The mental wellbeing of a journalist

Journalists around the world are repetitively exposed to vicarious trauma through their reporting, which eventually takes its toll on their emotional wellbeing.

Whether it’s car accidents, fire, murder, war or natural disaster, almost every journalist must report on difficult stories at some point in their career. Research on the Dart Center website suggests that between 80-100% of journalists have been exposed to a work-related traumatic event (Smith et al. 2015).

With such high levels of exposure to troubling stories, the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma is a resource centre dedicated to providing training and support for journalists reporting on conflict and tragedy across the world.

One strong advocate for the work of the Dart Center, is Peter Hitchener, the chief news presenter for Channel Nine news Melbourne. Having been involved in news making for 50 years he has witnessed the effect that trauma reporting can have on fellow journalists, cameramen, and producers.

Following the Black Saturday bushfires in Victoria, Peter Hitchener experienced first-hand the effect that trauma reporting can have on mental health.

Yet, events do not have to be experienced in person in order to be traumatic. With citizens capturing high-quality live footage of traumatic events on their smart phones, journalists are now repetitively being exposed to uncensored, distressing content from within the newsroom itself (Smith et al. 2015).

Repetitive exposure to this kind of content is not ideal for anyone, but some people are more at risk of developing negative long-term psychological problems from it than others. For some, these negative effects can include anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and overuse of substances.

Cait McMahon is the managing director of the Dart Center Asia Pacific. During a phone interview conducted on August 9 2016, she suggested that from her research, approximately 4 -16% of domestic reporters have significant negative post trauma reactions from their work. For war reporters, this figure increases to around 28%.

These values are often influenced by the following risk factors:

  • Frequency of exposure to traumatic assignments
  • Type of assignment
  • Exposure to drug-related conflict
  • Exposure to war
  • Personal history and characteristics
  • Social support
  • Cognitive factors

 

In order to avoid these long-term negative health consequences, Cait highlights the importance of journalists being self-aware and practicing mindful journalism.

 

It’s everyone’s responsibility to look out for peers and notice if they are struggling.

Apart from trauma reporting, hurtful online comments and rude personal attacks by Internet trolls are also threatening to a journalist’s mental wellbeing.

According to an MEAA affiliated study about women in the media for 2016, 41% of respondents have experienced harassment, bullying and trolling on social media (Women in Media, 2016). This form of online harassment can range from mild criticisms to death threats and stalking.

*The remarks in this clip were all real comments or tweets aimed at journalists.*

Based on these examples, it seems as though comment sections should be removed, right? But it’s not that simple.

When used correctly, comment sections foster interesting discussion and debate amongst members of the public. Journalists must be good communicators in order to recognise the dominant discourse in society and report on stories that are within the public interest. Comment sections provide journalists with a platform for direct communication with the public, allowing them to easily observe the discussions taking place within society, and providing them with feedback about their own work.

Well-known for interacting with members of the public on social media, Peter Hitchener highlights the importance of journalists being involved in online discussions about their work.

While some news organisations have decided to remove comment sections to stop trolling, many others, including The Guardian, engage in close moderation of comment sections, removing any comments considered to break community standards . The Guardian commissioned research into their comment sections and found that with close moderation of comments, only 2% of comments were being blocked (Gardiner et al, 2016), arguing that it is unnecessary to remove comments sections entirely.

But this solution is not without flaws, as internet trolling often spreads quickly across platforms, from the news site to Facebook to Twitter. Therefore in her article about the importance of comment sections, Gina Massullo Chen proposes that if journalists are actively involved in the the online conversations perhaps they will promote civil discussion.

While this may seem wishful, research conducted by the Engaging News Project at the University of Texas in Austin found that “by commenting four to five times on average in response to a post, the reporter was able to improve the tone of the discussion in the comment section” (Stroud, 2014). In fact, the chances of an uncivil comment declined by 15 percent when a reporter interacted in the comment section (Stroud, 2014). Therefore, this may be the best chance of improving the general tone of comment sections.

No one enjoys listening to stories about death, war and terrorism. Similarly, no one enjoys being the victim of hurtful online comments. But while you can simply switch off your TV, or block a cyber bully form social media, these are simply aspects of the job for a journalist.

So while you may not like the ideas presented in a story written by a journalist, just remember that they are just doing their job. Likewise, you may scorn a journalist and consider them unethical for interviewing a family soon after losing a loved one, but once again they are just doing their job. And if they’re not able to do their job, then how would you get access to such deep, interesting and important stories about what’s happening in the world?

So next time, forget the glamorous image of a journalist interviewing celebrities on a red carpet in LA, and remember the realities of the mental wellbeing of a journalist. Perhaps you can even ask them if they’re okay.

 

Bibliography

Nine News 2016, Meet the Team, Nine.com.au, viewed 6 August 2016,

<http://www.9news.com.au/meet-the-team/melbourne/peter-hitchener >

Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma 2016, Mission & History, Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, viewed 7 August 2016,

<http://dartcenter.org/about/mission-history >

Smith, R, Newman, E & Drevo, S 2015, Covering Trauma: Impact on Journalists, Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, viewed 8 August 2016,

< http://dartcenter.org/content/covering-trauma-impact-on-journalists >

Women in Media 2016, ‘Mates over Merit: The Women in Media report’ executive summary, Media Entertainment & Arts Alliance, viewed 8 August 2016,

< https://www.meaa.org/mediaroom/mates-over-merit-the-women-in-media-report-2/ >

Masullo Chen, G 2016, Journalists, Get Thee to the Comments, NiemanLab, viewed 26 July 2016,

<http://www.niemanlab.org/2015/12/journalists-get-thee-to-the-comments/ >

Gardiner,B, Mansfield, M, Anderson, I, Holder, J, Louter, D & Ulmanu, M 2016, The dark side of Guardian comments, The Guardian, 12 April, viewed 10 August 2016,

<https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2016/apr/12/the-dark-side-of-guardian-comments >

Stroud, N, Curry, A, Muddiman, A, & Scacco, J 2014, Journalism Involvment in Comment Sections, Engaging News Project, The University of Texas at Austin, viewed 10 August 2016,

<https://engagingnewsproject.org/research/journalist-involvement/  >

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