Mar Cabra: We need to disassociate from the idea that being vulnerable means not being a good journalist

During the 2016 Panama Papers investigation, Mar Cabra was leading the data team at the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ). Having reached the top of her profession, and in spite of being awarded the Pulitzer Prize, Mar decided to walk away from journalism; she was burnt out.

© Nacho Rubiera 2021

by Andrew Heslop | February 22, 2021

 Interview by Mariona Sanz

Today, after founding The Self-Investigation, an organisation that seeks to increase the wellbeing of journalists, she is an advocate for establishing healthier relationships with technology within the profession. Last year, The Self-Investigation trained over 200 journalists on wellbeing issues; 2021 is set to be even busier, with the organisation aiming to reach out to newsroom leaders who are remote managing their teams.

Mar spoke to WAN-IFRA’s Mariona Sanz for The Backstory podcast about her reasons for leaving the profession, how stress needs to be acknowledged, and what a dependency on technology can mean for today’s journalists.

Why did you decide to quit journalism?
I used to think that success was getting awards and getting to do the work I loved. What I didn’t realise is success is also connected to being well inside. And when we won the Pulitzer Prize, I was very happy professionally, but very unhappy inside. I didn’t know why. Years later, I’ve realised that it was because I had been undergoing a lot of stress, and I was not taking care of myself.

Today you know the reason was stress. What are the warning signs you missed?
I feel a bit stupid now because for years I did not see those warning signs, even if they were very obvious. A few years before the Panama Papers, I had some health problems. I never connected these to my work despite frequently working 16-hour days.

And after the adrenalin rush of the Panama Papers, I started feeling very tired. And even if I performed well during the week, because I’m a good professional, on the weekends I felt like somebody had unplugged me from the electricity supply. And I would spend them basically on the sofa, just wanting to do nothing.

How did your managers and colleagues react to your decision?
My bosses were pretty surprised because I was still a high performer and I’m a very passionate person. They couldn’t understand and it took them a while to realise how deeply burnt out I was.

Is mental health still a taboo for most newsrooms?
Totally. And I myself took a long time to speak about my mental health issues. I suffered depression when I first started in journalism; a few years in to working in TV, I had to stop because I couldn’t cope with the pressure. And I didn’t talk about that until 10 years later. I guess the Pulitzer helped me to speak out so others don’t feel that bad. Now I can say: “I won a Pulitzer Prize with my team. I had depression, I suffered burnout, and I’m still a great journalist.” We need to disassociate from the idea that being vulnerable or not feeling well emotionally means not being a good journalist. Every human being on the planet needs to take care of his or her physical and mental health.

The COVID-19 pandemic is helping us to talk more openly about mental and emotional wellbeing…
Absolutely. I think that we are burning out at a higher rate and faster than before because of many reasons. COVID-19 is one of them, as it’s bringing uncertainty into our lives and many journalists are covering it in very difficult circumstances.

The International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) and the Tow Center interviewed 1400 journalists and media managers in 125 countries for research into the effects of the pandemic across journalism and found that 70% rated the emotional and psychological impacts of dealing with a COVID-19 as the most difficult aspect of their work.

What are your own conclusions after having delivered wellbeing training in 2020?
Editors, managers and owners are waking up to the fact that we’re living in a different time now, in which we need to take care of our journalists and their wellbeing. But the truth is that many newsrooms are still not giving that help and support to their employees. I think that we are at a time where we need to rethink what type of journalism we want to do, and especially what type of journalist we want to be. At The Self-Investigation we say: “You are as important as the work”. I have to repeat that sentence to myself many, many times a day to avoid putting myself last on my to-do list.

I also hope that we get to rethink how to have healthier working practices in journalism. The toxic culture in many newsrooms is why I don’t want to go back to a media outlet.

What are you referring to in particular?
We have many toxic cultures in journalism. Some editors believe that you need to be connected all the time, that being a journalist equals being busy and that you’re not allowed to have a life. And I don’t think this is healthy for the profession. We also tend to think that as journalists we cannot suffer and that we can do everything – go to war, all these very difficult things. That’s toxic, because it’s not true. We are human beings. We need to understand that we can be vulnerable and, at the same time, great professionals. We need to take care of each other and of our talent, so that journalists don’t quit the profession.

What specific effects have you noticed on the wellbeing of women journalists?
Statistics show that women are among the most affected by stress and anxiety – whether that’s during the pandemic or not. In most countries, women are the ones taking care of the family on top of being a worker. If the kids are at home and there’s home-schooling, of course the stress levels go up.

But there are other reasons. As women, we tend to take care of others and not take care of ourselves. When I was a manager I would take care of my team and I tried to give them enough space to rest. But then I didn’t do that for myself. And that’s a tendency. I’ve seen this especially happening with women who are mothers.

I’ve also seen another trend, which might seem contradictory, but it’s actually just complementary, which is single women. And I include myself there. We tend to have a harder time setting boundaries and end up working a lot, all of the time. “Don’t worry, I have time, I’ll do it after dinner,” are the kinds of things I used to tell my boss. Remember, you also deserve time to yourself. Taking care of yourself is as important as taking care of others.

In one webinar training, you were mentioning three very basic things that are fundamental yet that we frequently forget: eating, sleeping and exercising.
It is so easy, so simple, and still, we don’t do it! Myself included. When I was working on the Panama Papers, sometimes I would forget to eat and all of a sudden, I would look at the clock and see it was 5pm. Or I would just sleep five, six hours.  Today, in my daily to-do list I also put time for myself, to exercise. I include breaks to have lunch and dinner at regular times and I also set an end to my working day.

Do we know how to effectively work from home?
I’ve been working from home for ten years. I did not manage it well, and that’s part of why I burned out. And I’ve learned a few things that I’m happy to share. For example, we’re not giving ourselves enough mental space at the beginning or the end of the day. The first thing we do when we wake up is to look at our phone, and then frequently start answering emails. I would encourage everyone to “commute” to work, to walk for 15-30 minutes, and then start working. That gives some cushion, mental space to think what is important for the day. And it helps to put some physical barriers between work and personal life.

What are the challenges associated with being a remote manager?
That’s crucial. With the pandemic, many newsrooms have told their employees to work from home, but they have not given them training on how to do it effectively. Middle managers still don’t have the tools on how to engage a team remotely. I would encourage all media leaders to undertake training on how to be an effective remote leader, and also how to take care of themselves. Because again, what’s happening to many managers is they take care of their teams, but they don’t take care of themselves.

How can we end our day if we’re constantly receiving emails and notifications related to it?
I used to always be available, and I didn’t realize that it was hurting me. That’s one of the other reasons why I burned out. Now I know that our nervous system has an active side, the sympathetic nervous system, and the calm side, the parasympathetic nervous system. When we are connected or get notifications we are on this alert, active mode. If our body doesn’t get enough calm time, that starts building up stress.

Are we’re also losing attention and focus with the constant notifications?
When the pandemic first hit, people started searching on Google, “how to focus at work?”, and this is even more true for journalists, as we are very connected to technology – we have a lot of inputs and distractions. Science shows that every time you get distracted, it takes around 23 minutes to go back to the original task. To take care of our attention and our focus, the only way is to minimise distractions so that we can have time for deep work.

In your case your greatest ‘distractor’ was email. You’ve described yourself as an “email-junkie”
Every person needs to think what is the number one distractor. In my case, it was email. I would spend many hours on email, but I’m not the only one. Statistics say that we spend between a third and a half of our working day on emails. Now I open it only three times a day and that’s given me a lot of freedom and focus. For you it might be WhatsApp, Slack… We need to rethink the way we want to interact with technology.

Our working days are also now full of virtual meetings that are starting to create what has been called ‘Zoom Fatigue’
It is important to give yourself time in between meetings or tasks. Back-to-back meetings are the worst. I would recommend reducing the time of meetings or interviews to give yourself 10-15 minutes to recover your energy and decompress.

We probably need to rethink how to relate to technology, not only as journalists, but also as human beings…
Exactly. It doesn’t matter how old or young you are, technology is enabling many great things in the world, but our relationship with it is affecting our health and mental state. We need to rethink our relationship with technology, so that we can keep achieving great things.


Andrew Heslop

Executive Director, Press Freedom

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