For Melanie Mason, the whiplash of covering the 2016 presidential campaign came at a recent rally for GOP candidate Donald Trump in Cincinnati. Mason, a reporter with the Los Angeles Times, isn’t traveling with Trump’s press pool right now. Instead, she flies commercial and gets to rallies early to talk to people.
That’s what she did in Ohio, leaving her things in the press pen, then venturing into the crowd to talk with Trump supporters. For all the rightful attention increased vitriol toward the press at Trump rallies has gotten, Mason didn’t have “a single negative experience” talking to his supporters.
Then, the press pool came into the arena.
Mason heard a cascade of boos and hisses ripple through the crowd. She thought maybe it was aimed at a protester.
“And then you realize, ‘Oh my God, they’re booing the traveling press,'” she said.
Mason hasn’t covered Trump from the beginning of the campaign, and she’s not on TV or easily recognizable. Other journalists have covered Trump much longer than she has. But witnessing the disdain for the press from the same people who spoke politely with her individually was jarring and tough to square.
It’s hard to recall a recent moment when journalists covered news this polarizing, emotional and explosive, said Bruce Shapiro, executive director of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.
“You would have to go back to the Civil Rights movement in the early 1960s,” he said, “or perhaps the anti-Vietnam protests.”
The challenges of covering this election exist on several levels, Shapiro said. They include questions about how to cover a candidate like Trump, but also how to deal with real threats to safety. The threats aimed at the Arizona Republic, for instance, which endorsed Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, were explicit.
“We are, as a community of journalists and also as individual journalists who are members of all kinds of groups, reporting while metabolizing the stress of hearing ourselves attacked,” he said. “I’m not an immigrant, and I’m not Latino and I’m not Muslim, but I am Jewish and I’m aware of the anti-Semitism that has followed in the wake of this campaign.”
Reporters have to go out of their way to be fair while covering this election, Shapiro said, but we also have to recognize that it comes with some personal and emotional challenges, too. And not just for journalists.
An October report from the American Psychological Association found that, for 52 percent of adults, this election is a source of stress.
Here are some tips on how to stay safe and sane during the next few weeks.
Practice situational awareness
Before the conventions, The Washington Post brought in security consultants to talk with staff about navigating “volatile, unpredictable and potentially violent situations,” according to a Post spokesperson.
Los Angeles Times staff are following their standard routine for campaign coverage, according to a spokesperson, but “in addition, the editors keep an open line of communication with the reporters and, given the unique circumstances of this presidential election, there’s been more conversations about ensuring that our coverage is fair.”
And NPR held a situational awareness training after the primaries, a spokesperson told Poynter.
“Trainings like these are meant to be preemptive, NPR offers them to newsroom staff because reporters and producers face unexpected situations while covering stories out in the field,” the spokesperson said.
Journalists should practice the same situational awareness they’d use to cover a protest or the aftermath of a shooting, Shapiro said. Among his tips for doing that: Know where the exits are and have an exit plan.
Take threats seriously
Maybe you’d ordinarily blow off harassing tweets, emails or phone calls.
“Now is the time to take them seriously,” Shapiro said.
Even if you’re someone who isn’t covering the candidates directly, you may still receive threats. Report those threats to your boss, Shapiro said, or to an outside authority.
Also, he said, report it as you would other parts of the story. Journalists often try to keep themselves out of the picture, but threats to journalists are an important part of what’s happening and we can’t ignore it, Shapiro said.
Plus, “documenting and reporting gives us a degree of control.”
Work together more
Work in pairs, Shapiro recommended. Have a plan for how you’re going to cover a story. Talk about what worked, what didn’t and what you’ll do differently.
And take the time to check in regularly with the newsroom. This doesn’t mean you have to be paranoid or show up in a flak jacket, Shapiro added, “but it does mean applying situational awareness and conservative judgement.”
Connect with peers
On the days she’s felt the worst, Mason has been alone on airplanes, alone in rental cars, covering rallies and then alone in hotel rooms. On the days she’s felt the best, she’s made time to connect with other journalists also covering the election and met up for a beer later.
“We’re all sleep-deprived, not taking good care of ourselves, eating bad food,” she said, “but we’re all in this together. I think that is the big X factor in making myself not feel terrible.”
Since the Trump campaign began targeting the media, many journalists may be finding themselves feeling overwhelmed, Shapiro said, and should talk to their colleagues.
“We are experiencing this as a community of journalists, and during times of threat and stress, peer support is the very best protection.”
Look for signs of burnout
Losing interest in things that used to engage you is among the early signs that you’re nearing burnout, said Rebecca Palpant Shimkets, associate director of the The Rosalynn Carter Fellowships for Mental Health Journalism. Are you still running, gardening, going to book club?
Distancing yourself from things and people is a big red flag, she said. Some more: Exhaustion, interrupted sleep, weight loss and weight gain. Also, are you able to focus? If not, talk to a colleague or a professional, Shapiro said.
“This is not a time to ignore those responses.”
Make yourself turn it off sometimes
Imaeyen Ibanga works in NBC’s digital video unit. She feels like she’s getting enough food, drink and sleep at this point in the election cycle.
Even off the clock, she gets a lot of questions about the news and the work her peers are producing.
One strategy she has for unplugging: Exercise. “I will dance anywhere, literally anywhere. I’ve had to dial that up a bunch. I workout, but I also walk and tune out.”
The election aside, this has been a tough year for journalists, she said. Because of that, it’s important to make time and space to breathe.
Mason did that on a two-hour drive recently. Instead of listening to NPR or streaming CNN, she listened to music. It reminded her that she’s a person with other interests.
“It doesn’t have to be politics all the time,” she said, “but the truth is I don’t do that as much as I should.”
You have to actually plan out data and media blackouts, Shimkets said. Carve out time specifically before bed and give your brain the chance to rest.
And remember the things that make you feel good, Shapiro said: yoga, the gym, cycling. Be deliberate about building those things into your routine. The next three weeks are going to be non-stop, he said, and now’s the time to be intentional about maintaining your boundaries.
Lean on your communities
Do not ignore your life outside of work, or the people.
“It’s hard because a lot of journalists surround themselves with other journalists,” Shimkets said.
But don’t forget your non-news family and community who can help you think through things in a different way.
For Ibanga, that community includes her cat.
“Lady Snuggles literally walks out of the room when politics are on TV,” she said. “She’s the a furry reminder of how much balance matters.”
Do excellent work
Even when people are hissing at the press, Mason feels lucky to do what she does — to travel the country, to talk to people where they live, to cover this election.
“It’s the greatest job in the world,” she said, “even if it’s tiring or stressful, I feel very lucky to get to do it.”
Shapiro admires how the staff of the Arizona Republic handled recent threats — by continuing to do their jobs as best they can.
This election has brought new stress to an already high-stress job, as well as real threats to safety. Maintaining a high quality of work can help us remember why this is still worth doing, he said.
“Good journalism is both a sanctuary from the poisonous atmosphere around us and an answer to it.”