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NBC News digital staffers opt to unionize, citing questions about sexual misconduct procedures

The NBC Universal logo at its building in Los Angeles. (Jae C. Hong/AP)

Journalists at NBC News’s digital division have formed a union, the latest in a wave of organizing that has swept through media companies across the country in recent years.

Three-quarters of the staff — which includes reporters, editors, designers, video journalists and social media staff at news sites run by the company — have signed on to the effort, according to a statement released Wednesday by the NewsGuild of New York, the union that will represent the employees.

Calling itself the NBC News Guild, the union said the reasons behind the push included concerns about the company’s treatment of women and people of color and the way it handled recent incidents of sexual misconduct.

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The company has been under public scrutiny after New Yorker reporter Ronan Farrow alleged that it suppressed his reporting on sexual assault allegations against movie producer Harvey Weinstein and covered up harassment and assault accusations against former “Today” show host Matt Lauer.

Farrow’s book “Catch and Kill,” released earlier this month, asserts that NBC stopped his reporting on Weinstein in 2017 after the producer threatened to disclose misconduct by Lauer, which was then unknown. MSNBC host Rachel Maddow, one of the network’s biggest stars, called out the company last week, saying she had confirmed some of Farrow’s claims herself.

“NBC News repeatedly refused calls for an independent review on both counts despite numerous such requests from staff,” the NBC News Guild said in a statement. “This lack of transparency and NBC News’ troubling trend of passing on stories which investigate the powerful ultimately harm our credibility as journalists.”

Two NBC reporters who spoke to The Washington Post on the condition of anonymity because they feared retribution cited those issues as a motivating factor for something like a union.

“Those of us [who] may have not have had a stake in it directly now see another reason why it would be a good thing,” one of the reporters said.

Both cited reports documenting college newspaper columns written by Noah Oppenheim, an executive at the company, more than 20 years ago. As a Harvard student, Oppenheim reportedly mocked feminists and blasted NBC for firing a sportscaster accused of sexual assault.

Farrow wrote that Oppenheim was involved in the process that effectively killed a story about Weinstein. Oppenheim has said that Farrow distorted and exaggerated his depiction of the network in response. Some NBC reporters told The Post previously that they disputed Farrow’s characterization of events, saying they stand by Oppenheim and a team of producers at NBC who have said his Weinstein story didn’t meet NBC’s reporting standards.

Other issues cited by the NBC News Guild in its statement included pay disparities that split along racial and gendered lines, understaffing, excessive work, and transparency.

“Management has indicated they are committed to addressing some of these issues — ending nine-hour working shifts, adjusting weekend staffing, increasing standard vacation time, and implementing select pay raises,” the statement said. “While we strongly welcome any steps forward, we want to cement these adjustments into an enforceable contract.”

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One of the NBC reporters said a spreadsheet had circulated among staff where people self-reported their salary and demographic information anonymously. He said that gave people the impression that white men in the office were paid more than others.

The four NBC employees the News Guild said could speak on the record either declined interviews by The Post’s deadline or did not respond to requests for comment.

The union announcement, which was first reported by the New York Times, is part of rapid growth of union membership in newsrooms in the past few years, first at digital outlets in New York City and then in more traditional newsrooms such as the Miami Herald, the Los Angeles Times and New York magazine.

Newsrooms that have unionized in recent years include Vice, Slate, HuffPost, MTV News, the Intercept, the New Yorker and Vox Media.

The number of employees who have been unionized through these efforts has not been enough to stanch the loss of jobs that have dragged union participation down to its lowest percentage in decades. But the high visibility enjoyed by media companies and their reporters and editors has drawn outsize attention to these campaigns and helped give unions a feeling of growth and relevancy.

The union drives are part of a broader trend toward employee activism in an era where political issues seep into nearly every aspect of life.

NBC Universal, the group’s parent company, declined to say whether it would voluntarily recognize its staff’s union. Spokeswoman Emily Passer distributed a note that Chris Berend, an executive vice president at the company, sent to digital staff on Wednesday.

“I want you to know we are deeply committed to a fair and healthy workplace for all our employees,” the email said. “We welcome this dialogue from within our digital organization, and any constructive conversation aimed at building the future of NBC News Digital and ensuring that we’re the best we can be. We will address this request quickly, and will keep you updated every step of the way.”

Sarah Ellison and Paul Farhi contributed to this report.