Covering COVID: Study shows factors that helped and hurt TV news employees’ job satisfaction during pandemic
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By Rebecca Coates Nee
September 2021 - Working in TV news is stressful enough in normal times, but the past 18 months have been far from normal. As essential employees, television reporters, photographers and MMJs have had to cover the news while worrying about their own safety and being targeted as the “enemy” by angry protesters. Concerns about job security and furloughs also have been at an all-time high, forcing news employees to do more with dwindling resources.
But not every journalist viewed the crisis the same way. Some seemed to be coping better than others. As a broadcast journalist-turned-professor, I wondered what factors might make TV news employees satisfied with their station management (or not) during these turbulent times. Did market size, station ownership, newsroom position, gender or age matter? Or were other factors involved?
Shortly after the lockdowns started in 2020, I distributed a survey for TV news employees to determine how satisfied they were with how management was treating them. I received more than 200 responses from news employees at a range of stations across the country. Results were published in a peer-reviewed academic journal, Electronic News, in July 2021.
Here is what my co-author, Dr. Lourdes Cueva Chacón, and I discovered. Not surprisingly, market size mattered. The larger the market (top 40), the more likely employees were to be happy with how their station management was handling the crisis. This makes sense because larger markets have bigger budgets and more employees. But that wasn't the only factor that made a difference. Being a member of a professional organization (SPJ, NPPA) also mattered. Only about half of the survey respondents were members of at least one of these groups, but members were significantly more likely to be happier with their station management and jobs than nonmembers, regardless of market size. Also, employees who said their managers provided them with resources on best reporting practices during the pandemic (Poynter seminars, for example) were happier, as were employees who had access to free counseling or employee assistance programs.
No other factors or demographics that we measured (gender, position in newsroom, station ownership, age, etc.) mattered. These key variables were independent of one another. In other words, market size, membership in professional organizations, access to best practices and employee counseling programs each were significantly related to being happier with the station’s response to the pandemic.
In academia, we often say that correlation does not equal causation, and that could be the case here. Prior research has shown that journalists who are members of professional organizations tend to be more satisfied with their jobs. Maybe journalists who are more motivated to be a member of these groups are also more committed to their jobs? It’s possible that having a sense of community, even on Zoom, with other reporters and photographers provided support, training and cultural belonging during the pandemic, regardless of what station managers were doing.
But station managers who did provide simple resources — even links to articles or webinars — showed that they cared about the professionalism of their employees. Taking these extra steps is an inexpensive way to gain respect and trust from employees. Giving journalists access to counseling programs also demonstrates concern and commitment for employees’ well-being.
We also looked at what factors contributed to job satisfaction overall (separate from the pandemic response). Journalists who had more control over the daily work decisions they made, and those who reported less stress and more manageable workloads, were more likely to be satisfied with their jobs.
Some of the survey respondents answered open-ended questions about their station’s handling of the pandemic. Most of the comments were positive, describing how employers provided them with personal protective equipment and changed newsgathering practices (for example, reporters and photographers driving separately, getting b-roll from cars and working from home where possible). But some reported that their stations were late to respond or threw out these precautions in breaking news situations.
Several respondents were frustrated because of the public hostility they had to face while reporting on the pandemic, especially at anti-mask protests. Reporters and photographers faced accusations of hyping the coronavirus; some were even physically assaulted. COVID-19 burnout also was a theme among the commenters. Journalists wrote that they were overwhelmed because they were risking their lives every day and their employers did not give them enough support or resources. One wrote: “Care more! Stop putting reporters in awful situations and understand what we’re going through.”
When asked what employers could do to improve their job satisfaction, journalists wanted more positive feedback. Just a simple acknowledgment from station managers would make a difference, according to some respondents. One woman wrote: “Notice when individuals put in an insane amount of overtime and recognize when individuals are really working hard and doing a good job. Just verbally let individuals know they are doing a decent job right now.”
Survey respondents also asked for higher pay, a reasonable workload and better personnel management. Some were afraid of layoffs, and others wrote that the expectations (two packages a day) were unrealistic. One woman summarized her frustrations this way: “Have a full staff and stop stretching folks to the limit and stop being so cheap.”
Our findings present both opportunities and challenges for the TV news industry and employees. Joining a professional organization could make employees more satisfied with their jobs because of the outside support they receive. Managers who offer educational resources and counseling services to their staff may, in turn, be rewarded with greater loyalty and more motivated employees. Even just saying thank you might make a difference in boosting employee morale.
Dr. Rebecca Coates Nee is an associate professor in the School of Journalism and Media Studies at San Diego State University. Her article, “Live From My Living Room: Perceived Organizational Support Among TV News Workers During the COVID-19 Pandemic,” is published here.