Dear Rita Skeeter: Newsrooms need to prioritize journalists’ well-being to prevent burnout

Yasmin Davis/Daily Trojan

Covering breaking news can be fun. There’s that adrenaline rush you get from wanting to report and write your story as quickly as possible, an unmatched sense of accomplishment after finishing an important story and an understanding of the impact of your work as you see hundreds of people liking and sharing your work across the internet.

Last year, I was a news editor for the Daily Trojan, and I jumped at the chance to cover breaking news stories — from a controversial fraternity party at the beginning of the spring semester to former president C. L. Max Nikias’ resignation.

But it reached a point where I was sacrificing other aspects of my life — mainly my mental health — to cover breaking news. The adrenaline is fun in the moment, but it becomes exhausting afterward, when you’re burnt out but still have to keep up with any developments to the story. You start to dread seeing notifications on your phone, afraid that it’s more breaking news. You begin to fear the sounds of fire trucks and police car sirens because you don’t want to have to report on another accident.

USC doesn’t make covering such news easy for its student journalists. When school is in session, the Daily Trojan’s news editors often have to cover a new scandal every week, and there are constantly new developments in the seemingly endless lawsuits and investigations the University is facing.

The few breaks we get during the year should be a chance for students to rest, but USC seems to whip out a major breaking news story during every vacation — the nationwide college admissions bribery scheme was announced over spring break, Marshall Dean James Ellis was terminated just as winter break started and allegations against former gynecologist George Tyndall were revealed at the beginning of summer break last year.

That means a constant barrage of news our small team of news and managing editors (comprising five people if we’re lucky) scrambles to cover day in and day out. It’s exhausting.

Last year, I realized breaking news was causing me severe anxiety, so I stopped reporting on it almost entirely. After a while, my fear, exhaustion and dread I had dwindled down. But this is something of an epidemic in newsrooms — according to a 2018 European Journalism Centre News Impact Network study, 50 percent of journalists said they felt overwhelmed by their day-to-day jobs, while only 7 percent felt their work was manageable. Not all of those overwhelmed journalists can quit news like I did.

On top of the anxiety-inducing nature of covering any breaking news, journalists are often covering highly traumatic stories. War correspondents are right on the frontlines with soldiers while reporting news, leading to over 30 percent of them experiencing post-traumatic stress, a 2002 University of Toronto study found.

But experiencing trauma as a journalist isn’t limited to war reporting, even if it’s secondhand. Reporters themselves might not realize it, but covering traumatic stories, even from behind the desk in a newsroom, can greatly impact their mental health.

Sonali Kohli, an education reporter for the Los Angeles Times, posted a Twitter thread on March 7 about her post-traumatic stress symptoms after reporting on deadly fires, mass shootings and a project on homicides near schools.

“Hearing ambulances or seeing police helicopters hovering made my heart race,” Kohli tweeted. “Candles and bonfires terrified me. Every space I entered, I imagined how it could be the next target of a fire or shooting … secondary trauma is a real thing and it can happen whether you are reporting from the field or a computer.”

Newsrooms need to start having real conversations about self-care for journalists and ensure they aren’t overworking their employees. Journalists should be able to take time off to recover from reporting on traumatic events and should have easy access to counseling services when needed.

In many newsrooms, success as a journalist is often defined by having the most clips and reporting well on the hardest topics. These are obviously great accomplishments, but such expectations create a culture in which young journalists feel like they can’t succeed if they take a break from reporting on breaking news or aren’t throwing themselves at stories involving tragedies and disasters. Instead, newsrooms should encourage balance and reward quality over quantity.

Even making small changes to the physical newsroom workspace can be greatly helpful — a 2015 HuffPost article detailed how The New York Times, Business Insider and similar news outlets designed their workspaces to look after their reporters’ well-being. Changes ranged from simply allowing natural light into the newsroom to creating meditation and nap rooms for employees. While these changes might seem small, HuffPost said the newsrooms saw improved change among their journalists after implementing them.

Without significant changes to the way news reporters are cared for in their workplaces, news organizations will not only see significant detrimental effects to their journalists’ mental health but also continue to experience high turnover rates with journalists who are leaving the industry when it becomes too overwhelming. Reporting isn’t easy, and media organizations should ease that burden from their journalists’ shoulders.

Karan Nevatia is a sophomore writing about media ethics and literacy. He is also an associate managing editor of the Daily Trojan. His column, “Dear Rita Skeeter,” runs every other Thursday.