Journalists Are Burning Out
Tanzina Vega: You're listening to The Takeaway I'm Tanzina Vega. If you're like me, you've been feeling a bit burned out lately. Oh, maybe more than a bit, make that burned out to a crisp. It turns out we're not alone. According to a recent survey from the job site, Indeed more than 52% of respondents reported experiencing burnout in 2021.
For journalists like me, that burnout has been due in part from our inability to step away from the news between COVID-19, the election, protest against police brutality and more journalists have been caught up in an endless cycle of traumatic news for at least more than a year. That's been forcing some journalists to step down and take a break.
Recently, a number of very prominent journalists from the editorial director of The Texas Tribune to the editor of WIRED announced they'd be leaving their jobs because of burnout. What can we do to better support people who bring you the news? For that, I'm joined by Bruce Shapiro, the executive director of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, a project of Columbia Journalism School. Bruce, great to have you with us.
Bruce Shapiro: Very glad to be here, Tanzina.
Tanzina: I don't like to do a lot of navel-gazing and I know that people have many different feelings about the media. I will say though, that burnout is something that I think a lot of people, whether they work in media or not are experiencing, but these very high-profile departures, I think are signaling something that we as journalists need to look at. Let's start with why so many journalists are feeling burnout this year.
Bruce: Yes, this is really important. Tanzina, over the last few months, I've been spending a lot of time in newsrooms via Zoom talking to journalists about the impact of this period and a few things are apparent. On the one hand, people who report the news, who produce the news, who are in front of the camera and behind the desk, have the same very challenging big stresses and fears that the rest of society has.
We are citizens and we are afraid of COVID-19. We're frustrated by working at home, we are having to manage boundaries like everybody else, we are fearful for our relatives and people and people we love. All of that is an open-ended stress in and of itself, but in addition, I think what the public doesn't see is that there have been a couple of other sources of extraordinary open-ended unremitting stress for the people who carry us the news every day. One of them is that with the arrival of COVID-19 and social distancing and working at home, journalists had to completely reinvent the delivery of news.
This part you don't see because the paper still arrives on your desk. The bulletin still arrives in your inbox, we're still on air but the mechanism for delivery, the process, the workflow had to be completely invented over the last year and it has been reinvented amid, as you were saying, these unrelenting news cycles filled with violence and trauma, journalists don't have the option of turning away from the news cycle very much.
We are reporting on mass death, whatever our primary beat may be. We're reporting on some aspect of COVID-19. Journalists are reporting on the murder of Mr. Floyd, the murder of Breonna Taylor, all of the events that have transpired since up to and including Derek Chauvin's trial and conviction this week. We reported on the most violent election season in 100 years in the United States and have done so in addition amid a time of threat and abuse directed at journalists and news professionals themselves and validated from the highest levels of power in the United States.
What journalists have experienced is not just stress though. It is open-ended unremitting stress, but it's stress compounded by high levels of trauma exposure, whether what we cover on the street or that steady diet of graphic imagery that people on the desk take in compounded by threat and abuse and then further compounded by economic roiling in the industry.
The consequence is not just fatigue and not just some individual cases of burnout or PTSD, but I think a real press-freedom issue when you have American society facing such profound choices in the next year and the capillary system for democracy itself under such stress and really experienced important senior journalists who are important, truth-tellers feeling they need to step back. That's a press freedom issue. It's not just about the individual psyches of individual journalists.
Tanzina: There's another thing I would add too and you mentioned this early in your answer was how we've had to restructure the way we work. For a lot of people who aren't as familiar with journalism or at least they may be familiar with the traditional newsroom setting from movies where there's a bunch of us in one big room and some people editing photos and others are typing away and there's a hum to a newsroom as we all create this daily report together. That has also been disrupted.
I work from a windowless closet, and I've been doing that for almost a year now. I haven't seen my colleagues in person in almost a year and a half. I wonder if that isolation that some journalists are having to deal with as they process the traumatic news as they come out of an administration that called them fake news for four years and as they continue to watch and really process the traumatic news that we're experiencing if that isolation is also adding to the burnout? Not having your colleagues to just be like, "Hey, let's go grab a sandwich or something."
Bruce: It's really quite significant, Tanzina. One thing we know about journalists from 20 years of research that psychologists and neuroscientists have conducted on our tribe is that we are a pretty resilient group, even when we're covering stories about people like ourselves who are under attack, journalists of color covering police violence against Black Americans, for example, that's a source of mission of motivation.
We take care of ourselves pretty well, but the most important predictor of journalists, resilience, of our ability to keep going is the strength of our collegial support, our social connections, our peer support, and those of us who work in newsrooms get that every day. Peer support the collegial connection that helps us maintain a sense of mission of purpose, of common ethic is greatly strained by people working at home.
By the way, this is not only true of journalists, the peer support phenomenon is also true of other frontline and other trauma-facing professions, whether that is firefighters, first responders, or psychotherapists. Social connection is how we metabolize trauma and take care of ourselves. For so many in the news business, there is this huge confrontation right now with this trauma-drenched news cycle at a time when we have fewer opportunities to engage with our colleagues, whether formally in processing the news or informally over lunch or over dinner afterwards, and it is very costly. Some news organizations are trying to come to grips with this, but it's a real challenge.
Tanzina: I think the flip side to that comradery is also this very rugged individualist way that we think of journalists. That we're out there reporting, we should not have any feelings one way or the other, and we should be able to take on any assignment that is thrown at us. Most of us do that, I think, because we love what we do, but there is also a mental health effect that that can have.
I'm wondering how receptive newsrooms before this burnout epidemic started were to their reporters and editors talking about mental health and whether or not you're seeing more receptiveness to that now. I know that a lot of journalists are afraid to say, "I'm struggling," because they feared that they might lose their job.
Bruce: Historically, in the news business, there has been a lot of stigma. There, first of all, is a kind of old news culture that says, "If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen." Also, people who get into news are often competitive. We're looking over our shoulders at our colleagues, we're worried about getting the next assignment and we have a internal stigma as well, sometimes about getting help or about talking about these issues.
The good news is that there has been a slow-moving but rapidly building now generational change going on in journalism. Where, first of all, among younger reporters and editors, folks now in their 20s and early 30s as part of a generational shift. I think there's a much greater openness to talking about the impact of covering difficult stories. In fact, I now sometimes have to turn my usual wrap around and instead of saying, "You need to take this stuff seriously."
I'm finding myself reassuring younger journalists that actually we are a resilient profession and our work protects us in a lot of ways. You're not automatically sending yourself down a road to post-traumatic stress disorder by doing journalism. There's this generational change. On the one hand, younger journalists who have spent their undergraduate lives in many cases interrogating trauma and the culture of campuses now are much more open to thinking about this.
We also have seen some important major news organizations really undertake significant initiatives in this area. Reuters has a peer support system where a journalist or two in every bureau and office is trained up to be a good colleague to others. Parts of NPR do this, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation does this. Also, I have just seen over the last year based on requests. My shop, the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, we have been asked to do briefings in dozens and dozens of newsrooms since the onset of the pandemic. I do think that everybody from small non-profit newsrooms to big international broadcasters is struggling to reckon with the challenges of this time.
The most important momentum though, I think, does come from this generational challenge where you have younger journalists, in general, saying, "Hey, you guys have a duty of care. If we're going to cover difficult events and do it well, we need to be taken care of." There's also a demand, I think, from younger reporters to particularly take identity into account. This tracks with research. We know from many years of research into journalists, that when we cover stories that are drenched in trauma involving people who we identify with closely, that's a risk factor for post-traumatic stress, burnout, other psychological injury.
It doesn't mean you shouldn't do it. You may need to up the self-care or there may be some news organization role in pacing the work, but it is a conversation we need to lean into and understand. As young journalists, I think, are insisting now that identity is never neutral. It's a source of both insight and strength and vulnerability and we need to understand that.
Tanzina: We're seeing a number of prominent newsroom employees, both at the Texas Tribune and at WIRED in the past two weeks, announced that they are stepping down. What struck me is that these are three women, high-ranking women in newsrooms. Two of the women we're talking about are also women of color. What does it signify? Those women at the Texas Tribune have been in the job for about a year. What does it mean, Bruce, to lose talent at that level to burnout, in particular?
Bruce: First of all, I think for individual newsrooms it's an immediate loss in the middle of intersecting national crises to lose gifted, energetic, deeply committed journalists, it's just always a problem. Secondly, for those teams in particular, but for the profession as a whole this is really quite consequential because we're not just losing in these cases individual journalists, we're losing mentors and leaders, people who are the bridge builders between generations of journalists who carry the experience and wisdom of past crises or who as women in journalism have broken through various kinds of glass ceilings and be role models for younger colleagues.
I worry very much about a loss of mentorship and a loss of leadership at a time of great roiling in the news business. It really can be costly to people's news judgment. It means that younger journalists may be stuck reinventing the wheel, and also that some of the change that has happened in making newsrooms slightly better places to work over the last decade or so, may be lost as these committed leaders leave.
Other economic pressures come in that may cause newsrooms to shrink, workloads to go up, there's a lot of dangerous stuff going on out there. Again, I don't think needs should be understood as media navel-gazing. This is about a threat to press freedom, a gifted journalist or a gifted editor or producer who leaves their job because of the impact of post-traumatic stress disorder or who leaves their job because of burnout and burnout is not just being extra tired.
It's a real collapse of capacity that's recognized by the world health organization as an occupational mental health issue. If we're losing people to post-traumatic stress disorder, to burnout, to other kinds of psychological injury, that's a censorship as effectively as if a reporter was jailed or shut down, were deprived of their insight, deprived of their voice, deprived of their bearing witness to the times we live in. That's a big loss for American society at a time when we're really navigating a big national argument about the future of America.
Tanzina: You've mentioned a couple of things, burnout, and PTSD. You said burnout is recognized as an issue that is an occupational mental health issue. How do we define burnout versus PTSD for journalists right now? Because I think often we think of post-traumatic stress disorder as something that only happens to journalists who are in war zones, covering conflict. We think about burnout as something I think that happens to people who work in offices, who are particularly tired. Why are those not accurate descriptors of what these two things mean? Then, how do we define for journalists? How can someone say, "I have PTSD," or "I have burnout"?
Bruce: I think we are talking about two different issues which at the moment are intersecting because of this unrelenting news cycle that we've been talking about for journalists. Burnout in any profession in medicine, in law enforcement, in offices, is simply a condition that results from chronic workplace stress that becomes unmanageable. That is the definition of burnout. It's about the brain's incapacity, even in high-stress performing professions like journalism, the brains fatigued eventually. An Olympic athlete, a marathon runner will eventually fatigue, and journalists are no different.
Our performance goes up, the stress goes up, as deadline gets closer, but if stress is open-ended and unremitting, we get tired, performance drops off. At the far end of that, you get burnout, this radical loss of capacity, which is all about occupational stress. It's as true of people in the field as it is of people behind the desk. Burnout is purely about unrelenting open-ended and unremitting stress, which now in journalism is coming from several directions at once the pandemic, the news cycle, the threats to journalists, the economic pressures of the industry. Those are huge stresses that are just ongoing.
Trauma, post-traumatic stress, post-traumatic stress disorder is something different. Post-traumatic stress disorder comes from the direct exposure to or the secondary handling of empathetic connection in interviews or dealing with images involving overwhelming violence or cruelty or death or chronic threat. It has to do with the brain and body staying in a permanent alarm state, in which there are characteristic psychological changes, traumatic memories that come back at us when we don't want, and that are interfering, a sense of anxiety or arousal, being unable to concentrate, get to sleep, or the other direction, people who become numb and avoidant or whose worldview becomes very dark.
Those are profound psychological changes that begin our biological response to fear and threat. What we know from research into journalists is that our profession is exposed to far more trauma than the general public and even more than some other frontline professions. Obviously, reporters who are covering war are exposed to a lot of trauma, but so are reporters who cover violent street demonstrations or confrontations with the police, so are reporters who cover crime and fires, but so are journalists who never leave the desk who are dealing with a steady diet of graphic imagery. We can't look away because it's our job. Think of any of the horrible police violence videos over the course of the last week.
They're tough for all citizens to look at, particularly people of color, particularly people who identify with the victims in those videos, but for journalists and for editors and producers, what the public doesn't see is that we have to view those, decide which ones to use, verify them, edit them, run them past other editors and producers constantly re-edit them. There's a whole process which means that a lot of people who never leave the desk are dealing with a steady diet of graphic imagery, a steady diet of distressing information, which eventually can overtop your personal dam, your personal levy, just as much as frontline trauma exposure.
We know that the mechanisms, how the brain responds, are very close to what we use as journalists every day in our work. We rely on being able to be present in the moment, not overwhelmed by last year's police shooting video where we were trying to do say a story about garlic. We rely on being able to focus, to put together complex information, to get along with colleagues, to make empathetic connection with sources, with audiences, with colleagues.
This is so central to news. When an overload of trauma, either in the short-run through a direct exposure to terrifying events, like those courageous journalists who covered the insurrection of the Capitol on January 6th or the steady drip, drip, drip that comes from covering one murder trial after another, one police shooting video after another, dealing with the graphic imagery one day after another, after another, after another, one COVID death after another, after another, that can eventually overtake journalists capacities in a profound way. It's a conversation that we've been having in journalism slowly for the last 20 years. I think it's rapidly accelerating this year as the toll of the year is becoming apparent.
Tanzina: Let's talk about what can be done, Bruce. What are newsrooms doing? My thought is that it's going to take more than offering for the issues that we're talking about for the PTSD, for the burnout. It's going to take more than a day off here and there. I wonder what your thoughts are on really restructuring our jobs or what is it that can be done because the news cycle is the news cycle.
It's not going to change because we would like it to change so something has to give in order to retain the-- The majority of the people I know that are in this business and I'm sure you feel the same are doing it because they love the news, they love journalism, they love supporting and going through all of the things that you said to provide the public with an accurate report, but that's largely becoming unsustainable. What is it that news organizations can do?
Bruce: Let's stipulate, on one level, there's no band-aid for this, that the news is going to remain a challenging place to do work and an important place to do work. These are occupational health hazards of being in the news business. We need to be frank about that. I do think there's a lot that the industry can do.
We can, first of all, institute an open conversation about this within every single news organization that begins with the top and isn't just about, "Oh, there's been a crisis, here are the counselors," but rather, "How do we take care of ourselves?" Big news companies can adopt very effective peer support systems where journalists are trained to be good colleagues to one another.
I think that's important. We can make sure that there are good pathways to getting professional help for those colleagues who need it. There's actually a growing pool of clinicians around the country who come to be interested in the issues facing journalists, in particular, that's all really important, but I think the big thing, which is what you referred to, is that we need to be looking hard at our workflows and our expectations.
In the pandemic, over the course of the last year, one of the things I've been moved by and excited by has been the incredible energy and innovation that reporters and producers, and teams in every part of the news business from little-tiny public radio affiliates and non-profit newsrooms up to these big news organizations, people re-invented their work with incredible alacrity over the last year. American journalism met the crisis in a very impressive way functionally, but now we need to say, "What is sustainable?"
We need to go from crisis to sustainability because clearly, first of all, we're going to continue to be working in a distanced way. Secondly, the news cycle is going to be continued to be violent and roiling for the foreseeable future. News organizations have a duty of care. They have an obligation which goes beyond providing counseling. It has to do with looking at workflows and making sure that their teams are adequately staffed.
They have to do with coming up with strategic plans that take into account the functional biological need of every news professional to have downtime, to have neurological recovery time, which is what the brain needs. That's not just the three weeks of vacation that someday we may get to take when we can get on airplanes again.
It's about do people have opportunity within a given day to change the tasks? Are those who manage graphic imagery able to pace the work distributed among teams, not just be forced to plunge themselves into it for days or weeks on end? Our teams that cover mayhem and violence who are really good at it, nonetheless able to use different muscles, get different kinds of assignments so that no one is completely exhausted all the time. This kind of rethinking of how the news gets assigned and done isn't a matter of a new age let's be nice to one another.
It's about what's necessary as an occupational health obligation. Just like putting a flak jacket on a journalist who's covering a war. We need to be thinking about what kinds of psychological or neurological protection are going to enable reporters, editors, producers to keep doing their tasks, to maintain their resilience, and not be a casualty list of burnout candidates who are leaving the profession in large numbers, which is so dangerous to the profession and so dangerous to American democracy.
Tanzina: Bruce Shapiro is the executive director of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma. Bruce, thank you so much.
Bruce: Thank you. Very glad to be here.
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