Sunday, July 17, 2011

Rumor fed a flash mob of fear

(Stock.xchng vi)
As journalists, perhaps we should have known better. In all things it's verify, then verify again, and finally, verify.

In many work places, people gather around the water cooler to learn what’s “on the grapevine” about things happening in the company. Over the years, the rumors and gossip came in varied flavors.

If it was directed at an individual, it generally was ugly, mean-spirited tripe, although some would try to make it sound less like gossip, as if they were sympathetic to the poor sap whose reputation they were attempting to eviscerate.

When it was a rumor about the company, frequently it was spoken with an air of authority the individual did not have. Often it was presented in a well-reasoned way to ensure that its speculative nature still sounded plausible. Other times it simply reflected the cynicism that comes with years of frozen wages, unfilled vacancies, deep cuts, and ultimately, furloughs and round after round of layoffs.

Either way, I’d found over the years that when the grapevine started cranking up, the best way to address it was head on, disregarding the information until it could be proven credible – because sometimes the grapevine is right. If something sounded credible, the best way to find out was to head up toward the top of the corporate food chain to find out if it was true. That was not always an option sometimes I would not get an answer. But it was the most direct route. 

At Sun-Times Media, I think, the rumor mill was particularly bad over the past three years or so because of the climate of fear, the sacrifices all employees were making, and continued uncertainty about the company’s future.

Some of us tried to combat the grapevine with reason, because the speculative kinds of rumor-mongering that was going on served only to whip up hysteria. But reason often falls to the wayside in times of fear.

Some of my former colleague may have viewed me as a “company man” when I joined in these conversations. In truth, I simply tried to point out that speculation is speculation, and that no matter how well-reasoned it may sound, it cannot be accepted with any certainty.

I resisted the rumor mill but was not immune. There were times I was ensnared by the gossip as much as anyone else.

One such occasion came after the then Sun-Times News Group filed for bankruptcy in the spring of 2009. A powerful riptide of a rumor swept us up in its grasp, fed by our individual fears and financial worries, and interrupted the flow of all work in our newsroom for an hour or longer as it rattled our cages.

I believe that incident came in the second half of 2009, about six months or so after the bankruptcy filing as the company was nearing the do-or-die point at which the company either must be sold or liquidated.

As employees, we had received occasional mailings from the bankruptcy court as the proceedings progressed. One was a notice of an approaching deadline for creditors to file their outstanding claims if they ever hoped to be considered for at least some kind of payment.

On the day of that particular deadline, I walked into the newsroom to find everyone strangely quiet, pens or calculators in hand. their attention focused on sheets of paper in front of them. The screens on their PCs displayed screen savers, evidence that they had not been using the computers for more than just several minutes before I entered.

As I moved toward my desk, I observed my colleagues, some whispering questions and answers quietly but intently over the dividers separating their desks. Occasionally, one would stand up, staring intently at his sheets of paper, and walk to someone’s desk down the aisle. Holding their sheets of paper out, there would be a short, soft-spoken conversation, with fingers pointing to different lines or small check boxes on the papers. Then the individual would return to his or her desk, attention still riveted on the sheets of paper.

It turns out that “someone” apparently “had spoken to an attorney friend” about the claim form we had received in the mail. This attorney apparently had suggested that all employees “should file this claim against the company” if they ever hoped to get their money for unused vacation time and at least a portion of the generous severance packages that had been in place before they were voided with the bankruptcy filing.

So people were adding up days, multiplying by hours and pay scale to calculate the value of their unused vacation time. Then they moved on, trying to calculate the value of their former severance packages. All the while, whispered conversations would ebb and flow as everyone struggled to makes sense of and fill out the forms.

So kick me in the butt, I got sucked right in along with everyone else. Under the old severance policy, I'd have received two weeks of pay for every year I'd been there meaning my severance package was worth six months' of pay. That was a lot of money, and I had no way of knowing how much longer my job would remain in tact.
Someone made me a copy of the form, I sat down at my desk and I began to calculate my losses.

At one point, someone even grabbed a large manila envelope and addressed it to the bankruptcy court with the intent of eventually stuffing all our sheets of paper inside so we could rush it to the post office to ensure it was postmarked before the 5 p.m. court deadline.

Yet, even as I started my own calculations, doubts nagged at the back of my mind.

Besides, if I was wrong, there was all the lost severance pay to consider – it was one half of my annual salary.

Still, as a went through the form, with every lined I filled out – or tried to fill out – it became more clear that my doubts about this were valid. These sheets of paper were geared toward vendors, not employees – money owed for materials purchased, services rendered. There were no lines to fill out or boxes to check related to vacation pay or severance packages.

Still, this was a mob mentality reacting to a rumor involving a deadline, and for journalists, meeting deadlines is second nature.

Still, my doubts intensified, and at one point, I stopped, got up and walked to the office of a company vice president and asked him, point blank: Is this legitimate?

It turns out that someone else already had asked him, but before he said anything publicly, he was awaiting word from the legal department. He had the same doubts I did.

He also expressed understanding and compassion about this response to a rumor that had sparked such an intense reaction so quickly among so many people. It was an indication of the stress everyone was feeling over the company’s dire financial struggles.

So I returned to my desk and started to work, and to wait.

Eventually, word did come. The forms had nothing to do with employees.

Reaction varied – some expressed skepticism (“Of course they'd say that the company attorneys don’t want us to file claims …”). Others looked kind of relieved (I suspect I was in this group), while still others simply sighed, shoved their sheets of paper into a trash can or desk drawer, and started to work.

Later, we talked among ourselves about the group reaction to the entire episode. I think some felt embarrassed – I know I did, even as I understood the reasons we all got drawn into this so quickly and so completely. I even felt somewhat angry with myself for being duped so easily.

Everyone felt some anger at the circumstances alone that set the stage for this kind of thing.

Thankfully, no one lost any more than an hour or so of work and, perhaps, a little of their dignity.

Wikipedia’s definition of the phrase “flash mob” has some nice parallels with what happened in the Aurora newsroom that day: “… a group of people who assemble … perform an unusual and sometimes seemingly pointless act for a brief time, then disperse.”

It wasn’t exactly a public place, and we didn’t disperse afterward – although we did leave the panicked exercise in futility to return to the evenings tasks. But we certainly did perform an unusual and seemingly pointless act for a brief time.

In retrospect, it was eerily similar to the panicked public reaction to the first radio broadcast of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds by Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre on the Air on Oct. 30, 1938. (click here to listen to the broadcast).

People heard and reacted without waiting to confirm the veracity of that information. There was assumption that it had to be true – or that a course of action had to be followed immediately, just in case it was true.

The rumor mill: Sometimes you feel you can't afford to ignore, but when you do pay attention, it can be a perilous thing.

Ultimately, it's no more than gossip. And before you act on it, you had better verify, verify, verify.