March 18, 2021

COVID-19 has taken a tremendous emotional toll on our journalism community.

I’ve worked in media safety for a decade, and mental health is more firmly on the agenda in newsrooms than at any other time I have known.

But it is still not a priority everywhere in the industry.

On the anniversary of the pandemic, many of our colleagues are stressed, anxious, burnt out. The struggles exacerbated by COVID-19 are not disappearing soon. This year should be a wake-up call to our industry.

“Traumatic events and large-scale crises, like the pandemic, serve as a magnifying glass on existing conditions for individuals and communities who are touched by them,” says Dr. Kevin Becker, a clinical psychologist and trauma specialist. “The data tells us that journalists are exposed to traumatic events at a higher rate than many soldiers. As such, they are at increased risk for the mental health impacts related to the losses and tragedies associated with COVID-19.”

After months of covering the biggest global news story in living memory, life is uncertain. Journalists are worried about job security, online vitriol, attacks by leaders undermining our legitimacy, an “infodemic” of misinformation.

We are hyper-connected and disconnected. Working remotely in the face of relentless news, we are navigating new ways of interacting with colleagues, contacts and stories.

But, fortunately, there have been some positive changes.

Phil Chetwynd, Global News Director for Agence France-Presse, welcomes the increased appetite for conversations.

“In some newsrooms there has been a very healthy step forward in the culture of dialogue around mental health, probably slightly forced on us by the exceptional circumstances that have affected newsrooms and society,” he told me. “We shouldn’t underestimate this capacity to talk about this subject (of mental health), especially in newsrooms where there has not been discussed because news has not been as innovative and forward-thinking as some industries.”

While this is a move in the right direction, it’s far from universal.

Tanmoy Goswami lost his job after the closure of the reader-funded journalism website The Correspondent.

“The decimation of newsrooms across the world has created tremendous despair,” he said, “and I am not sure if newsrooms that are still standing are doing enough to make people feel less anxious about their future and their wellbeing.”

He recently launched the independent mental health platform, Sanity, and notes how he’s not alone in seeking an alternative to the pressure and uncertainty of newsroom environments.

Unless our industry gets better at supporting journalists’ mental health, I fear journalism will lose individuals who bring unique and much-needed perspectives. I don’t think our industry has recognized yet the cost of a failure to act.

Ours is a macho culture, where we pride ourselves on our resilience. But as Professor Anthony Feinstein told me after decades of studying the impact of journalists’ work on their mental health, “resilience does not mean immunity.”

The events of the last year have disproportionately affected those already marginalized by our industry and society at large.

Joyce Adeluwoye-Adams is editor for newsroom diversity at Reuters. She said, “Unfortunately there is still a huge stigma around mental health within the Black community. Due to historical adversity, culturally we are brought up to be resilient and weather all storms —  this is our protective armor against any potential discrimination we may face now or in the future. As a result, speaking up or seeking help around mental health may be difficult to do. It is therefore a responsibility of all of us as leaders within editorial to create a culture where the stigma of talking about mental health is removed.

“We need to ensure that we are providing a psychologically safe environment where all of our journalists — regardless of their cultural, ethnic or socioeconomic background — feel comfortable seeking the help they need.

“At Reuters, we are deeply committed to providing this safe space, and to providing resources to support our journalists, including a peer network, CiC trauma counseling, art classes, meditation and mindfulness resources, and a new mental health holiday to coincide with World Mental Health Day.”

As someone who has spoken openly about her own struggles, I have been reminded regularly this year of the value of connecting with others and sharing my story. I’m lucky to have that community already. Not everyone does. Mental illness can be incredibly isolating.

We all have a part to play in changing this conversation.

Those in leadership in particular should be walking the walk as well as talking the talk.

Sarah Ward-Lilley is Managing Editor for BBC News and Current Affairs and one of the corporation’s mental health leads.

“The biggest lesson for me was resilience — learning how to maintain my own and how to help my colleagues too,” she said. “Encouraging conversations about this has been vital, to share worries, pass on ideas and get encouragement from others. And this year has also given me some good new habits — building in time for walks, photographing trees and shutting the laptop at night. My priority now is to maintain this resilience in the year to come.”

After a year of remote working, good leadership is crucial. But managers also need support to maintain their own resilience and that of their teams.

“There are pressures and complexity of managing virtually, multiple tools to manage, teams to keep track of, the context around the situation for homes and family life,” says Chetwynd. “The challenge now with more virtual working, is how do we better structure workflows? How do we bring best practices to our staff to avoid them being sucked in?”

Pulitzer Prize winner Mar Cabra now coaches digital wellness after burning out. She believes few companies really invested in helping their employees make a healthy move to remote working.

“It’s a challenge at a personal level, but also at an organizational level. It has become an issue in media companies, where many newsroom communication workflows are unplanned,” she said. “Without rethinking how we want to have those communication flows remotely, the typical effect is chaos. The problem is that it is resulting in higher stress levels, which may result in burnout, and disengagement from the organization.”

For many, setting boundaries is hard and often requires a fundamental shift in thinking. This year, several journalists — including senior ones — have told me they have no option but to sleep with their phone beside them. It can feel tantamount to giving up control. But it can also be a step to regaining control of our mental health.

Leaders need to set the tone and must recognize the impact of our actions on others especially in a remote world, something Jon Birchall of British publisher Reach PLC said he learned by actively listening to his team.

“The most important feedback I’ve received from my team is that managers must practice what they preach when it comes to positive approaches to mental health. Sending emails late at night and the idea of ‘always being on’ is too easy a trap to fall into when the line between work/life balance has been so significantly blurred.”

There’s an oft-quoted phrase in our industry that the best journalists don’t make the best managers. Perhaps it’s time for a rethink. At the heart of journalism, lies the idea of being a good listener. The best journalists show empathy to those around them. COVID-19 has reinforced the value of empathy — to our audience, our communities.

Perhaps it’s time we paused to recognize how that could serve us as we stop to hear those in our midst.

“I think the biggest lesson I’ve learned is to listen more,” Stephanie Backus, national digital editorial manager for Hearst TV, told me. “In my world, the news cycle gets so crazy that sometimes we forget to stop and listen to our people because we’re so consumed with what’s happening in the news. But being distributed forced us to stop and listen more and really hear what our employees were saying, even if they couldn’t figure out the words to use.”

As journalists, we need to be figuring out the words we want to use to tell our own stories, and helping those around us do the same.

Support high-integrity, independent journalism that serves democracy. Make a gift to Poynter today. The Poynter Institute is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, and your gift helps us make good journalism better.
Hannah Storm is the Founder and Co-Director of Headlines Network and media consultant. She is the former CEO of the International News Safety Institute and…
Hannah Storm

More News

Back to News