Once an unspoken taboo in the newsroom, today editors and journalists are more inclined to talk about mental health issues and job stress — and they’re the better for it.
Gretchen A. Peck | for Editor & Publisher
News is a stressful job — certainly for reporters and editors, but these days, also for anyone who works in the news business. There are formidable stressors associated with doing this work. It’s a job that, by nature, doesn’t fit into a 9-to-5 workweek. Newsgathering and production are demanding and expensive; the content can be difficult to witness and chronicle — even traumatic, as our cover story this month demonstrates. Every word, every image we publish is under microscopic scrutiny, with no shortage of criticism coming at us from all directions, especially on social media.
The pandemic was problematic from both a professional and personal perspective. In mid-2020, the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism studied the impact of reporting on the pandemic. Neiman Lab’s Sarah Scire analyzed the study’s preliminary findings, which surveyed 73 journalists from an international sampling of outlets.
“Of the group responding, about 70% said they were suffering from psychological distress,” Scire explained. “More than a quarter of respondents demonstrated symptoms like worry, feeling on edge, insomnia, poor concentration, and fatigue that were ‘clinically significant’ and compatible with the diagnosis of generalized anxiety disorder.”
Like with first responders and warriors, the job can place reporters and visual journalists in the path of danger, where they may be exposed to injustices and atrocities, heightening the risks of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
There are also the challenges of remaining committed to a difficult-but-essential job, especially when all around newsrooms are shuttering and news people are moving on to other fields, their talent and institutional knowledge packed out with them.
There is no job security.
The most extreme pressures of working in news are worries about safety — literally, the physical safety of reporters in the field, as well as the security of our newsrooms and places of business.
The Radio Television Digital News Association (RTDNA), in conjunction with the Newhouse School at Syracuse University, published a startling statistic in May 2022: “More than one in five TV news directors say their journalists were attacked in 2021.”
“The bigger the market, the more likely that there have been attacks, with nearly a third of news directors in top 25 markets reporting attacks,” their survey revealed.
It is a busy, hostile and dangerous time. All these stressors weigh heavy and can potentially impact our mental health and ability to manage it.
Preparing journalists for the professional path ahead
E&P spoke with Rachel Rohr, vice president of program development at Report for America (RFA), during RFA’s recent gathering in Chicago, where all the Corps members got to meet and take part in a curriculum that included a session on “Trauma, Resilience & Journalism,” hosted by Stephanie Friedhoff, professor of practice and strategy and director at Brown University’s School of Public Health.
“Her sensibilities as a journalist are so excellent. She has a lot of lived experience, which is helpful,” Rohr said.
Typically, this annual event is planned for new RFA Corps members as an orientation. Since COVID-19 put the in-person event on pause for a few years, Rohr said they felt it was essential to bring together all of their journalists, including reporters in their second and third years with RFA. It allows the reporters to form cohort relationships and broaden their professional network.
Asked how often the topic of mental health comes up in conversation with RFA journalists, Rohr said, “I think it’s fair to say that it comes up a lot.”
RFA journalists often have questions about how to recover from burnout — or better yet, how to prevent it. They seek out resources for how to process difficult stories to which they’re exposed and how to strike a healthy work-life balance or deal with online harassment, Rohr reported.
“[Mental health] seems top-of-mind,” she said.
RFA has created a culture that encourages Corps members to talk about these issues and challenges they may face related to exhaustion, depression and other clinical diagnoses, or substance abuse and addiction. In addition, every RFA journalist has a mentor who acts as their coach and sounding board, especially if they’re burning out or having a mental health crisis. Rohr suggested that having that mentor — relationships that might be replicated in newsrooms — has helped RFA journalists feel more comfortable talking about these issues.
Group sessions, like the one Professor Friedhoff hosted at this year’s gathering, are also effective. “It allows you to talk to other people about your strategies. How do you know when you’re not doing well? What are your tells? How do you feel better? What are the not-harmful things you can do to feel better? That’s important because there are also harmful things we do to feel better.”
Rohr credited the Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma’s mental-health training for news managers and editors. “It offers a range of content, but most importantly, how to manage exposure to trauma,” she explained. “As an editor or supervisor, you want to be very mindful when you have reporters working on a difficult story.”
As an editor, manager or news organization talent manager, it’s important to have referrals and resources available to team members who need them, sometimes at a moment’s notice.
“Finding a mental health provider is such a difficult thing,” she said. “Even if you’re in a good state of mind, it’s incredibly time-consuming, tedious and challenging — and so is finding affordable care, or care that’s in your network.” In the Corps member handbook, Rohr curated a list of resources and a step-by-step guide for journalists in crisis.
“We also created this interactive text-message course, with a bite-size lesson every day that takes about five minutes, and we’ve included a chapter on mental health, and it helps direct them to the resources they may need,” Rohr explained.
The promise of professional development
Top-of-mind at The Boston Globe is the well-being of its staff. E&P spoke with Gregory Lee Jr., senior assistant managing editor, talent and community, about the conversations unfolding there related to mental health.
“Given these last two years, given the stresses of the pandemic, the racial reckoning, the attack on freedom of the press, it takes a toll on all of us. We’ve also been away from each other and the newsroom environment, and dealing with family and making adjustments if you had kids at home, with routines changed. All our lives have been uprooted. Meanwhile, we’re covering all of this ever-changing news, and it seems like it’s never-ending. But our reporters are out there and doing the jobs that they do,” Lee said.
The Globe’s newsroom had the added stress of contract negotiation, which is now resolved.
“I think everyone’s confident that the organization is moving in the right direction under this ownership group,” Lee said. “They finally settled the union contract with the company that had been going on for two years, so that brought a big sigh of relief.”
Part of his role at The Boston Globe is dedicated to supporting the newsroom with professional development. They’re in the process of creating a curriculum that includes a program on mental health and trauma.
The Globe’s newsroom recently benefitted from a workshop from the Dart Center, Lee reported, designed to help their staff “cope with stress, trauma and burnout.”
“We are journalists, but we’re still people first,” Lee said. “We recognize as a newsroom that the last two+ years have been very difficult, and while we’re doing great journalism, we also recognize that it takes a toll on us as people, as well. Our editor always talks in our meetings about how we need to encourage our reporters to take the time off, to get away, to decompress and do what they need to re-energize themselves.”
Lee said he hopes to create an environment that encourages work-life balance so no one gets burned out from “the constant churning or covering big news.”
His advice to editors, talent mentors and management teams at other outlets?
“At the end of the day, this is a business organization, but your business won’t be successful if you have a worn-out staff. You have to find ways to re-energize your staff. … But be intentional about making sure your staffers are ok. You have to make that effort as leaders of the organization,” he advised. “The most important thing is to be intentional about the care of your staff.”
In April 2021, WNYC Studios’ Brooke Gladstone interviewed the Dart Center’s executive director, Bruce Shapiro, who spoke about how the stories newsrooms chase can influence the health and well-being of their journalists.
“Whether it’s on the front lines of conflict or covering a disaster or civil unrest, the insurrection on January 6th — that’s one kind of traumatic event — but the reality is that journalists spend a huge amount of time also listening to and engaging with, [and] absorbing the stories of people describing the most difficult experiences of abuse and loss that they’ve had in their lives. Every study that’s been done on journalists in the last 20 years says that over the course of their career, between 85% and 100% of all journalists will contend with major trauma exposure in the course of their work,” Shapiro explained.
“There’s the slow drip, drip, drip. The accumulation of crime scene after crime scene, murder trial after murder trial, which a lot of research now shows can have a profound effect,” Shapiro told Gladstone and WNYC’s audience.
At Shapiro’s suggestion, E&P followed up with his colleague, Elana Newman, Ph.D., the research director at the Dart Center and the McFarlin Professor of Psychology at the University of Tulsa. Shapiro noted that Dr. Newman has dedicated much of her career to helping journalists process trauma and better manage their mental health. Asked why that has been such an important part of her work, Dr. Newman recalled how she’d begun this line of work studying mental health of first responders. Then, about 20 years ago, she talked about her work with a journalist, who pointed out the professional hazards first responders and reporters shared and said, “This might apply to me.”
She started by studying what it meant to be a “professional witness” and the toll it takes on reporters repeatedly interviewing people in the midst of grief.
“We have found, in general, that most journalists — regardless of their specialty — are exposed to traumatic events,” she said.
In this field, the term “resilience” comes up a lot. Dr. Newman explained the context and meaning as “the process of adapting well to adversity,” — or in the case of journalists, how we process our exposure to trauma and “bounce back.” She cited the book “Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest Challenges,” by Steven M. Southwick, M.D. and Dennis S. Charney, M.D., which offers insight into the phenomenon and strategies that help reporters be resilient — for example, having a sense of purpose and mission and being reminded of the importance and value of their work.
She explained that journalists are more resilient when they are ethically sound and morally secure.
“We think what keeps journalists resilient or helps their well-being is when they’ve stuck to their ethical code. … We are seeing, in general, trends that journalists who have ethical regrets report more symptomatology,” Dr. Newman reported.
She explained that trauma exposure alone can present a mental-health risk for journalists, and that can be compounded if the journalists experienced trauma in their personal lives, too.
Feeling supported by friends, family, but especially peers and professional managers can help. “It speaks to the importance of thinking about mental health issues as workplace and organizational issues, as well, and there are things organizations can do, like having clear policies and procedures and making employees feel supported,” she added. “I think that’s particularly important to [E&P’s] audience.”
Two decades ago, journalists’ mental health wasn’t a topic of conversation in newsrooms, Dr. Newman recalled. There’s less stigma and more understanding of how the “occupational hazards” of the job are contributing factors.
“Now, safety training has become standard, and it’s become much easier to talk about psychological safety when we’re also talking about physical safety. But we weren’t having those conversations even 10 years ago,” she said.
Gretchen A. Peck is a contributing editor to Editor & Publisher. She’s reported for E&P since 2010 and welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.