This Q&A between Cătălina Albeanu, Digital editor at Decât o Revistă and John Crowley, co-founder of Headlines Network, a community for those who care about supporting mental health in the media took place ahead of last month’s Newsroom Summit.
Cătălina Albeanu: What kind of culture change comes with creating space for an open conversation around mental health?
John Crowley: Open conversations around mental health are happening across society, so by doing it ourselves in newsrooms, communities or groups of freelancers… you’re in effect reflecting our world. Let’s face it, news organisations aren’t always great at being innovative. You can argue that we missed out on digital and the transformation the Internet brought about in terms of news consumption, pay models and the like. We are now in danger of being culturally left behind when it comes to mental health, even though we are writing and broadcasting about this pressing subject.
What you get is a healthier happier workforce which produces better work.
I don’t think journalists mind being asked to work in fast-paced – even at times – high pressure environments. It’s exciting and that’s why we are attracted to it. We don’t want to get to a level though where the pressure is too much or the working environments where we spend at least a third of our days in become toxic.
What can newsrooms do to talk about mental health before it becomes a crisis? What is the base level of conversation we should be having?
Normalising it, not making it a taboo or a shameful subject to raise. Putting on a suit of armour and being resilient is part of our DNA so saying it’s ok to not be ok, saying that the pressure can get too much… that’s totally fine. Putting your hand up to say you’re struggling is sometimes tantamount to saying you’re not good at journalism. You’re meant to be able to spin plates all the time…
Lots of young journalists are coming out of colleagues and universities having had this base level conversation around mental health – and have received support. They are shocked and surprised when they don’t have the same support at their first news organisation.
One young woman on our workshop told her line manager that they were going to have a conversation about her wellbeing every fortnight. She’d brook no argument. I think reporters being able to have that conversation or approach a mental health champion at work – or a figure you can trust – is a baseline must-have.
And a lot of this groundswell for change is coming from younger people.
Media talks a lot about sustainability as far as revenue is concerned. What does sustainability mean for journalists in terms of mental health?
News organisations talk about resources – laptops, devices and so forth – but forget that journalists are our most precious human resource. Pre-Covid no one thoughts about the toll the last few years have exacted on them. Many journalists are at breaking point. Some newsroom bosses don’t care – but what you get then is younger journalists walking away from toxic news environments, which superficially looked bright and shiny, and senior news journalists with a lot of experience and insight walking away from the profession because they’ve been burned out or feel jaded.
There is a huge amount of short-termism in journalism. Who here has a plan for what journalism might look in 2030? Frankly, you’d get laughed at.
But what about a plan for making sure the young journalists coming on board now aren’t burned out in eight years’ time? We just aren’t thinking that far ahead.
We talk about the pandemic as this period where the conversation around mental health has become more open, that there has been progress, it seems like a good transformation. What are we not talking about?
Vicarious trauma. At Headlines Network, we have had a huge amount of enquiries about journalists who are struggling to deal with the images from the war in Ukraine. That’s what my co-director Hannah Storm and I would like to do resources on next.
What are some additional levels of support required for reporters covering war? Especially when perhaps you’re a reporter who is not a trained conflict reporter but you are working on stories that are linked to the war because it’s happening on your border and you’re speaking to and interviewing refugees for the first time, for example.
An understanding that you can feel stuck covering this subject and that you can’t have any distance to get away from it. I did a piece of research around Covid for journalists and many said they felt stuck in a pandemic bubble. Is there a way you can get journalists to cover different stories and get them to cover other less stressful news if they have been on a high-pressure job? Journalists want to tell stories, say around refugees, but reporting and hearing their testimonies can take a toll.
A lot of the pressure to create and support conversations about mental health tends to fall on the shoulders of team leaders – what types of support structures do leaders need as well?
Hannah and I always say you need to make sure that the people doing the checking in are checked in on themselves. We are developing mental health resources for managers on that front. But before they can look after others they have to look after their own mental health. Hannah says this – the first two letters in mental health is ‘me’.
**** Headlines Network is developing a series of workshops for newsroom managers and would be happy to speak to interested parties. It has worked with the mental health charity Mind to create a suite of resources for journalists to help them at their work. You can access them here. ****