How trust and fear stimulate or hamper new ideas in the newsroom

The study “Trust and Fear in the Newsroom: How Emotions Drive the Exchange of Innovative Ideas” by Ornella Porcu and Liesbeth Hermans from Windesheim University of Applied Sciences and Marcel Broersma from University of Groningen looked at a topic under researched in journalism studies: what fosters the sharing and developing of new ideas?  

Innovation is crucial to the survival of legacy media amidst the new challenges. So are the social processes that stimulate the exchange of new ideas among people. Previous research by the same authors has found out that in the newsroom, “trust” and “fear” emerged as the key conditions for the sharing of ideas.

Newsrooms have been previously studied as places where news are constructed, but the research has often looked at management or tech while excluding the cultural context of the newsroom. Porcu (2017) introduced the concept of “innovative learning culture” (ILC) to fill this gap.

Crucial to the sharing of new ideas is people’s willingness to take risk to make mistakes, which in turn is highly influenced by a culture that triggers and fosters innovative behavior. In order for ideas to be developed in the entire organization, it is important that they reach the management. 

The work of a journalist is inherently a profession where risks are balanced on a daily basis, and the pressure to not make mistakes is present daily due to the taboo associated with mistakes in reporting and the potential damage they create. Thus, journalism is a risk-averse undertaking,

Fear in journalism manifests as fearing the “ultimate punishment” of being fired due to a mistake – even if such an event is unlikely, the fear is still present. These fears do not leave much room for creative undertaking.

Only in a high-trust environment does the exchange of new ideas occur. Trust generally occurs horizontally, that is, among peers in the same position in the organization. Vertical trust is rarer, but previous research by for example 

Carmely and Spreitzer (2009) has shown that if the management succeeds in reducing the employees fears idea sharing and vertical trust is increased. 

The study at hand was a qualitative multiple case study. To increase internal validity, established newsrooms that were presumably more likely to allocate resources for innovation were chosen. Multiple qualitative data-collection methods were used. The data is ethnographic and consists of observation on interactions and notes on open interviews. 103 days were spent on observation and there were 132 interviews. 

When it comes to the social hierarchy in the newsroom, there were five distinct groups identified belonging to two larger categories. The categories were newsroom elites and the larger newsroom. Among the elites, there were newsroom establishment, usual suspects and happy few, while among the larger newsroom there was silent majority and flex people

Regarding fear, only lack of it is perceived as conducive to the sharing of ideas. People who are not burdened by fear are the newsroom elites. The happy few, especially senior members among the group, generally lack fear as do middle managers. There are also individuals who lack fear who do something unique in the newsroom, and these are often incorporated into the formal hierarchy and treated as usual suspects

Fear was mainly felt vertically – the employees fearing management. Some had experienced humiliation form overly aggressive top-down communication, which then led to “freeze, fight or flight” reactions. Also, news about these incidents spread across the newsroom and often led particularly less privileged employees to utilize the strategy of staying away from the management. 

Fear can also be mutual – the larger newsroom fears the management and vice versa. For example, the management can be apprehensive about disrupting the status quo when work needs to be adapted. Journalists also fear genuine debate and feedback, as they find it difficult to criticize each other’s work. 

Trust is mainly experienced horizontally. People of the same social and formal hierarchical level particularly perceive trust among their own news desk or “island”. This trust often also extended to the news desk editor, or “chief”. The trust is reflected as people feeling comfortable and at ease in their work environment, shown in behavior like opting to go shoeless at work. 

To share the ideas beyond, there also needs to be a degree of vertical trust. Groups closer to management are “less vertical” and find it easier to trust the management. Newsroom elites may feel stimulated to share their ideas as they enjoy the management’s trust, appreciation and encouragement. 

One way for ideas to be shared was having people from different disciplines working together, such as marketing and journalists. However, it was quite hard for trust to be extended in the same level and there was some culture shock, as for example the marketing used terms like “target audience” or “customer journey” that the journalists were uncomfortable with. 

There were downsides to the high trust extended among one’s own “island”. It can lead to navel-gazing and unwillingness to accept ideas coming from outside. One other factor reducing particularly vertical trust was that the management and the larger newsroom do not know each other well. 

Amongst the category of flex people horizontal trust was experienced as a form of solidarity, but they did not experience the same robustness of trust their contracted colleagues did – they felt frustrated with their precarious position and were exluded from the friendly, familial atmosphere enjoyed by contracted workers in their own “islands”.

The authors conclude that in the context of ILC, when perceptions of trust outweighs the perceptions of fear, this stimulates the sharing of ideas, and vice versa. Newsroom elites, being closer to management, experienced vertical trust. Vertical trust only occurs when staff and management are close and “horizontal”. 

They also conclude that in order for ideas to reach the management, journalists need to experience both horizontal and vertical trust. For the larger newsroom, which does not experience vertical trust, story ideas are shared which is enough for daily operations but limits the widespread adoption of new ideas. 

A way, if difficult, to reduce vertical fear for the management is to organize time to connect with the larger newsroom. A safe feedback culture for all the staff is crucial not only for mental wellbeing but also for the culture of innovation. 

What is clear from the study is that newsrooms are not homogenous entities, but instead, are rather diverse in their social hierarchical positions. The staff and management perceive their culture and reality differently based on these positions. 

The study “Trust and Fear in the Newsroom: How Emotions Drive the Exchange of Innovative Ideas” by Ornella Porcu, Liesbeth Hermans and Marcel Broersma is in Journalism Studies. (open access).

Picture: Untitled by Campaign Creators @campaign_creators

License Unsplash.

Give us feedback