Journalism used to mean keeping the mental stress, the trauma to yourself. Fortunately, that changes
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It was Christmas morning and I was only a few months away from my first job as a junior reporter at a Southwestern Ontario newspaper. As the newsroom police radio scanner crackled, an older colleague joked about the inevitable tragedy we would be called upon to cover.
“There is always a tragedy on Christmas Day,” he deadpanned.
A few hours later, three young people under the age of 20 are killed when their car collides with a train. They were on their way to their grandfather’s house to pick up presents.
At the scene, I watched an official, possibly the coroner, inspect the mangled wreckage still on the tracks. A blanket was lifted and I saw the body of a young woman. This image stuck with me all day. I couldn’t shake it off, even after my front-page story was filed, even as I celebrated Christmas dinner with my family later that night.
He still accompanies me today.
But that was journalism then. You saw some tough stuff, but no one talked about trauma or mental health. The editorial humor was dark and cavalier. “Wellness” was about telling the story well, beating the competition, and making your bosses happy. No one has inquired about you. No one thought “recording” was their job – or anyone else’s job for that matter.
Fortunately, we are more aware today of the mental stress and risks faced by journalists. Like other professionals for whom traumatic events are an inevitable part of their job, we learn that we need to be as thoughtful and deliberate about our mental well-being as we are about our physical safety.
This change in our way of thinking cannot happen fast enough according to a important new investigation more than 1,200 Canadian media workers released Wednesday by Matthew Pearson of Carleton University and Dave Seglins, a CBC News reporter. The survey revealed a disturbing amount of stress, anxiety, depression and substance use in our industry. More than half of respondents sought medical help to deal with work-related stress and trauma. One in 10 people said they thought about suicide after covering difficult stories.
Despite these results, journalists and media workers continue to express high levels of job satisfaction. “What this tells us is that many media workers love their jobs, but their jobs don’t always love them,” the report’s authors state.
The survey is the latest in a growing body of evidence that suggests the journalism profession is more strained and under siege than ever.
The Sunday Edition31:17‘A huge shift in the news agenda’: How informed trauma reporting is transforming journalism
A disturbing increase in violence, intimidation and abuse of journalists in Canada has been well documented, including in this Ipsos survey on online harassment unveiled last year #NotOk Industry Conference organized by CBC/Radio-Canada. More recently I wrote about the alarming the hostility our journalists have faced on the ground and online during convoy protests against vaccination mandates.
Catherine Tait, president and CEO of CBC, spoke earlier this month at the Canadian Club in Toronto about how harassment of journalists, misinformation and attacks on factual media are undermine democracy in Canada and around the world. These attacks, she noted, are intended to “silence and discredit journalists, intimidate them, intimidate them, and directly undermine press freedom.”
This abuse only adds to the mental strain that has always been a part of the business due to tight deadlines, high journalistic standards and intense public scrutiny, not to mention the raw and graphic material that must be sorted through newsroom employees every day.
For all these reasons, CBC/Radio-Canada has made the well-being of its journalists a top priority. Among some recent developments:
We’ve named Seglins for a year in a new role as “journalist and wellness champion” for CBC News, Current Affairs and Local. (You can listen to her describe her own workplace and mental health experience on a recent episode of the Radio-Canada Podcast sick boy.) It will offer a new training program for staff and managers that addresses the unique workplace challenges and psychological harms faced by journalists.
We also offer training programs for CBC staff to help with resilience, stress and exposure to graphic content.
We offer specialized post-deployment support for all CBC teams assigned to cover the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The new service includes recordings, debriefings and referrals if necessary to advisers specializing in accompanying journalists in war zones. We plan to expand this service to newsgathering teams assigned to other types of traumatic stories in Canada and abroad, including the mass shootings in Buffalo, NY, and Uvalde, Texas. .
CBC/Radio-Canada sponsored the creation of an industry guide for newsroom leaders, will be officially released today. It provides a framework and best practices on how to think about and address the online harms faced by journalists.
We’ve provided CBC journalists with tools and guidance to help them limit the abuse and harassment they face on social media platforms. We have also made it clear to our staff that there is no obligation for them to post or engage on social media platforms using their personal accounts as part of their work for CBC. We encouraged employees to stay away from social media, where possible, for their mental health.
We have come a long way since my beginnings in journalism.
Today, we speak openly about the well-being and mental health of journalists in a way that was unimaginable when I was a young reporter seeing traumatic things for the first time. This is a significant development for the people making the news today, and for the next generation of journalists whom we hope to attract to this challenging but incredibly important and rewarding profession.