Mental health is low on the list of problems in media. That needs to change.

This pandemic is the hard reset that the industry requires.

Illustration of a journalist struggling with mental health
Being tough is seen as being part of a journalist’s DNA. Who really wants to put up their hand and say they are struggling? Illustration by Rishad Patel; photo by Stewart Maclean, Unsplash

Journalism doesn’t do innovation well. Slow to react to the Information Age it has breathlessly covered, the Fourth Estate failed to anticipate how the internet would change consumer habits and break its business model. Imbued with an inflated sense of our own self-worth, we tend to broadcast rather than listen and our newsrooms still do not reflect the diverse world we wish to speak to.

Journalists also do love a moan, no more than myself. But for the first two decades of the 21st century, it’s been more a laundry list of failures than wins.

Here’s another thing the industry needs to adapt to quickly: its internal cultures. Seemingly beset on all sides and fearful for their futures, large numbers of journalists have been left tired and demoralized by working long hours during this year’s pandemic. This is affecting the quality of their work.

I learned about this in March and April when I ran a global survey asking freelance and newsroom-based journalists how they were coping with lockdown. I received responses from the Philippines, India, Brazil, Australia, Indonesia, South Africa, and beyond.

Being stuck in a “pandemic bubble” and covering unremittingly bad news was depressing. The resounding message back from rank-and-file practitioners was that newsroom leaders weren’t heeding concerns around burnout.

QUICK SUMMARY OF THE SURVEY RESULTS

The pandemic has sped up the transformational change that was pummelling the industry.

It represents a once-in-a-generation opportunity to hit the reset button.

New tools, workflows and processes have come into play.

When asked about the pandemic’s effect on their mood, 77% reported work-related stress. Of those, 57% said it affected their productivity, 44% said it impacted relationships with family and friends, while 59% said they had moments of being depressed or anxious.

See the survey

Mental health

With so many problems in a groaning in-tray, mental well-being isn’t high on the to-do agenda. But it needs to be.

Firstly, it’s the humane thing to do. Secondly, when we are ready to preach how people should live their lives, then we need to hold ourselves to a higher standard. To impress on newsroom leaders what needs to be done, we now need to illustrate the financial toll stress is exacting on our colleagues.

To my knowledge, no qualitative research exists on the impact sick days and journalists leaving the profession has on our industry. When news organizations around the world have spent so much resource attracting young and diverse talent, it’s beyond negligent not to consider how we retain them. The shopfront may look superficially attractive but when young reporters cross the threshold, a lot of newsrooms remain toxic and intense environments.

Leaders in news organizations aren’t always leadership material. Many have moved up the ladder because of their ability to soak up pressure and multi-task rather than listen.

News journalism has always been a fast-moving, dynamic and challenging environment. But bosses on the shop floor and upwards aren’t always known for their empathy. 

Being tough is seen as being part of a journalist’s DNA. Who really wants to put up their hand and say they are struggling? When they do, there isn’t a strategy or playbook to help them. By and large, those who have issues with burnout or mental health become a “human-resources problem”. 

My report I co-wrote with Andrew Garthwaite documents how leadership has much to learn. But the next generation of journalists have a role to play too. They are much more adept at understanding their own mental health, and can speak expansively and articulately about it. I also feel they won’t stand for it in the way that my generation has done. A groundswell of change can come from the bottom-up too.

This self-funded study explores the blurring of lines between work and working from home. But it is not all doom and gloom.

The pandemic has sped up the transformational change which was pummeling the industry. Trends and developments that might previously have taken five years to incubate have been co-opted in a few months.

Journalists said distributed working has broken down silos and transformed previous top-down management structures. Printed and digital products have been conceived and produced from kitchen tables, beds, and sofas.

Sanne Breimer, originally from the Netherlands, is a journalist and media adviser now based in Bali working with clients across South East Asia. Asked to describe the structural challenges now facing journalism, Breimer says: “Long-term thinking on inclusion, diversity and innovation is something that journalists just don’t do a lot. Why not have a plan in 10 years that you intend to reach?”

While my report documents the mental strain Covid-19 has placed on journalists, I believe the pandemic also represents a once-in-a-generation opportunity to hit the reset button.

John Crowley is an editor and consultant who has more than two decades of experience working for local, national and international news titles. Follow John Crowley on Twitter.

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