Improving mental health in the newsroom

By Chelsea Bailey

The coronavirus pandemic has been tough on journalists. It is a sad and negative topic to keep reporting on. It is also a lonely time. Lots of us are in constant Zoom meetings but in-person, meaningful interactions are rare.

Decades of newsroom culture have also reinforced the message that it is ‘not cool to talk about your feelings’, that it is part of the job to ‘put up and shut up’. However, when journalists are not well they cannot properly tell the stories that matter to their readers and viewers.

At this week’s Newsrewired session (8 December 2020), an expert panel shared practical tips around taking care of our colleagues and ourselves when we are feeling low.

It is ok not to be ok

Hannah Storm, CEO of the Ethical Journalism Network, said the pandemic has forced the journalism industry to redesign and reinvent itself in a short period of time and develop conversations around mental health.

Suddenly, we were faced with new pressures and we started to be more open to seeking help even though, as an industry, we are historically not good at admitting vulnerabilities.

“I don’t think vulnerability is the right word because when we say ‘I need help’, that’s not being vulnerable, that’s actually saying ‘I’m being strong and I’m admitting that something is happening to me’,” Storm said.

She opened up about her own mental health and her diagnosis of PTSD in an article for the Poynter Institute earlier this year and since then, the support for her work around mental health in the newsroom did not cease to grow.If we get the support and help we need, we can do a much better job.Hannah Storm, EJN

“I decided to talk about my experiences, which are connected to my professional life and my personal life.

“To recognise that it is ok to say things aren’t ok [is important] because if we get the support and help we need, we can do a much better job.”

To provide and receive mental health support, talking, listening and acknowledging someone’s suffering are paramount.

Check in and check out

Even before the pandemic, Manjiri Kulkarni, assistant editor at Sky Sports News, set up a mental health support scheme in her newsroom. A personal experience with relative who struggled with his mental health made her realise that most people just need someone to check in on and say ‘are you alright?’.

So for the past two years, a dedicated well-being team working across Sky Sports and Sky Sports News set up initiatives, such as drop-in sessions or presentations from guest speakers at lunchtime. But the most important thing was that every newsroom has at least one person to go to when work or life get a bit too much.

Kulkarni encouraged people to look out for each other and to check in but also make sure to check out.

“Take that moment to switch off even for 10 minutes and go for a walk or play with the cat,” she advised.

But how do you check on someone without being awkward or intrusive?

“It is just about being a friend,” she said, adding that you only need to ask people if they are all right, not to solve their problems.

“The example that I always give is that if I’ve had a really bad day, I commute downstairs and I tell my husband about it. I do not want him to tell me what to do. I want him just to listen to me so I can have that rant or get that off my chest and I just feel so much better.”

“Are you sure?”

Jon Birchall, audience and content director (sport), Reach, understands the importance of having the right kind of support in the workplace, having suffered from mental health issues since he was a teenager.

He explained that communication is key when it comes to looking after your colleagues, adding that listening is as important as talking, and there is not one perfect way of having conversations.Often people will put on the brave face and say ‘yeah, I’m fine’.Jon Birchall, Reach

Newsrooms would benefit from creating less judgemental, compassionate culture, in which mental wellbeing is treated in the same way as any other health issue. One good starting point is to follow up every ‘I’m good, thank you’ with ‘Are you sure?’.

“Often people will put on the brave face and say ‘yeah, I’m fine’. It’s when you ask the second question to double-check, […] you never know what that might open up.”

It is important to give people autonomy and a voice. Birchall stressed that whether you are a junior reporter or senior editor, when it comes to mental health, we all have to be there for each other.

Mental Health Day Off

Global news agency Reuters has an established structure to support newsroom staff’s mental health, that includes a peer support network. Simon Robinson, global managing editor and one of the founders of the network, recently took over the mental health strategy at the agency.

Originally intended to support war correspondents and reporters in natural disaster sites, the scope of the programme is now much larger and the pandemic only made Reuters staff come up with innovative solutions to new mental health challenges.

Bringing people together from the two hundred locations around the world was very important. Initiatives included a virtual choir, a book club and art lessons every few weeks to help staff feel less isolated while working from home.

“You have to focus on something else that’s quite different. This is a very focused window of creativity and it allows people to share and chat,” he said.

Another initiative that came from the parent company Thompson Reuters was a Mental Health Day Off, a company-wide holiday that allowed most staff to switch off around the World Mental Health Day. Journalists could also take part is session covering topics like parenting while working from home which was very well received.

“We are at an interesting point where newsroom cultures are changing very quickly and the pandemic has accelerated that,” he said. The challenge now is to keep that momentum going as new remote workers are joining news organisations and relationship-building is getting harder.

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