A Cure For Media Malaise

The media industry, roiled by layoffs, coverage of a deeply contentious election and trust issues, is seeing morale plummet. Good managers can redirect that through refocused communication.

Mary Collins

When Sesame Street muppet Elmo took to social media to ask how everyone was doing recently, responses went viral; NBC’s Today even included a segment in which it interviewed the red monster and his father. The malaise and “existential” anxiety expressed in the responding tweets had a lot to say about the mindset of many Americans and, by extension, your employees. When employees are uncomfortable, they cannot do their best work.

It seems to me that the unrest and despair blanketing the country can disproportionately affect employees in TV, radio and other media businesses. With the number of industry jobs either newly eliminated or about to be cut, people are understandably anxious. As of November 2023, the industry had shed 20,324 positions in the 11 months beginning that January. The last time media saw this level of losses was during the COVID downturn of 2020, when the industry cut 30,211 jobs during the same January to November period. These figures come from the  November 2023 Challenger Report published by Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc.

In addition to being asked to do more with less, media employees are on the front lines for local and national political battles. An NBC poll from last year shows just how polarized the country has become. Before Harry Truman ran for a full term as president, 68% of Democrats and 50% of Republicans said they approved of his performance; there was an 18-point gap between the ratings from the two parties. The gap increased to 42 points when Richard Nixon was in the White House. In June 2023, the approval rating spread for Joe Biden was 77 points, a slight decrease from the 79 points calculated when Donald Trump was in office.

The impact of this polarization touches every department in a media company. If you work in accounting or sales, political advertising dollars can make or break the budget. News is tasked with reporting on increasingly contentious stories. Not even entertainment and sports departments are safe — consider how politics have been inserted into the reactions to coverage of Taylor Swift’s relationship with Kansas City Chiefs’ Travis Kelce.

Add to that Americans’ nearly record low trust in media.


All of this must be having a negative impact on media teams’ morale and their performance. It may also be another reason, as Hank Price wrote recently for this publication, “why your best young TV journalist just left.”

Good Managers Will Really Shine

Despite the seemingly desperate situation, there is some good news and there are opportunities for those willing to make the effort needed.

Managers who want to limit the effect of outside distractions and improve overall workplace culture, may be able to take a lesson from some new research out of the University of Utah. The original intent of the project was to find ways to make political discourse less divisive by paying attention to what was being said. What I found interesting was the effect the exercise had on the study’s participants, the students who were evaluating the communications.

The research was supported by UNITE, a group formed in 2018 with the mission to ease political divisions in the U.S. The university worked with the group to test and improve UNITE’s Dignity Index. The premise of the tool is that communications, particularly political messages, can be ranked on a scale of one to eight, where one signifies utter contempt — escalating from violent words to violent actions — and an eight indicates that the speaker or group identifies with all humanity, refusing to hate and offering dignity.

The university recruited students from a variety of backgrounds and ideologies to apply the index to 2022 midterm election race messages in Utah. After being trained, students were tasked with either selecting campaign communications to rate or with rating the selected communications. The research team set parameters to help ensure that the selected content provided a good cross-section of all the campaigns’ messaging, both the highs and the lows.

Researchers identified three things that I recommend managers consider applying with their own teams. The first is that the students involved in the study exhibited what the authors term a “mirror effect” — they found themselves reflecting on their own use of language and making changes. Managers who take the time to both use ad encourage the use of language grounded in dignity, rather than contempt, can expect better outcomes from their team. Consider how this works in a business situation — the employee reaction to “let’s talk about how to make that work,” is much different than that to “you are stupid for suggesting that.”

The second finding was that those rating the communications came away with an increased sense of agency. In the case of the study, they developed an understanding of actions that could be taken to reduce divisions. If managers take the time to communicate with dignity while encouraging their teams to take the same approach, it may well result in having employees who better understand how they can contribute to the goal.

Finally, the researchers noted that as the students moved away from divisive language, they were better at problem-solving; as dignity increased, so did their ability to see good in others and to act with curiosity, humility and vulnerability. On this last point, the report authors conclude that this underscores “the premise that treating others with dignity and easing divisions and solving problems are the same set of skills.” In a world where everyone on the team can problem solve, it may just be possible to do more with less.

The added benefit of this focus on communication is that it will give team members a sense of purpose. Purpose is important, particularly for media company employees. It can go a long way to blunt the overall American malaise and the particular challenges associated with a media career.

It’s only March and it’s already been a challenging year. As one person responded to Elmo’s tweet: “Well 2024 feels like 2020 plus 4 so…” That’s particularly true for an industry that is seeing the largest number of job cuts since 2020 and is looking at the same political polarization playing out in real time. History shows that the greatest challenges also open the door to the greatest opportunities. I encourage you to recognize that the current environment is particularly difficult for media businesses and then find ways to take advantage of the lessons learned from the Dignity Index’s pilot project. If you change the way you and your team communicate, you will change your outlook and open the way to creative solutions.

Former president and CEO of the Media Financial Management Association and its BCCA subsidiary, Mary M. Collins is a change agent, entrepreneur and senior management executive. She can be reached at [email protected].

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RustbeltAlumnus2 says:

March 5, 2024 at 9:10 am

After 70 years, I’ve seen much more despair and unrest than 2024. Things are great.

Thanks for the gloom and doom, but I’m not buying it.