Misreading the Environment, Part II

Nearly four years ago, I wrote this blog post about how the Globe and Mail newspaper responsed to allegations that columnist Margaret Wente had used uncredited sources in some of her writing. In that post, I talked about the model of population ecology, from organizational theory. The model suggests that if an organization wants to be considered legitimate, and to gain benefits of legitimacy such as resources and power, then it needs to monitor cues in its external environment, and respond to those cues in ways that the environment considers appropriate.

Wente was briefly suspended after those 2012 allegations, but returned to her job. This past week, the same blogger that found problems with Wente’s work in 2012 found uncredited material from other sources in Wente’s most recent column. The Globe‘s response to these findings was to publish a column by its public editor.  The column quoted the Globe‘s editor-in-chief as saying the paper would “work with Peggy to ensure this cannot happen again”, and that there would be apologies and corrections to the uncredited material.

After that, in Lewis Carroll’s words, “answer came there none” – despite several articles like this one pointing out the inadequacy of the Globe‘s response, especially with this being the second time that Wente had been accused of this type of misconduct. A former Globe reporter weighed in with this commentary, attributing the Globe‘s response to its “legendary institutional vanity and hubris” and its “abiding sense of exceptionalism”, and alleging that Wente hasn’t been fired because of her “deep, intimate roots inside the newspaper” and “powerful allies in and outside the newsroom”.

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Two more examples of apparently uncredited material from other sources in Wente columns.

It was true in 2012, and it’s no less true in 2016, that organizations put themselves at risk if they are perceived as not responding appropriately to their environments. Organizational theory also suggests that the environment’s perception of whether an organization is legitimate is formulated within the context of all the information the environment has about that organization. So if an organization does something that’s perceived by the environment as inappropriate, and then does the same thing again, the context of the same thing happening twice can mean that the second occurrence has a much stronger negative effect on the organization’s perceived legitimacy.

The Globe and Mail is a long-established organization; it generally has a strong reputation and is well-respected for what it does. But it is part of an industry in crisis – an industry that as a whole hasn’t always dealt well with the changes in its environment. And if anything, social media, blogs, online news sites, and other alternatives to print journalism are even more widespread in 2016 than they were in 2012.

The Globe‘s response to this week’s criticisms of Wente – a response which could be summarized as “downplay this and it will go away” – is troubling, especially when it involves an apparent reoccurence of problematic behaviour. The Globe‘s response reflects poorly on its management and on its credibility. There are many fine editors, writers and reporters at the Globe who take the responsibilities of their jobs very seriously – and, as this Tweet indicates, not all of them are happy that their employer is apparently tolerating actions that go against the basic ethical principles of their profession.

The Globe may have a “sense of exceptionalism”, but no organization is large enough or powerful enough to continue to ignore its environment completely. The environment in which the Globe historically established its exceptionalism has changed dramatically – and that puts even more of a requirement on organizations in that environment to respond to their environment quickly and meaningfully. In that context, I hope the Globe will review how it has responded to this week’s events, and consider actions that acknowledge the seriousness of the situation.

 

 

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