How journalists practice self-care while covering tough stories
Writing is hard. There’s the beginning — pitching a story, getting ideas, reaching out to sources, getting information, facing the blank page — but there’s a lot of tricky parts that don't have to do with typing.
Women reporters and writers of color often face a disproportionate amount of harassment or criticism online by virtue of being public figures. They face pushback for writing about topics deemed controversial. Or, they get mentally and emotionally drained by covering stressful beats, such as local crime.
In light of all that, how can writers stay sane for the long haul? Here's advice from three writers who are either minorities in their fields or cover difficult stories daily.
Find a community, or create one.
When blogger Jamie Broadnax searched for “black girl nerds” in 2012, the only things she found were images of White women wearing black-rimmed glasses. “I wanted to change the landscape of nerd culture, which is a predominantly White and male space,” she says. “I wanted to create a space in nerd culture that encompassed all ethnicities, both for women and men...we’ve been here all along, we just weren’t being represented.”
Later that year, she founded Black Girl Nerds, a platform and community for nerdy women of color that has reached far beyond its target audience.
Gina Mizell, a football reporter for The Oregonian, found a community of professional peers in the Association for Women in Sports Media (AWSM). Now the vice president of student development at the association, she connects with a community of fellow women reporters focusing on different sports at many different stages in their careers. “I’ve been there since the beginning with the student gatherings, and it’s been...an amazing network in my life.”
Figure out what you’re capable of handling.
Over years of covering local crime for The Baltimore Sun, Justin George learned how to set boundaries with the work he was proud of, but that was mentally and emotionally taxing.
“I’ve learned I really enjoy telling the story of someone’s life with great detail and perhaps bringing dignity to a death. I think we can have a role in people’s healing,” George said.
“I’ve also learned that I cannot report all the murders or shootings in Baltimore. It’s just impossible and it’s more important to report the ones you can — really, really well. The editor who hired me told me this job was like ‘drinking from a fire hose.’ And he was right."
Have a full life that balances out with tough work.
George advises journalists dealing with stress to enjoy themselves on the weekends rather than sitting at home. Recharging is essential, especially during valuable time off.
“I usually don’t feel affected by what I report until the weekends, when I try to figure out why I’m in a bad mood," George said. "Then it hits me — it was that kid who was killed or that brother who was crying.”
Reach out for help.
Don’t be afraid to ask people who are very successful for advice, Broadnax said.
When she began Black Girl Nerds in 2012, Broadnax reached out to bloggers she admired for lessons they’ve learned in creating and building their communities, and was surprised to find how generous people were with their time and advice.
“Shoot them an email, send a note in the contact form on their site or tweet at them," Broadnax said. "If they don’t respond, it’s always cool to reach out to the people they work with and see if they respond.”
Know that you’re making a difference and pay opportunities forward.
Broadnax says she's heard a lot of unnecessary feedback over the years as a writer, founder, podcast host and creator on the internet. The best way to react to it, she said, is to keep going.
“As a woman or being part of a minority, you’re going to get a lot of unwarranted criticism, but know you’re making a huge difference by talking about these issues,” she said.
Mizell also had to prove her worth in the face of vocal readers or people in the field.
Being involved in Association for Women in Sports Media, she met other women sportswriters and broadcasters from earlier generations and heard about the discrimination they faced from co-workers, readers and sports organizations.
“I didn’t have to face that level of discrimination because of them," she said. "They have given me opportunities I wouldn’t have had, and we still have a ways to go. We have to pave the way for kids in college, high school or younger.”