Covering education in a unionized newsroom

Originally published in The Grade on February 19, 2020.
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In recent years, education reporters in cities such as Chicago, Denver, and Los Angeles have found themselves spending days or even weeks covering tumultuous work stoppages and teachers strikes. More than half of all workers on strike last year were teachers, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data released last week.

As education journalists, we report on these teachers strikes, covering a workforce that’s heavily unionized, and many political battles under our purview necessarily involve unions.

And we have not been immune from the direct effects of this wave of worker activism. Increasingly, to provide additional security in a volatile industry, several media outlets have formed new unions over the last five years, and other long-standing unionized newsrooms have been flexing their collective muscles in new, public ways.

That raises the question: Does reporters’ membership in unions aid, or complicate, this reporting?

In general, the answer appears to be no — though at least one education reporter says he takes precautions to avoid any appearance of conflict.

While an ethics expert thought unionized newsrooms should at least pay attention to potential conflicts of interest and consider disclosing union ties to readers, education reporters interviewed for this piece saw few or no issues with belonging to a union and covering teachers unions. Nor had they received any flak from readers or sources who might not approve of their union membership. Most viewed union membership as a nonissue.

In the last year alone, journalists at companies like NBC News, Buzzfeed, the Ringer, and Hearst Magazines announced their plans to unionize, and more than 300 Vox Media staffers walked off the job this past summer to pressure their managers to come to a contract agreement.

More recently, unionized journalists at the Washington Post issued a statement in support of colleague Felicia Sonmez after she had been publicly disciplined over a tweet in the wake of Kobe Bryant’s death.

With labor activism up for both teachers and reporters, it’s worthwhile to better understand how these issues intersect for education journalists covering the beat.

I come to this story with personal experience. I write about labor and education and have written about teachers strikes. In 2017, I helped organize my then-newsroom at the American Prospect, which had been nonunion for 27 years. I take pride in knowing that those who have my old fellowship receive a starting salary that’s $5,000 higher than I had, and that all workers now have access to some severance and retirement benefits.

As a freelancer, I am now part of the Freelance Solidarity Project, a new effort affiliated with the National Writers Union. I have never felt my own union involvement has impeded my ability to report on other unions — and I have written some highly critical stories on teachers unions over the course of my career.

Most education reporters I spoke with shared similar views.

Howard Blume, who has been covering education for more than a decade at the Los Angeles  Times, said he saw little effect on his work as an education writer when his newsroom voted to unionize in 2018. Reporters negotiated their first contract there in the fall of 2019, less than a year after Blume covered the six-day teachers strike in his city.

The main change since unionizing, Blume said, is generally “that editors seem to think twice now before asking reporters to regularly work long hours without extra pay – because, technically, that would be a contract violation.” He said he has faced no pressure or criticism from readers or sources who might otherwise oppose the city’s teachers union.

Rebecca Klein, an education reporter at HuffPost, is also a member of a recently organized newsroom. When Klein and I spoke, her Twitter avatar had been changed, along with those of all of her colleagues, to show support for her union, which was then in the heat of contract negotiations. This has become a common practice for journalists on social media when they’re organizing newsrooms or in the midst of bargaining. (The HuffPost union reached an agreement on Feb. 1, and Klein’s avatar has since reverted back to a photo of her.)

In terms of how and whether her union affects her education reporting, Klein said she believes her union functions tremendously different from teachers unions, “but just as if being a teacher in a past life could help you contextualize things as an education reporter, I think having some understanding of what is to be in a union and understanding the way it operates can only enhance your work.”

Not everyone sees such a direct connection between being in a union and covering unions.

“It’s always felt like a whole separate thing — kind of like health insurance,” said New York Times education reporter Erica Green in an email. Green, who is in her staff union and was also active in her union at the Baltimore Sun, reported that she has “never seen my membership as having any bearing on my role, responsibilities, or reporting as an education journalist.”

Patrick O’Donnell, who covers education for Cleveland’s Plain Dealer, said being in his union “makes it a little easier” to cover the beat, because “it familiarizes you with the way unions work, how contracts work, and the different issues that can be important to union members.”

At the same time, O’Donnell stood out from education reporters I interviewed in that he imposes some rules on himself to more carefully ensure impartiality. For example, when members of his newsroom have asked him to join them marching alongside other unions during the Cleveland Labor Day parade, he has declined.

“Cleveland is a union town, it has a strong manufacturing history, so a union is not an unusual thing to be part of here,” he said. “But I’d be very hesitant to go and be part of a rally that includes the unions I cover. I talk to unions all the time, we have a good working relationship, but I can’t go to a rally that involves them any more than I could go to one that involves the school district.”

His colleagues don’t mind that he skips out, he said, adding that some know he generally draws stricter boundaries for himself than most reporters. O’Donnell almost never votes in any election, rarely posts personal things on Twitter, and manages two Facebook accounts, one for his reporting and one for personal use.

Kelly McBride, the chair of the Craig Newmark Center for Ethics and Leadership, told me that in her 18 years of working at Poynter in media ethics, the question of covering unions while being in one has never come up.

But McBride said that union newsrooms might want to consider some kind of disclosure to their audience when covering labor stories.

“How you talk to your audience is really important, because they are going to want to know if you are coming at the reporting from a point of view, and if you are coming at it from a position, they’ll want to know what that position is,” she said.

McBride suggested perhaps some kind of short note at the bottom of a union-related story explaining to a reader that the reporter of this story is in a union, and the editors editing the story are not in the union, and then laying out their process for ensuring the reporting is as fair and accurate as possible.

“When you don’t explain where you are as an organization or as an individual, people will make assumptions,” she said. For print and broadcast, she added, the journalist could say at the end of a segment that viewers could go to their website to learn more about how union affiliation is handled.

But McBride rejected the idea that an education reporter should abstain from being in a union if given the choice or refrain from participating in actions like labor strikes.

“That would be silly, and in general, journalists should be good citizens, and being a good citizen means doing the right thing,” she said. “If you genuinely believe your union has a just cause and is trying to make things better for everybody, then of course you would participate in that.”

When I queried my old editor at the American Prospect, Harold Meyerson, about disclosing union affiliation to readers, he largely dismissed such a move. “I think it’s only necessary [to disclose] if you’re writing about your own union, because then it’s something you’re close to, and there may be an element of self-interest,” he said.

Meyerson, who has reported and edited labor issues over the last three decades but never as a union member, also pointed to journalists’ political affiliations. “You could raise the same thing about being a registered Democrat,” he said. “Most journalists we know from surveys are liberals and have an affiliation with the Democratic Party. Hundreds, if not more, people cover the Democratic presidential campaign. Do you think at the bottom we need to say ‘Joe Blow is a registered Democrat?’ Come on.”

People will surely have differing views on these questions and reaching a consensus might not be possible right away. Still, thinking through the issues is valuable, especially as newsrooms continue to try to rebuild trust with readers.

Though trust in mass media is up from its record low of 32 percent in 2016, it still hovers at 41 percent, according to Gallup.

McBride, who thinks erring on the side of disclosure can’t hurt, says the general principle of “transparency builds trust” is a good one.

I’m not convinced disclosures about union affiliation are necessary on the stories themselves, but reporters can be more transparent with readers and sources about what belonging to a union means to them.

That way, if education journalists have to deal with unexpected blowback or what they view as arbitrary punishment from management, readers can better understand what it means to have union protection.

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