The best antidote to bad morale is good journalism. There’s great satisfaction in producing good journalism. It’s imperative for managers to support people in that process and recognize what it takes for people to do their job. The industry has started to ask more and more of people, while we have undergone a business transformation that has, in many cases, cut back on their resources. If you as a leader are providing feedback to people, it’s about listening to them and also telling them how they’re doing. What exhausted them, what exhilarated them, what they need more of or less of and what you’re able to provide. In a world in which the criticism can be vicious and vulgar, it’s also important to help journalists put all of it in perspective and to help protect them.

CJE: You also talked about transparency and “showing your math.” Could you expand a bit more on that?

Geisler: When I work with people outside of journalism to try and explain the rigorous process in deciding what photo to use or what amount of graphic detail is incorporated, people are often surprised at the thoughtfulness of the process. Human beings tend to ascribe motive to other people and when they don’t like a story or outcome, they’re quick to ascribe motive because they don’t know the process. We need to do a better job of explaining why we came to the conclusion we did. That’s transparency, that’s showing your math.

We didn’t used to have the time or physical space to show our math. But in a digital world, we can tell readers to go to our website to see how we did certain things or encourage them to talk to us on Facebook. We have unlimited opportunities to connect with people. We also now have the ability to decide how many platforms we’ll use based upon importance or potential controversy of a given topic.

CJE: How can journalists practically demonstrate boldness, specifically in regards to the Trump administration’s press conferences?

Geisler: I think we’re in an era now where journalists have to ask questions for which the answers may range from deflections to duplicitous. In real time, if you’re live at news conference, it’s not bias if you say, “You didn’t answer my question.” It’s boldness, not bias, to ask the same question immediately after it went unanswered for another journalist, instead of just saying, “Oh my competitor got shut down, I’m glad.” If the question is important, if the information is important, you repeat it at the risk of looking a little bit pushy. You’re going to have to do it because it is at that point you’re supporting the public’s right to know and the idea that people can’t be shouted down.

CJE: To what extent is it ethical for journalists from various outlets to ban together in an effort to gain information?

Geisler:  Competition is generally a business value: I want to get a story faster than you do. It can also be a journalistic value on those occasions in which speed itself helps the public. For example, if I’m the first to announce a tornado, I’ve beaten the competition and also given people the information they need faster. Competition is sometimes just a business value so you can have bragging rights. When you are talking about solidarity, you have to say what is the solidarity in service of? If I’m going to stand in solidarity with a person I’d otherwise compete with, it should be in service of information the public is being denied. Solidarity has to be about the importance of the information and about making certain that a process does not exist that leverages competition as a way to shut down information. We have a journalistic obligation to transcend the business value, step up and have that question answered.

CJE: We’ve talked a lot about the news curators, but what advice do you have for news consumers?

Geisler: I’m coming from the media literacy standpoint. At the very least it would be helpful to say consumers should comparison-shop news. I would like to think that informed citizens do comparison-shop for news. I want them to know that it’s in their best interest to do so. We understand confirmation bias and our inclination to seek out news outlets that confirm our biases. We know from Facebook’s algorithms that your feed probably contains information and misinformation in your filter bubble. We know the impact of fake news and that there’s a real possibility that you’re looking at two parallel universes on your feed, to the point where we’re not even agreeing on basic facts. We don’t have to tell people what to watch or to read, but we can certainly ask that they comparison-shop and find ways to double-check what they’re hearing. 

Q & A with Chris Wells: Trump as a Media Mastermind

Chris Wells is an associate professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His latest work, published in Political Communication, examines the many strategies Donald Trump used to generate news coverage. CJE sat down with Wells to discuss what the success of Trump’s attention-grabbing tactics mean for journalism.

CJE: Could you explain a bit about what your study on Trump uncovered? 

Wells: First and foremost, Trump is a media person. He’s been obsessed with getting attention. At one point, he posed as his own spokesperson and contacted news outlets. We kept asking ourselves, “Is he just an incredible strategist?” But, it’s probably more intuitive to him. It’s been his job for 35 years. A strategy feels like it should be thought out, but it’s more second nature to him. I think he’s surveying the environment very closely, when he notices attention to himself is slacking off he does stuff to get talked about. Data scientist David Robinson did an analysis of his tweets. Half are run-of-the-mill campaign tweets, like “Great to see you in Iowa.” Then there are the crazy ones, which are coming from an Android phone. The non-crazy ones are coming from another device, which suggests it’s his staff.

Credit: David Robinson

An analysis of which words appeared in Trump’s tweets sent from Android or iPhone. Analysis and graph by David Robinson.

CJE: These ‘crazy’ tweets seem to garner a lot of media attention. Is there such a thing as bad publicity?

Wells: He’s been at the heart of conflict for a constant 30 years. What we see at the beginning of the primaries, in that environment it might be all publicity is good publicity. We often are coming from the standpoint that we feel uncomfortable with things he saying, but amongst Republican primary voters his policies were very popular. He’s sensitive to how the crowd is responding and he gives the crowd what they want.

Credit: Ronald B. Rapoport

Trump’s supporters were largely supportive of his policy proposals. Analysis and graph by Ronald Rapoport, Alan Abramowitz, and Walter Stone.

CJE: Do you think Trump takes advantage of journalistic norms?

Wells: The issue is the amount of press coverage he earned. The numbers are unbelievable. He got basically as much press attention as much of the other Republican candidates combined. He’s an unusual candidate, but the one single thing about him is his ability to attract media. He noticed he liked attention and that it could benefit him. Earning 2 billion dollars in paid media is astonishing. The press noticed early on that writing about Trump got them a lot of clicks. Outlets want to get attention because they’re selling ads. But what leads them to lavish that much attention on one person? The metric which allows everyone to see number of clicks is kind of amoral. It’s totally agnostic. We’re just doing it because it gets us money. You haven’t applied any ethical standards to it, which is the issue.


Trump generated nearly $2 million in free media. Analysis and graph by The New York Times.

CJE: What is your biggest concern with Trump’s media influence, and how should journalists ideally respond to present and future Trump tactics?

Wells: The press needs to have an agenda and decide what it wants to cover and not chase around the candidates exclusively. Asking candidates something like, “We’ve done this detailed reporting on the nature of the economy and here are the major issues, please respond.” We’ve almost entirely neglected to create in the public’s mind what the real problems are and that seems like a massive failure. The bigger issue is being a little reflective of where you are allocating your news media. You have to get clicks, to get advertising revenues. The question is how and to what extent can media deal with that pressure? That’s the latest shift in this trend.

CJE: Do you have any advice for journalists going forward? 

Wells: I urge journalists to think about how can you create content that is deeper, more substantive and more issues-based and also still attracts the audience. How do we find formats that will attract audiences enough to sustain news outlet and can do this real issues-driven work? How can you bring that format out? More importantly, how can you deliver real content that will inform people? We need to gives the public hope and mobilization.

Feature image by Michael Vadon/CC BY-SA