There’s something familiar about how today feels. It’s not the post-2016 Election Day haze of powering through the workday despite lack of sleep and with remnants of adrenaline. Instead, today seems more like the days that immediately followed George Floyd’s killing.
Once again, journalists of color — in particular Black journalists — are exhausted. It’s not only the work; it’s the emotional labor.
The summer of racial reckoning meant newsrooms enlisted diversity trainers (including me), hired for race-focused beats and committed to an annual census of staff demographics. Yet what has changed?
Here’s what has changed: The seemingly bottomless well of patience that journalists of color — Black, Hispanic, Native American, Asian and multiracial — have exhibited has run dry. We want meaningful changes, and we need them to happen now. We are tired of constantly trying to put bandages on the gaping wounds of newsroom hierarchies that perpetuate inequity.
This starts with empathy.
“This is not the week to talk about equity and diversity,” Knight Foundation’s director of journalism, LaSharah S. Bunting, tweeted. “Just leave your black employees alone to process their feelings and fears.”
An excellent example of empathetic leadership comes from Outlier Media’s Candice Fortman and Sarah Alvarez. They acknowledged how the day after might be affecting their colleagues and gave everyone permission to “catch your breath, rest or just stare at the wall.”
My note to our team this morning: pic.twitter.com/OAlUyHy3M0
— Candice Fortman (@Cande313) November 4, 2020
When we’re ready to return 100%, however, everyone needs to acknowledge systemic racism has not been dismantled. Journalists of color are held to an unrealistic standard of objectivity rarely enforced with our white colleagues, whose ability to cover a story with care and accuracy (despite personal experiences) is rarely questioned.
As Philadelphia-based journalist Ernest Owens tweeted: “Today as a Black journalist, I gotta hope that Black voters save this country from itself and await a cop body cam video of a Black man named Walter Wallace Jr. being killed.”
Even as we become more intentional about checking in on our Black colleagues (and understanding if their productivity has been negatively affected), it is important to revisit how quickly news organizations picked up a narrative that “Latino voters” tilted Florida and Texas for the Republican candidate.
This propensity to sweepingly categorize people of a race or ethnicity as a monolithic group is a major weakness in U.S. media, which still is largely managed by white male bosses. Multiple journalists tried to counter this development. My colleague Amaris Castillo wrote that her Dominican parents have experiences “vastly different from Latinos who hail from other countries, because each country has its unique and complex history and culture.”
What else needs to happen?
Find diversity in every story
People who make news decisions — including story choice and reporting assignments — need a clearer recognition of their own gaps in life experience. Race should not be a separate beat. The United States has among the most diverse populations in the world, so every single story should feature people from a varied cross section of life experiences.
Be more inclusive
Stop “othering” nonwhite populations. A particularly galling example came from CNN on election night.
— Robert Hernandez 🗳 (@webjournalist) November 4, 2020
In exit poll language that was insensitive and reductive, entire groups of people were lumped together as “something else.” Native Americans and Asians are often listed as “other” in surveys. Pollsters claim it’s cost- and time-prohibitive to gather statistically relevant samples of relatively small populations. This excuse is incredibly outdated. We can and must do better at representing the diversity of our audiences.
Reset. It’s been a year.
Acknowledge all the stresses of being a journalist in 2020. This manifests differently for each individual, but vicarious trauma is real. Don’t discount the impact of repeatedly seeing violent images — even when you might be screening them to protect your audience.
One thing I’ve realized during the pandemic: Nonjournalists don’t provide as much respite as they previously did. You’re likely to find that your loved ones who don’t work in the media are hyper-focused on news events, so interacting with them becomes an extension of work — and a driver of exhaustion.
All of us can learn to take better care of ourselves. My colleague Samantha Ragland, who has developed training to build resilience, says:
You may be noticing headaches, constant fatigue, excessive fear or catastrophizing, forgetfulness, clinginess or loss of purpose — all are impacts related to trauma exposure. And they’re likely compounded by the invisible labor you cannot escape: You are as much a part of the story as you are the storyteller or story distributor.
Don’t dismiss what your body is telling you. Many trauma therapists will tell you, “The body keeps the score.” And for Black and Brown bodies, especially, this score may be not only from your game but can be traced to generational trauma that happened before you.
Manage the impacts of the trauma and stress you’re experiencing: set realistic expectations, foster boredom and create good digital hygiene.
Sam’s advice makes a lot of sense. Not everyone can have an empathetic boss, so be kind and forgiving to yourself, be comfortable doing less (you can unplug!) and limit distractions when you should be resting and recharging.
By caring for ourselves, we preserve our focus so we can provide the journalism that audiences deserve.