The Cohort: How do you stay sane in a dizzying news cycle?
This essay originally appeared in The Cohort, our bi-weekly newsletter for women kicking ass in digital media.
It’s a question I hear often as a journalist, and I’m sure many of you do, too: How do you deal with all these attacks on your credibility and “alternative facts,” especially in this dizzying news cycle?
I’m proud of how CNN has navigated these murky waters as a company by standing up for my colleagues and calling out clear mischaracterizations of our reporting. But brushing off personal attacks directed at me and my colleagues is tough, especially when we have to keep up with the barrage of news.
Veteran journalists insist this news cycle is no more hectic than others before it. But, they acknowledge a number of cascading factors are leading to new occupational stressors that can make the fast-paced news cycle feel even more relentless — especially for women.
Elana Newman of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma laid out some reasons:
– The current climate of consistent and highly directed public attacks from politicians on journalists’ integrity
– Direct online and offline threats to journalists from the public, some which are gendered
– The lack of civility in online comments about journalists’ work that can take the form of gendered intimidation or harassment
– Attempts to erode trust in good journalism by discussing fake news and alternative facts
– The increase of graphic user-generated content and the challenges of gathering, verifying and using this material
These overlapping stressors are creating new ethical challenges and emotional strains, Newman told me. I concur. As someone who writes about LGBTQ rights, gender issues and sexual violence, I often hear from readers who disagree with the perspectives I’m offering up. I know I shouldn’t take criticism personally, but the cumulative effect often weighs on me like a pile of rocks.
What to do about it, then?
For one, getting some perspective helps. I spoke with Diane McFarlin of the University of Florida’s College of Journalism and Communications, and she reminded me that occupational agita is nothing new for a job consistently ranked among the most stressful. Neither is criticism of our work. News judgment is a matter of perspective, which means that no matter how hard journalists try to balance their coverage, “readers often see stories as skewed in a direction they don’t like — particularly if politics are involved.”
What makes it different now is that people are willing to believe accusations that the media are making up facts, McFarlin said in a recent MediaShift column. The solution is fairly obvious but worth repeating: “Continue to produce bona fide, fact-based journalism, because in the natural order of things, the truth usually prevails,” she wrote.
To help ready student journalists for the task, McFarlin says UF focuses on data journalism to elevate investigative reporting and enable students to capitalize on databases that can be “revelatory and indisputable.” But we can’t stop there, she says. We must also figure out how to tune in to our audiences and include their perspectives in our reporting, a topic Katie has explored extensively at Poynter and in this newsletter.
Easier said than done, perhaps, especially for anyone who’s plunged into the comments section or mined social media for UGC. The challenge is in developing a thick skin without losing the empathy that newsrooms need, McFarlin says.
“The key is to avoid taking it personally — to recognize that critics are fighting for what they believe. However, you have to guard against distancing yourself to the point of detachment. There is a temptation to crawl into a protective shell, but that can prevent you from hearing what readers have to say.”
Practicing self-care and maintaining a supportive network — like the Cohort — are essential, along with remembering to unplug from work and social media. As Katie has said before, find things that bring you joy and purpose and some sense of connection to the world beyond news.
Otherwise, cultivating a commitment to the mission of journalism and its values can keep people strong, Newman says. Try bookmarking examples of great journalism and writers that inspire you, and return to them for inspiration. Research shows that those under distress are more resilient when they have clarity of purpose and retain a moral compass. Part and parcel of this is cultivating optimism, which has been associated with resilience in lots of studies.
“Although journalists must be skeptics by definition, that does not mean that journalists cannot also be optimistic.”
How's that for a challenge? With the help of friends and colleagues, I'm optimistic that I'll make it through. And, I know you will, too.
Emanuella Grinberg is a digital news writer for CNN.