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How a Seattle Times Slack channel lets people speak up about insensitive coverage

Here's an idea to steal and adapt: The Seattle Times created an open Slack channel that lowered the barriers for people to speak up about cultural issues that can arise about stories — anything from framing, missed angles, lack of context, offensive or exclusionary language or headlines.

This is a series on Better News to a) showcase innovative/experimental ideas that emerge from the Knight-Lenfest Newsroom Initiative and b) to share replicable tactics that benefit the news industry as a whole.

This “win” comes from Corinne Chin and Lauren Frohne, video editors at The Seattle Times, about one solution for dealing with newsroom-wide feedback for alerting mistakes and improving and diversifying coverage.

Question: What problem were you trying to solve, and why was solving it strategically important for your organization?

Answer: Newsrooms are run by humans, and all humans have blind spots and make mistakes. What news organization hasn’t inadvertently published something insensitive — or downright offensive? Often, those mistakes happen because of a lack of communication — and might have been avoided if there were a way to encourage people who could have spotted those problems beforehand to be involved and speak up. We wanted to stop eroding trust in our community and start building it.

But our newsroom didn’t have a central place for staffers across departments to bring up issues they noticed with text, images, headlines or social-media posts — especially sensitive issues concerning race, gender, inclusivity, discrimination and racism. The workflow called for an intimidating process of calling rotating high-level editors, sometimes on a weekend or evening when it could take hours to address concerns — all while published stories proliferated rapidly on social media.

We also did not have a frictionless mechanism for leveraging the diverse perspectives and expertise within our newsroom to improve and diversify our coverage. Some people did not want to tokenize or offend colleagues by asking for advice, and this discomfort occasionally prevented them from reaching out.

And when issues concerned sensitive topics, some colleagues got defensive when conversations took place in public, day-to-day channels on Slack.

Previously, the newsroom held large meetings that debriefed problems and let people vent, but this didn’t really help solve communication breakdowns or increase transparency around sensitive stories.

Q: How did you go about solving the problem?

A: We wouldn’t say we’ve “solved” the problem completely, but we created one resource: an open Slack channel, #sensitive-news-help, that lowered the barriers for people to speak up at any point on issues with stories, framing, missed angles, offensive or exclusionary headlines, etc. We have a lot of valuable, diverse perspectives spread throughout our newsroom — but of course, not all are at the story-editor level.

A dozen staffers volunteered to be responders on the Slack channel. The group set up their notifications so that they’d get pinged on mobile every time someone posted a question or comment in the channel, regardless of the time of day or if they were on shift. So any time of day, someone could pose a question and someone from the group would respond. We also compiled a list of these staffers’ cell phone numbers for Sunday desk editors to have on hand.

Q: What worked?

A: Slack is a really accessible way for people to communicate and get immediate feedback. And since push notifications are customizable, the on-call participants in the #sensitive-news-help channel can opt to get notifications only from that channel while away from work – especially on weekends, when the only editor on duty is spread thin, web producers can easily get feedback on sensitive stories and social media chatter. It has sped up our response time, and it helps the people who notice issues feel less isolated in their concerns.

Q: What didn’t work?

A: Getting people to be resources on the channel 24/7 was easy — people are eager to help colleagues out and make our coverage more inclusive. However, getting everyone else on board has been a challenge. It’s still a highly visible forum where some journalists feel too exposed, and news organizations must also be careful with how digital conversations are documented and archived. Getting people to use the channel before something sensitive has published — rather than noticing issues only after a story is out on several platforms — has also been a challenge.

Q: What happened that you didn’t expect?

A: It’s helped form a bond and support network between all the people who signed up to be responders. We check in with each other, support each other’s observations and help each other address concerns tactfully and impactfully.

Q: What would you do differently now? What did you learn?

A: Our Slack channel was created by a small group of passionate journalists, but if other newsrooms are considering a similar tool, it may be better to pursue top-down implementation. If we were to do it again, we’d reach out to specific editors ahead of the launch and ask them to lead by example. In a top-down scenario, it should be much simpler to get all supervisors in the channel and on board.

Q: What advice would you give to others who try to do this?

A: Having a schedule for on-call responders helps ensure no one volunteer burns out. Support from management is key — and ideally, upper management will also volunteer to be on-call, so the burden doesn’t fall entirely on frontline, low-level staff. (Remember, on-call responders must have the right Slack notification settings and be fluent in using their mobile phones to respond — so train responders in this if necessary in your newsroom.)