The bread and butter of journalism is covering traumatic events.
The headlines drip with blood and sorrow: Dead children buried at residential schools, record numbers of casualties of the overdose crisis, mass shootings, armed insurrection, wildfires, war and more.
The COVID-19 pandemic added another layer: Millions dead, carnage in long-term care homes, burned-out health workers, glimmers of hope constantly crushed by new coronaviral plot twists, in wave after wave after wave.
Yet journalists rarely talk about the despair and trauma they suffer when covering such high-profile stories.
A story published recently on Study Hall, an online support network for media workers, has forced some self-reflection out into the open.
In the piece entitled “The COVID Reporters Are Not Okay. Extremely Not Okay,” Olivia Messer talks frankly about quitting her dream job at the Daily Beast after “falling apart” under the relentless pressure of pandemic coverage.
“While I’m tempted to be vague about my departure, I also believe it’s important to acknowledge the profound exhaustion, loss, grief, burnout, and trauma of the past year covering – and living in – a mass casualty event that has changed all of our lives,” Ms. Messer tweeted at the time.
The raw revelation hit a nerve.
A lot of journalism is mundane, coverage of meetings and press conferences and events. But some of the work is inherently risky.
Journalists tend to run toward the danger, not away from it – often at breakneck speed.
Like victims of traumatic events and the first responders and front-line workers who help them, reporters can suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.
But journalists often feel their suffering is somehow less important, or unearned. After all, they are just observing. They are there voluntarily.
When you just write about the suffering of others, or watch endless video reels of horrific events, your own feelings somehow seem unworthy of mention.
Bearing witness is essential. But sometimes what reporters witness can leave scars, and deep psychic wounds.
“Moral injury” is the term academics use.
In the public imagination, reporters are like war correspondents portrayed in Hollywood movies – hardscrabble, hard-drinking blokes with impenetrable shells.
The reality is somewhat different. The adrenalin junkies reporting from the battlefields were as prone to PTSD as anyone else – they just tended to bury their feelings, often at the bottom of a bottle.
The up-and-coming generation of journalists is having none of that. Not because they’re “snowflakes” (or whatever other demeaning terms some of the old-timers will use), but because they are more sensible.
In an article published in The Thunderbird, a publication of University of British Columbia’s graduate school of journalism, reporters McKenna Hadley-Burke and Karan Saxena write thoughtfully about the need to break the silence about the “invisible wounds” journalists suffer in their everyday work.
Covering COVID-19 or the overdose epidemic can be every bit as traumatic as war coverage. In fact, it can be more so because reporters live in the communities they cover. The dead are neighbours and friends, not strangers.
Covering the horrors of the Kamloops residential school or missing Indigenous women and girls can be soul-shattering. But imagine how much more so it is for Indigenous reporters who grew up in the midst of intergenerational trauma.
During COVID-19, there was often no escaping the news – and that is doubly true for those who produce the news. Taking your work home can be a gross understatement. It doesn’t help that the culture of journalism often fetishizes constant connection.
There is much FOMO (fear of missing out) in the business. When you cover a story for days, weeks, months, you don’t dare take a break lest you miss a big development.
Social media also poses a dilemma. For journalists, platforms like Twitter can be a great way to find sources and promote their work, but also a cesspool of hatred. Increasingly, reporters are also physically attacked.
Then there is the thorny issue of resiliency. Why are some reporters more able to shake off trauma than others? There is a complex mix of genetic, psychological and spiritual factors at play.
But journalists who are coping often feel bad about not feeling worse, especially when they see their comrades fall. Survivor guilt.
Many newsrooms, virtual and otherwise, are making an effort to address these issues, with training on trauma-informed reporting, better access to therapy and culture change. But it’s becoming urgent.
We need to give ourselves permission to grieve.
In an industry already beset by financial woes, mass layoffs and political attacks, we can’t afford to lose a generation of journalists to despair.
On June 9, Globe and Mail health columnist André Picard and CNN medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta will be honoured by the Canadian Journalism Foundation for their “exceptional impact in providing accurate and vital information during the COVID-19 pandemic.”
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