Whose Stories Do We Consider?

And what does Ernest Shackleton have to do with anything?

I love lists. I re-read Atul Gawande’s Checklist Manifesto at least once a year, and it’s one of those books I recommend to all and sundry. Some excellent folks and I even recently collaborated on a checklist for journalists.

So when I saw the McClatchy checklists doing the rounds of media twitter, I was intrigued. One list, with the heading “Vetting for audience and mission,” suggested reporters ask themselves the question, “who cares about this, or who should?” Another section included a consideration of community engagement, with examples including, “does it get the city to fix a dangerous intersection?”

And as with anything doing the rounds of media twitter, the reactions to the checklists were decidedly mixed. Politico’s Ben Shreckinger tweeted that while he wasn’t surprised that the lists were “aggravating people,” they seemed “like a sensible way to codify and standardize the story selection process.” Matt Drange, a staff writer at Forbes, noted that “Much of this could just as easily be filed under: ‘How to pursue good journalism,’” conceding that “It isn’t necessarily a bad approach.”

Around the same time this discussion was kicking off, Carrie Brown posted a short reflection on sexism and news judgement to Medium. Brown is the director of the social journalism program at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism in New York, and has nearly two decades of newsroom and academic experience. In her post she writes, “one of the most consistent areas where one can see bias in the news remains in story selection and news judgment by editors that are still far too likely to be white and male.”

Image via Women of Color in Tech

I thought about Brown’s post, and I thought about the McClatchy checklist, and I thought about all the ways in which “what counts as a story” becomes part of the unspoken and essential fabric of our newsrooms. I thought about how we, as editors, consciously and unconsciously decide whose stories matter, and which reporters will get to cover them. I thought about Scaachi Koul’s challenge to Canadian media, “to actually find people who write and speak and live from different perspectives, and promote them. And pay them, because historically and currently, they’re not getting work, and they’re not getting money.”

As editors, we offer some version of the phrase “that’s (not) a story” a dozen or more times a day, and we rarely stop to think about the experience and reflexes and instincts that go into these assessments. That might be because, as McClatchy’s VP for news Tim Grieve put it, “At any news organization, a journalist’s time is the most precious resource.” And it is often, to quote Brown again, because “story selection is the front line of unconscious bias and one that gets far less scrutiny and pushback than deserved.” You might not think that your newsroom would benefit from (or even be willing to put up with) a series of checklists, and you might also think that you make decisions about coverage based solely on finely honed and entirely reasonable insights. It’s always worth interrogating what we take for granted, and what we reflexively believe, and why.

Manuals for Managers?

Claudia C asks: “what are the best books on management, especially for people of color?”

There’s no good answer to this question, because the way you become a manager is by managing, and you get better at it by being open to critical self-analysis and to feedback from your most trusted (and most critical) friends and colleagues. On top of that, there are certain structural challenges that managers from minority backgrounds face that our colleagues do not.

Still, I’ve found these books and resources to be helpful over the years.

One of the most important things you can do as a manager is listen, both to what your direct reports are saying and what they are not. That’s why it’s important to create opportunities for your team to give you feedback, and one of the best ways of doing that is by committing to regular one-on-one meetings for which both parties have prepared. Whenever I met with someone who reported to me, I’d ask three questions at the end of our session: “What can I do more of? What do you need me to do less of? What should I stop doing?” And then I do my best not to respond in the moment — when the temptation to explain or justify or disagree is strongest — and to listen instead.

Teresa Amabile’s notion of celebrating “small wins” and helping your teams make progress is one that has stuck with me for a long time. In her book, based on a diary study of more than 200 employees, Amabile identifies both “catalysts” for team progress, and what she calls “nourishers.” These are actions managers can take (or facilitate) in the service of not making your team miserable.

This list of “rules” is something I keep handy and often turn to when I’m stuck on a problem. One of the most useful: “look for what’s missing.”

Whether you identify as introverted or not, I guarantee you’ll eventually manage someone who does. Susan Cain’s classic does a good job of breaking down what that means in practice.

Finally, I recommend Shackleton’s Way. Sir Ernest Shackleton had to ensure the men he led on repeated excursions to the Antarctic didn’t die of hunger or exposure. Our management challenges are unlikely to involve rescuing people stranded on an ice floe, but the lessons apply all the same. (Shout out to Regis Courtemanche for giving me a copy of this book while we were at BuzzFeed.)

Resources

A version of this piece first appeared on Source, as an installment of my “Ms. Management” column.