How to fix the unconscious biases in your newsroom’s pitch process

A universal and early step in the process of reporting a story is when someone has an idea. What happens afterward is less universal: who decides that the idea survives and becomes an actual story? Who Kills Ideas – And Will We Ever Hear From Those Pitches? Which reporters get more approvals and which less? These questions and their answers determine the pitch processes of our editorial offices, no matter how informal. And if we’re not careful, unconscious biases can thrive and thrive within pitch procedures.

Our approach to story ideas can have built-in defenses against the biases we all bring to work every day.

Let’s define the problem we’re solving: We all have biases, and so the way we approve story ideas involves biases. We have pushed both newsrooms to change their policies and processes to make our cultures and work processes more inclusive; Celeste has worked with journalists across all public media, while Vinnee has done this work internally at KQED with support from senior executives such as Holly Kernan, Chief Content Officer. As Celeste said, the first step is to understand that what we call “news instinct” is bias. Your gut feeling is prone to unconscious bias. And the higher your IQ, the smarter you are, the more vulnerable you are to being a victim of prejudice.

During a Public Media Journalists Association panel in June, Celeste shared an example with reporters who reached out to NPR. A black reporter had opened a story about Vice President Kamala Harris. The bureau chief refused, and when a white reporter suggested the same idea, it was accepted. Those involved will say the decision involved a complex set of factors that transcended the reporters’ race, and they are right. With no record kept of rejected articles, it’s hard to know how unconscious bias contributes to editorial decisions.

We suspect that you could find such examples in every newsroom.

Given that, updating our pitch processes can be a powerful way to improve our culture and journalism at the same time. The defense against prejudice in pitching serves both the public and our journalists. Here we share some actionable ideas for our colleagues in newsrooms across the country.

Policy and behavior changes will take public media newsrooms to the next level. Here are some questions you might ask yourself about your pitch process:

How many editors does it take to review an idea and give it the green light?

If the answer is one, your process is probably too isolated. If your newsroom only has one or a few editors, that’s not a problem. However, consider sharing decision-making authority with a larger group, including reporters, producers, and others involved in the editorial process. The more democratic you make the decision-making process, the better your results will be.

Do you keep a record of story ideas that have been rejected?

If not, how do you know if you’re rejecting ideas that your peers — and your audience — might find valuable? Consider keeping a log of ideas that have been shelved, discarded, or otherwise passed over. The log can be a checkpoint or a signal to see if a particular individual needs guidance or redirection to harmful bias they are bringing to the editorial board. Also, consider keeping track of whose pitches are being denied.

How can I structure my editorial team’s pitch meeting in such a way that prejudice is avoided and the best ideas are encouraged?

A useful concept when designing the meeting is choice architecture, which is essentially how you present choices to a user and how that presentation influences their decision.

  1. Make pitches anonymous. This helps to mitigate positive and negative prejudices that people hold towards each other.
  2. Create meeting roles including a cheerleader and devil’s advocate. A cheerleader roots every idea, emphasizes her strengths, and does what a cheerleader does best. Meanwhile, a devil’s advocate challenges the idea of ​​the story and hopefully helps improve it on its way to fruition. This ensures that all ideas are encouraged and increases the chance that people will see ideas from different angles.
  3. Make the decision by majority vote. Democratizing the power of the green light is inclusive and has the benefit of leading to better story choices.
  4. Keep records. If bias patterns interfere with story choice, you have an opportunity to track it.

If an idea is accepted, do reporters know why? And do they get feedback on what could be adjusted or changed about their idea or approach?

The pitch process is a great chance for people to get useful and productive feedback to make their stories as good as possible. Without a process for reviewing ideas and sharing feedback, it’s difficult to collect input from fellow editorial staff who may want to harass you for fear of taking up their valuable time when they have their own deadlines.

When a viewer asks how you decide what to treat, what’s the answer?

We need to build trust with our audience more than ever. And if we can’t explain how and why we make our reporting decisions, then it’s time we figured it out.

Finally, ask yourself: what makes a successful story?

A clear answer can help the entire editorial team to talk and pull together.

We’ve both encountered resistance when we’ve pushed for changes in the way we work. We’re talking about real change, not just staff or news. But this resistance is a major problem in our cultures of inclusion and belonging.

Public media, despite all the work we’ve done to improve it, has gotten better at recruitment but still pretty bad at retention. Newsrooms across the public media system wrestle with how to adapt to places that include and welcome journalists from non-traditional backgrounds and marginalized communities.

“When people get shot and guess twice, they’re like, ‘Wow, I don’t belong here, I don’t know what I’m doing,'” Celeste said in June. “There’s no point in hiring different people if their ideas don’t change your behavior. They might as well have a monochrome editorial office.”

Understandably, people may resist changing the way they work, based on an instinctive belief that change jeopardizes the trust and credibility that journalism has long enjoyed. But that trust is mostly gone and needs to be rebuilt. One way to start rebuilding is to create pitch processes that allow more people to have a say in which stories get finished. Hopefully these stories can better reflect our country and its people today.

Celeste Headlee is a writer, consultant and longtime public media presenter, hosting shows such as tell me more, take that away and 1A

Vinnee Tong is a John S. Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford University and is on leave of absence as news director at KQED. Previously, she was part of the founding team of The Bay Podcast at KQED and reporter at Associated Press. Vinnee serves on the board of the daily californian, the student newspaper where she worked while studying.

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