Journalism is an economically precarious profession particularly for local media organizations, and that fact alone is stressful enough. Add unpredictable work hours, lack of resources, and a lethal worldwide pandemic, and we’ve got a crisis on our hands.
Or do we? If a thousand trees fall in the forest and no one acknowledges it — including the trees — is it really happening?
“Journalism is quite a macho profession and a lonely one,” says psychotherapist and former journalist Anne Mortimer. Journalists can sometimes be unwilling to acknowledge a need for help, much less ask for it.
“This idea of walking through a wall every day, wearing yourself out, and acting like it doesn’t matter,” says Scott Blanchard, senior editor at WITF and StateImpact Pennsylvania, “is probably not the best way to go about fashioning a career.”
Blanchard helped launch the Trust for Trauma Journalism, a nonprofit that aims to support research and training in trauma journalism. And one of the organization’s goals is to help colleges integrate “a kind of trauma journalism curriculum” into communications schools.
Blanchard’s concern about the impact of traumatic news events on journalists began when he was an editor at the York (Pa.) Daily Record, where reporters helped to cover the Sandy Hook school shootings. When the journalists returned, Blanchard says, “They told us that no one had trained them for this.”
For managers, the past year magnified the issue of newsroom stress because it affected everyone, Blanchard says. Usually when reporters are covering traumatic events, their managers “can respect that and understand it intellectually, but you’re not going through it. But COVID has affected everybody. At first, it took us all out of our newsrooms and away from each other. And now everybody has at least one story” about a family member or friend who suffered or died from COVID-19.
Early in the pandemic, his staffers were given an extra day off on a rotating basis, Blanchard says. Some other local news organizations have promoted or enhanced their mental health services, held game nights for staffers, added vacation time, and tried to hold regular one-on-one check-ins with staffers. Journalists are being encouraged to talk about stress and mental health, but the effort has had limited success.
“Most people are hard on themselves,” says Blanchard. Even when they’re invited to take time off, they may think “Do I really want to go to my editor and say, ‘You know, I’d like to take that day off.’ And then you look around and think, is anyone else doing this? You know everyone’s busy. Why am I special?”
Journalists may be known for their resilience and “capacity,” but unrelenting crisis coverage can have serious health problems. A 2019 study found that one in five journalists who covered devastating hurricanes had at least some PTSD symptoms. Two in five journalists “met the threshold for depression” and 93% had symptoms of depression.
In her May 2021 essay, “The COVID Reporters are not Okay,” Olivia Messer says, “When I told my editors at The Daily Beast that I needed to quit my job as the newsroom’s lead coronavirus reporter, I couldn’t even say the word ‘quit.’ Even now, weeks later, it feels like admitting failure.” The coronavirus pandemic has caused a “parallel pandemic of PTSD, anxiety and depression,” she says.
Messer suggests several steps that newsrooms can take to alleviate stress in the newsroom: hazard pay, trained mentors, adding employees to share the reporting load, and training journalists to report and write about death and survival.
Other promising efforts, suggestions and ideas:
Support groups for journalists of color have been emerging over the past several months, prodded by a year of social justice upheaval and a pandemic that hit non-white communities even harder. The International Women’s Media Foundation’s support fund for Black journalists was opened in May 2020. And a few months later, Andrea González-Ramírez launched a mentoring program for Latina journalists not only because of a historic lack of a support system — but because young Latina journalists were anxious and struggling to fit into a newsroom they’d never seen, with colleagues they’d never met in person.
At some news organizations, where the staff was struggling with their own stress and lack of resources, “it was like, jump into the deep end and learn how to swim,” she says. Then there were the ongoing “painful and difficult” conversations about diversity and social justice, prompting González-Ramírez to decide “if there’s not a program like this, I’m going to create one.” The Latinas in Journalism Mentoring Program now has about 50 mentors who have mentored about 100 women — and a critical topic of conversation is the emotional exhaustion of being “the only” in the workplace. A young Latina reporter may be the only person of color, the only Spanish-speaker, and possibly one of only a few women. “People tend to assume you’re the diversity expert or the diversity police or the immigration expert” and the representative for all Latinas, says González-Ramírez.
And then there’s the struggle with “imposter syndrome” and worrying whether your hiring was only to check a diversity box, she says. “That’s a very difficult voice to shut up in your brain.”
She recommends to the women in the program that they find as many mentors as possible, through other support organizations. “You need to create an advisory board for yourself.”
Can stress be designed out of media organizations? The World Health Organization has studied the causes of stress in companies and has found that a job that’s designed or structured badly can also cause stress for the person who fills that job. Consider how these “design flaws” identified by WHO could apply to some newsroom jobs:
Too much work done under time pressure, inflexible and unpredictable hours, poorly designed shifts, lack of participation in decision-making, unclear performance evaluation systems, poor communication and lack of clarity about organizational goals, lack of policies to support work-life balance.
An MIT study supported those findings, particularly when it comes to a system that requires an employee to work until their breaking point. “Overload is a pernicious problem that is usually caused by organizational demands, but employers can address it by making reasonable and feasible changes to how work is done.”
Managers need to realize there’s no one-size-fits-all resource to help journalists under stress. “We’re all in the same storm, but we’re not all in the same boat,” says Unilever’s chief human resources officer Leena Nair. During the pandemic, she says, her department “became very aware of the different experiences that different employees were having. Some were homeschooling, others were on their own and very lonely. People who were just exhausted. People who wanted more time in terms of mindfulness and reflection. So it’s about bringing all of that together to provide every person with the support he or she needs.”
Here are some additional resources for supporting journalists’ mental health and wellbeing: