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Lead Like It’s Jan. 20

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News managers, I’m sure you’ve thanked your crews by now. You’ve sent people off to get some rest. You’ve taken note of every smart thing you’ve done in covering this year’s election. You’re doing an after-action review of lessons learned.

I’m here to nudge you further into the future.

Start working right now as though it is Jan. 20. The possibilities for deeper, richer, contextual coverage are profound. 

Let me offer some guiding thoughts for news managers.

  • The term “fake news” has jumped the shark. It’s tired, toothless and the new leader of the country won’t be larding his lexicon with it. Neither will the powerful voices in his administration. Think of it as so “last term,” and get too busy doing high quality work on the changes underway.
  • There’s a treasure trove of big, important stories to be covered. The Biden-Harris transition site has listed the administration’s priorities: COVID-19, economic recovery, racial inequity, and climate change. What will this mean to residents, businesses, industries and universities in your community? Who on your team is going to own the many stories within those categories?
  • Expertise will be the coin of the realm. The new administration has made clear that it will be science- and data-driven. As you report on the administration’s moves, make certain you are gathering the top research minds in your area as sources and expert interviewees. Get past the “false equivalency” stories that elevate rumors, conspiracy fantasies, and junk science. Give voice to facts, make data interesting, and let your community know that the experts you cite have credentials that stand up to scrutiny.
  • Keep investing in investigative journalism. When administrations change, sunlight shines in dark places. Your investigative reporting can ferret out damage done, money misspent, and deals made improperly by a previous regime. People who have been afraid to talk may now be eager. Documents may now become available. At the same time, keep a watchful eye on how the new sheriffs in town are deploying their power, plans and resources.
  • Continue fact-checking. As I watched election results come in, I wondered for a moment what would happen to CNN’s Daniel Dale and the Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler. Without the mendacity of President Trump, could they still have full employment as fact checkers? The answer is yes. We need them—and all journalists—to apply the skills they’ve honed over the past years to everyone in power. Some powerful people lie blatantly. Others mislead more creatively. The departure of a non-stop prevaricator shouldn’t lull journalists into being any less skeptical of public pronouncements.
  • Say their names. Once a day, whether quietly or out loud, speak the name of George Floyd or Breonna Taylor or a person tragically, wrongfully lost to your community. Speak those names in conversations about health care, education, employment, public safety, or even entertainment. Their names should give you pause and remind you, whatever the topic, to dig deeper for possibilities and realities of systemic inequity, injustice, and intolerance. The new administration and many news organizations have made public commitments to racial equity; your job is to hold them all (including yourself) accountable.

Even as you read this column, the President-elect is introducing his pandemic response team. He’s not waiting until January to get a plan rolling. 

Neither should you.  

Jill Geisler is the Bill Plante Chair in Leadership and Media Integrity at Loyola University Chicago and an internationally respected voice on management, leadership and ethics. She teaches and coaches in news organizations worldwide. She’s also the Freedom Forum Fellow in Women’s Leadership, guiding its Power Shift Project, which works to rid media cultures of harassment and discrimination. She’s the author of the book “Work Happy: What Great Bosses Know.” This article was originally published by the National Press Club Journalism Institute, and it is reprinted here with permission.

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