Covid has highlighted depth of mental health issues in newsrooms

Posted on: November 11, 2020 by Ian Murray

The Covid-19 crisis has revealed the depth of mental health issues in newsrooms but offers the chance for important changes to take place to help journalists cope with the challenges.

That was one of the themes discussed at the first panel debate of the Society of Editors Virtual Conference 2020: Mental Health in the Newsroom.

The panel, chaired by Society of Editors’ president Alison Gow, heard appeals for changes in the way in which journalists are expected to carry out their duties and the type of stories the industry focusses on, to encourage more “empathy and humanity.”

Taking part in the discussion were a panel of industry representatives with their own experiences or understanding of mental health issues.

Freelance editor and mental health consultant John Crowley revealed the findings of his survey into the state of mental health in the industry carried out during the pandemic: Journalism in the Time of Covid, 2020 Report.

He explained the results revealed a: “Perfect storm for the journalists this year.”

“Journalists have been covering an unremitting subject with the virus. Journalists were talking to a lot of people, but no one was speaking to the journalists and asking them how they were doing.

“The rank and file often felt lip service was paid to mental health matters. Many said they were afraid to raise mental health issues as being resilient is considered part of the journalist’s DNA.”

He said some journalists felt bereft and deserted at the start of the pandemic.

“As an industry we are ready to reach out to people so we should hold ourselves to a higher standard” he added.

Hannah Storm, CEO of the Ethical Journalism Network explained she had been living with post traumatic stress disorder and decided to speak about her condition this summer because she thought her experiences might resonate with orders.

“For a long time I tried to hide my symptoms – I was worried about my reputation. Outwardly I was coping.

“There are still taboos and people suffering in silence. I wanted to tackle some of the taboos and encourage more empathy and humanity.

“Ours is an industry that can sometimes be inhumane, often glorifying a culture outside the nine to five. It is a kind of coping that could be described as self-sabotage.

“Unless we better address issues of diversity and inclusion we can’t really tackle these issues” she said.

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism’s community organiser Shirish Kulkarni said the Covid-19 crisis had revealed the challenges of mental health issues for journalists and the industry should take the opportunity to change the culture in newsrooms.

“We can’t beat about the bush. There is a mental health problem in society and journalists are not immune from that. It is so important we have conversations like we are having today.

“Big problems need solutions – re-examining the structural issues in our industry. We have to remember mental health issues are not just a HR or PR problem. How do we put an essential humanity into our input and our output too?

“Editors and managers can have mental health issues. It can be particularly hard in the culture that we have that makes it hard for managers to talk about that.”

Creating a compassionate culture to talk about mental health in our newsrooms is the most critical step we can take towards tackling the issue was the theme from Reach’s sports audience strategy director Jon Birchall.

Jon explained he had suffered from mental health issues for most of his life since being a teenager.

Jon said lockdown had magnified a number of issues in newsrooms.  He added that autonomy was important:

“How do we strike a balance to encourage people to determine their own career development and coping strategies.

“How do we support someone who suffers from mental health problems as we would with someone who had another form of illness?

“We have to be honest, and it may sound quite cold, that as editors and managers it is our jobs to support but not our job to fix them as we don’t know how.”

Jon spoke of the pressures on sports journalists with the rise online abuse towards particularly women, gay and ethnic minority sports journalists from the abusive tribal attitude of fans.

“There are far more men that I work with than women, which is a separate cultural issue we need to challenge, but men are far less likely to talk about mental health problems.

“Everybody has a thing to say about mental health and we have to give them the chance to do so. Journalists are solution-orientated people. But mental health is an imperfect science.

Jon concluded: “Depression would make a terribly interviewee – it lies, it is unreliable, and you never known when it is going to turn up.”

The full video of the debate is available to catch-up on here. Following the discussion, the SoE has provided a list of common resources that journalists can turn to – whether it is seeking personal help or for professional guidance on covering a news story relating to mental health.

The debate was able to take place thanks to the sponsorship of Facebook Journalism Project and Camelot.

Camelot has sponsored the Society of Editors since 2001 and you saw that short video from their CEO Nigel Railton at the beginning of the session. If you would like to discuss anything with Camelot – story ideas, ways to improve working together or anything else – please let the SoE know and we’ll put you in touch with them.

Full details of the Society’s upcoming programme of free events and how to register can be found here.