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How to Win Friends and Influence…Perceptions

-first posted at RTDNA.org on May 11, 2009

A reporter at one of the other stations in my market lost her job last week.  Her company decided not to renew her contract, presumably to leave her position vacant.  This sounds like a blog about layoffs, but it’s not.  Listen to what she told the newspaper reporter who talked to her about her apparent layoff: “I’ve worked with so many great public officials, from the police department to the fire department, the county fire department.”  Did she really say that?  Great public officials?

Perhaps these were the words of someone distraught over losing her job and trying to make at least something sound positive.  But I think there’s something more here.  I, as a forty-something news manager, do not believe there is any such thing as a “great” public official—or at least I wouldn’t say so openly. To me—part of the baby boom generation—sources are sources, not friends.  In fact, in many ways, they’re the enemy.  But it’s a different story for this twenty-something reporter.  To her—part of the millennial generation—everyone’s a potential friend.

Those who know me know I’m fascinated with the millennials.  I work with them every day, study them when I can, and write what I find for others to share and discuss.  They are a generation focused on rules, authority, and yes, friendship.  Leading a newsroom almost entirely staffed with millennials, I’ve seen that respect for authority reach new levels.  Now, it would be easy to say that, when I’m the authority, I want them to respect it.  But that’s not really what I want.  I want this group to questions authority, to hold it at arms’ length, to be skeptical about what every authority figure ever has to say.   Some of my millennials embrace that approach.  Most do not.  It’s not that they don’t get it.  They just don’t LIKE it.  Their parents raised them to respect their bosses, respect their teachers, respect the police—there’s that one—and anyone else who is in charge.  Four years of journalism school is usually not enough to change that indoctrination.  So try as they might, many of them just can’t get over the feeling that the senator-they-are-talking-to-is-a-really-nice-person-who-reminds-them-a-lot-of-their-grandpa-and-must-be-an-honest-and-respectable-guy-since-they-made-him-a-senator-and-all-and-he-works-really-hard-at-being-a-good-senator-and-all.  Whew. Believe me, it’s exhausting sometimes getting through to them that a senator or a police chief or a fire captain is just a man or woman with a job to protect and who will do what it takes to spin things to be the most positive possible.

As if this hero worship of the authority figure wasn’t enough, along comes facebook, smack dab in the middle of this millennial generation.  One of the goals on facebook (in case you aren’t familiar) is to get a lot of people signed up as your “friends.”  A facebook “friend” is someone with whom you make an on-line “social” connection.  Then that person is added to your friends list.  Facebook friends aren’t real life friends for most people—they’re just someone you set up an online association with.  And one of those types of associations people are setting up is the reporter-source friendship on facebook.  I’ve had a few of our news sources in the area send me a friend request on facebook.  Early into the game, I even accepted one or two of their requests.  But then I thought about it a little bit more.  Do I really want to send the message to them (or anyone checking out my facebook page) that I’m friends with them?  No, of course not.  They are, in my way of thinking, adversaries.  And I don’t want that relationship to get too cozy.  So I deleted the friendship with those first couple of sources and can now proudly say that I have 986 facebook friends—and not one of them is a news source for my station.  I’m not sure every millennial would be so proud to say so.  Nor would a lot of new media experts.  Social networking sites like facebook and Twitter can be a way to cultivate sources and stories.  I know that.  But deep in my heart, it worries me that a flack at a political party in Jefferson City could be sitting there in my facebook friends list right between two of my former colleagues.  It’s just so, well, cozy, it makes my skin crawl.

So let’s go back to the unfortunate quote from the reporter who’s on her way out in Columbia.  Were they really “great” public officials or was it just that millennial sense of authority worship and friend-seeking speaking?  I can’t be sure.  But I know that anyone out there who is either a millennial or works with them should spend some time on pondering what relationship is proper between reporter and source.  Shouldn’t we reporters be on the record as having no opinion at all about the quality of our public officials and our opinions on their ability and performance?  Isn’t that the safest way to approach the relationship?  My advice: don’t run headlong into authority worship or digital friendship—neither is a good way to maintain a “great” reporting relationship.

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