Newsroom bullying will take tolls on students, adviser if left unchecked

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Consequences of bullying are very real in workplace

By Jamie Tobias Neely
Eastern Washington University

Newsroom bullies, who may target other students out of earshot of their advisers, can be tricky to spot.

But the consequences of bullying, such as increased absenteeism and turnover, are not. An adviser who ignores newsroom bullies risks hampering student learning, damaging the quality of the publication and even hindering his or her own career.

Christine MacDonald, professor of educational and school psychology at Indiana State University, was one of the first researchers to examine college-age bullying. She co-authored a study that found that 15 percent of college students reported being bullied and almost 22 percent reported being cyberbullied.

“Just because you graduate high school, it doesn’t mean you stopped being a bully,” MacDonald said.

In fact, a 2010 study by the Workplace Bullying Institute in Bellingham, Wash., found that 35 percent of adults reported having been bullied at work.

MacDonald’s study defined bullying as a more powerful person deliberately and repeatedly attacking someone verbally or physically, making obscene gestures or intentionally isolating someone from a social group.

A college student’s bullying behavior likely starts in childhood. Among young adults, it may take a subtler form, but the motivation is the same, McDonald said.

“Being a bully enables us to feel powerful,” she noted.

Nina Brown, professor of counseling and human services at Old Dominion University, wrote the book “Working with the Self-Absorbed: How to Handle Narcissistic Personalities on the Job.”

Brown said some of the most intractable college bullies may indeed exhibit the traits of a destructive narcissistic pattern, including superiority, arrogance, a sense of entitlement, and a lack of empathy. Most children grow out of the grandiose self-absorption that comes naturally during the toddler years and develop a healthy sense of adult self-esteem; others do not.

“You might also say it’s a developmental delay in some respects,” Brown said.

Newsroom culture may also play a role. Deadline pressures, competition and a top-down hierarchy may all contribute to bullying, said Gary Namie, a social psychologist who directs the Workplace Bullying Institute.

In a newsroom where bullies have been allowed to flourish, the environment itself may foster disrespect.

“It’s seen as acceptable behavior,” Brown said. “If they see it go on and nothing happens to prevent it, I hate this word, but … it becomes normalized.”

Targeted students may not be quick to speak up.

“Advisers should look for students who have begun avoiding the newsroom,” MacDonald said, “who no longer want to work with certain other students, whose work has recently decreased either in quality or quantity, and/or those who seem more anxious, stressed or depressed.”

MacDonald and Brown recommend that advisers prevent newsroom bullying by engaging the staff in developing a code of civility at the start of the year.

“The norm has to be deliberately constructed: We shall not abuse one another,” Namie said.

Advisers must be role models for courteous, respectful behavior.

“You cannot preach an anti-tyrannical message and actually be the one who torments others and manages through domination, intimidation, humiliation,” Namie said.  “You can’t run the program that way.”

Bullying appears to take place on a continuum of negative behavior that starts with mild incivility on one end (such as failing to say “hello”) to assault on the other, MacDonald said.

MacDonald likens newsroom culture to that of a declining neighborhood. Communities have found that addressing the small infractions, such as broken windows and graffiti, helps halt further decline. She suspects the broken window theory may also apply to campus groups.

When an adviser realizes that bullying may be occurring, MacDonald recommends taking time to listen to both sides. Remind students, she said, that this behavior would not be tolerated in a professional newsroom.

It’s crucial, she said, that the targeted person be heard and that appropriate action be taken.

“They need to be reassured you do take it seriously, and there are consequences to that behavior,” she said.

If a student attempts to bully an adviser, MacDonald and Brown recommend pointing out the disrespectful behavior, making it clear it’s unacceptable, and suggesting more effective ways to communicate.

An adviser should remain calm because bullies thrive off having an audience watch their targets’ emotional reactions. Rather than dealing with the bully in front of a group, MacDonald recommends the adviser step back and ask the student to set up an individual appointment.

By then, the adviser will have had time to calm down and devise an appropriate response. MacDonald also recommends documenting the negative behavior and talking with a department chair or senior faculty member. It may become necessary to bring that person into a meeting with the student to witness the conversation.

What the adviser can’t afford to do is ignore the behavior. The potential consequences are too great. Even people who simply observe bullying report more stress and anxiety, MacDonald said.

Students who are targeted by bullies would certainly suffer a loss of self-esteem and may also see their academic performance decline, Brown said.  Some might also obsess over the bullying situation. Others might withdraw from work with the newspaper altogether; a student with high potential as a journalist may feel discouraged about developing their skills. Namie points to research that shows bullying also threatens the targeted person’s physical health.

As for the adviser, newsroom bullying can quickly lead to burnout. Brown predicts the adviser would experience feelings of incompetence, ineffectiveness and helplessness. Similar to the targeted student, the adviser could also fail to develop and thrive professionally, risk becoming depressed and anxious, and develop such problems as hypertension and irritable bowel syndrome.

“You would feel totally ineffective,” Brown said.  “I can see how that would affect you in all parts of your life, not just in your professional life.”

Fortunately, bullying experts agree that advisers can take constructive steps to ward off the behavior. Some universities are beginning to adopt anti-bullying policies. But whether or not there’s a campus-wide effort, the proactive adviser can start the year with a group brainstorming session, leading students to reflect on how they’d like to be treated in the newsroom as they craft their own set of guidelines and consequences. Soon the staff itself will enforce new norms.

The good news: With a strong newsroom policy, clear communication and firm consequences, a newsroom culture can quickly change, Namie said.

“The group will place tremendous pressure on outliers who dare to be the miscreant deviants,” he said. “They can do it within one year, one generation of a campus newspaper production team.”

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Dealing with bullies in your campus newsroom? Here are more resources:

Jamie Tobias Neely is an assistant professor of journalism at Eastern Washington University in Cheney, Wash., and adviser to The Easterner. She worked for The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Wash., for 21 years, most recently as an associate editor and member of the newspaper’s editorial board. She continues to write an op-ed column for the newspaper. She holds an M.F.A. in creative writing/non-fiction from Eastern Washington University and an M.A. in counseling psychology from Gonzaga University.