‘Mental health is a press freedom issue’: Experts discussed the importance of well-being for journalists at ISOJ symposium

The mental health of journalists is a long-standing problem. However, to talk about mental health and the well-being of journalists seems to be taboo: surrounded by expectations of what a good journalist is supposed to be like (always resilient and capable of overcoming any problem) and by stigma. However, experts that gathered during the International Symposium on Online Journalism (ISOJ) made it clear that not only is it time to take mental health seriously, but that we’re indebted to journalists.

During the “Mental Health and the wellbeing of journalists in an era of online harassment, extreme polarization, denialism and pandemic” panel, moderated by Avery Holton, director of the Department of Communication at the University of Utah, participants discussed the responsibility of newsrooms, the role journalists play with themselves and with their colleagues, and even the importance of mental health for freedom of the press and democracy.

Holton began the discussion by recalling how in recent years prominent journalists have made public their resignation from the profession. The reasons can range from bullying, chronic harassment, anxiety to lack of support from journalistic organizations. Holton opened the conversation by asking what mental health and wellness looks like for journalists, and how news organizations are responding to it.

Valerie Belair-Gagnon, director of the Center for Journalism at the University of Minnesota and who, together with Holton, conducted a study focused on newsrooms in the United States on this topic, pointed out that one of the aspects they saw is that there is a “lack of a systematic approach in journalism” regarding this need.

According to her, usually the situation is approached from an individual perspective. So, for example, editors recommend “doing yoga,” “having a glass of wine,” or seeking therapy. They even suggest reaching out to others in a similar situation “which leads to another kind of burden for people who are experiencing mental health or wellness issues,” Belairha-Gagnon said. Finally, many journalists choose to “adapt their content and approach” which really ends in self-censorship.

Luisa Ortiz, executive director and co-founder of Vita-Active.org, highlighted the importance of recognizing that “journalists are human and ensuring their rights is a human rights issue.” In this sense, it must be taken into account that journalists bring to their work all the particularities of their being and any stressful factor will have an impact on the way journalism is done.

Hence, journalistic organizations must take ownership of the issue and deal with it from a collective perspective.

A point that Belair-Gagnon highlighted while wondering how much attention is actually being paid to the issue from a management perspective.

Panel Mental Health and the wellbeing of journalists. (Patricia Lim/Knight Center)
Luisa Ortiz, Elana Newman, and Valerie Belair-Gagnon during the panel “Mental Health and the wellbeing of journalists in an era of online harassment, extreme polarization, denialism and pandemic.” (Patricia Lim/Knight Center)

“How much money [news organizations] spend on retention, how much money do they spend on hiring? How many people have left because of mental health issues? How much do you spend on the wellbeing program and how hard is it to hire new talent? These are all questions that I think, at the end of the day, actually also affect the bottom line, and it should be about putting the human being and human rights first,” Belair-Gagnon said.

Hannah Storm, UK Headlines Network directo, agreed. “We’re human beings and journalism cannot exist without journalists. And so we need to protect the most precious resource of journalism, which is journalists,” Storm said. She agreed with Belair-Gagnon about the need for a discussion at the administrative level about how much is invested in the well-being of its journalists.

For Storm, it is necessary that journalistic organizations allow a safe environment for anyone to express their emotions, away from the stigma or the “macho” environment of the media. Something that at the end of the day will end up “benefiting” journalism: “Journalism gets better when we are better,” Storm said.

Elana Newman, professor of psychology and director of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, not only agreed but also highlighted how a journalist’s well-being impacts press freedom. “This is a freedom of the press issue. Mental health is a freedom of the press issue. If we don’t have healthy folks, we don’t have a healthy media,” Newman said.

Newman offered some guidelines that organizations can carry out to improve the well-being of journalists. For example, they can have an environment of validation, an environment that validates pain, especially today when practicing  journalism is increasingly being attacked.

“There’s always been issues of press freedom, but I think across the world there is now an assault on the press and it’s being felt in every fiber, from online harassment onwards, and there are just more toxins,” Newman said. “And that’s why it’s more important than ever for us to respond as organizations.”

For Newman, one of the most basic but important things organizations can do is say “good work.” Also offer training in mental health, establish limits that allow disconnection, and exercise. She highlighted the importance of journalists remembering the meaning of their work.

“You have one of the most important jobs, and I think we’re seeing right now what happens when you don’t exist. We were just talking about that. The need for accurate information is what makes the world go round. It’s what helps citizens like me,” Newman said. “Your job is so important, and I think […] you need to continue to remind yourselves what your mission is and your organizations need to do that.”

Newman, Ortiz, and Storm highlighted how newsrooms are sometimes sites of bullying, sexual harassment, and microaggressions. Hence, as Ortiz stated, there should also be talk of “welfare,” where labor rights are discussed, where wages can be negotiated, or at least leisure time can be established.

The experts did not want to end the conversation without mentioning freelance journalists, who are sometimes more exposed to these problems, without any entities to turn to.

ISOJ took place on April 1-2 in person at the University of Texas at Austin and was streamed online as well.