“… there’s an assumption post-pandemic that the problems surrounding journalism weren’t that acute before Covid-19. But really they were already endemic.”
In 2020 you and data journalist Andrew Garthwaite created a self-funded survey on journalists’ wellbeing during the pandemic. Can you talk about how these findings compare to your 2018 research for the European Journalism Centre’s News Impact Network?
A lot of the same topics which I wrote about in my self-funded research report actually derived from what I had written in my research for the News Impact Network. Perhaps, there’s an assumption post-pandemic that the problems surrounding journalism weren’t that acute before Covid-19. But really they were already endemic. Journalists have been exposed for several years to stress from failing business models, online harassment, representation and inclusion, job insecurity, macho news environments, vicarious trauma, disinformation and the pressure to be constantly connected. The pandemic obviously brought matters to a head. We all had to manage distributed/remote working because of Covid-19 and now we are getting used to hybrid work environments. My central message from both reports is that the industry and newsroom leaders had forgotten about the wellbeing of our most precious resource: our journalists. At Headlines Network, I am working with my co-partner and fellow journalist Hannah Storm to look at these issues head on and provide cross-industry solutions.
“… the wellbeing of newsroom teams and direct reports shouldn’t be sub-contracted out by newsroom managers.”
How will training for managers will make an impact on work culture?
When I was running a newsroom of 100 or more journalists, I was effectively told that if a mental health issue in a staffer was presented to me, it was something to be tossed over for HR to deal with. I felt that wasn’t acceptable even then. But following the pandemic, there is a sense that many more people in the journalism industry accept that we need to look at mental health through a fresh lens. Newsroom managers have a lot on their plates already - and they might baulk at having to ’take on’ further responsibilities. But the wellbeing of newsroom teams and direct reports shouldn’t be sub-contracted out by newsroom managers. You really will get better stories from a newsroom that is happy and healthy in itself. And this isn’t all about forcing training on people who don’t want it. Hannah and I are getting enquiries from newsroom managers who care and want to help and understand their staff. They feel right now they don’t have the confidence to do it - whether that’s around language literacy or adopting a sensitive approach. That’s what our training empowers managers to take on.
Is there enough honesty with prospective journalists about the number of stressors on those working in the industry?
I feel J-schools could do more to prepare journalists for the career they are about to enter. We are not arguing that journalists shouldn’t work in fast-paced, dynamic environments. Part of the attraction of our trade is that we cover the ‘first draft of history’ and hold people, power and institutions to account. But we should prepare our younger journalists to anticipate that the demands will be high; that journalism is an industry which is regularly attacked and assailed; and that younger journalists, particularly women, are often subject to online harassment. None of this is acceptable - and we don’t want to turn away the lifeblood of our industry from a career when they are just starting out. But there are some harsh realities that need to be acknowledged - and perhaps younger journalists aren’t always aware of the challenges. What they do have - and what older generations like me sometimes don’t - is an awareness of their own mental health and an ability to talk about it more easily. They also have support structures in place at schools, colleges and educational institutions and I can tell that some are shocked when they land in a newsroom and find that the same supposed support frameworks are patchy, invisible or non-existent.
“… we don’t want to turn away the lifeblood of our industry from a career when they are just starting out. But there are some harsh realities that need to be acknowledged”
What support can be offered to freelancers?
I wear another hat as a co-founder of The Society of Freelance Journalists. It was set up with three fellow freelancers in March 2020 as we realised our freelance work was disappearing before our eyes. Now we have 2,200-plus journalists from around the world who come together on a Slack group for work opportunities, networking, advice and moral support. Freelancers have our own particular needs around mental health - particularly when it comes to loneliness when most of us are effectively ‘CEOs-of-one’. I also feel J-schools can better prepare graduates for the freelance world - particularly on how to set yourself up as a solo journalistic enterprise which is increasingly becoming a career for people leaving college.
What are the challenges in both giving support to others and spotting when you yourself need support?
Hannah Storm, who founded Headlines Network, says the first two letters in mental health are ‘me’. She also uses the analogy of putting on your own oxygen mask first should they drop down on a flight. So do concentrate on yourself first. But then we can all say we’ve benefitted from peer-to-peer support from colleagues at work. We worked with the charity Mind to produce two illustrated reports - the first on managing our mental health and the second on supporting our colleagues. Both these and two accompanying videos can be found at Headlines Network.
“… the ‘always-on’ life of a journalist can make you forget some of the benefits of good self-care techniques”
Most people recognise good self-care techniques (Make time to relax, find something you enjoy, set boundaries, connect with others, exercise) - is the first challenge convincing people to make a plan and put those techniques into practice?
Yes, we are all creatures of habit and we should reflect on what good habits we build into our working day. For instance, during lockdown I started ‘commuting' to work again (I work from home) via a circuitous route that I take each morning and afternoon to bookend my working day. I am happy to say I have kept that up. It creates a barrier between my working day and my rest time. I am a bit of a Joe Wicks middle-aged cliché - and I have kept up the 15-minute weekday training session since. As Joe says like a mantra, 'you never regret doing a workout’. We also don’t want to teach journalists how to suck eggs - we all know the benefits of a healthy lifestyle. But perhaps we can acknowledge that the ‘always-on’ life of a journalist can make you forget some of the benefits of good self-care techniques... Having said all that, I still need to learn about putting the phone down at the end of the day. We are all a work in progress!
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