Quality journalism requires mental wellness

Shutianyi Li | Daily Trojan

One of the first stories that I ever wrote for the Daily Trojan was an interview with Dr. Laura Mosqueda, who was then appointed interim dean of the Keck School of Medicine. Scandals had rocked Keck, as Mosqueda’s predecessors, Carmen Puliafito and Rohit Varma, and their alleged misconduct had put USC at the center of scrutiny. 

I remember taking the USC shuttle to the Health Sciences Campus, a mere freshman hardly able to navigate the main campus, much less the one on Los Angeles’ Eastside.

I think what stood out to me the most was being in Mosqueda’s office. I thought about all that must have happened in this very space, with Puliafito’s troubling entanglement with drug and prostitution circles. What was hidden in the walls of this room? 

At the time, the Keck School’s scandal reached headlines nationwide. Our newsroom staff had worked tirelessly covering the latest developments through summer and into the new academic year. 

But we had no idea that this was only the beginning.

What ensued in the following two years was a journalistic rampage. Former USC gynecologist George Tyndall came under fire as hundreds of students accused him of sexual misconduct. President C. L. Max Nikias stepped down after eight years. Six male graduates filed a lawsuit against former men’s health doctor Dennis Kelly, accusing him of sexual abuse. The college admissions scandal uncovered by the FBI contained cases overwhelmingly connected to USC. And these are just a few examples of the news stories the Daily Trojan has worked to cover over the past year and a half.

It is an understatement to say that our news team was inundated with work. 

Round-the-clock reporting never seemed like enough. The Spring 2019 semester was particularly grueling, with our news editors and managing team skipping classes and losing sleep to ensure that our stories were as accurate and timely as possible. Many of those in the USC community may not realize that there was — and has been — an unspoken competition between the Daily Trojan and other national publications covering USC. We hold ourselves to the standards of professional newspapers, covering our campus with the same diligence and breadth, without the resources of an established news organization. Our coverage of USC’s scandals leveled the playing field between us and other award-winning professional outlets. Breaking a story first, or having a source get back to us, is a race to the finish line, particularly in an increasingly digital era.

It is an important time for reflection for everyone — the student body, the Board of Trustees, administrators, faculty and staff. But we have only just realized that we have been so busy reporting, laying out pages and pumping out stories that we had almost forgotten that our newsroom needs to look internally and reflect, as well.

Mental health issues, specifically burnout from covering these intense stories, isn’t specific to the Daily Trojan. According to a 2018 European Journalism Centre News Impact Network study, 50% of journalists said they felt overwhelmed by their day-to-day jobs, while only 7% felt their work was manageable. Newsrooms need to begin taking significant action to promote the mental health of their journalists, especially in an era dominated by stories of trauma, from mass shootings to natural disasters. The Daily Trojan is no exception.

This semester, I will be leading the Daily Trojan’s Wellness Initiative as the newspaper’s wellness director, alongside associate managing editor Karan Nevatia. This summer, we sat down and deliberated what it means to have a healthier workspace. We decided that we cannot function as the publication we are striving to be if our reporters and staffers are not well-supported — emotionally, mentally and physically. 

As part of the initiative, we’re hosting wellness activities, monthly individual check-ins with our editors, and introducing channels for feedback to ensure our staff members are well-supported in their ability to manage their role at the newspaper while dealing with the stress of classes and their other jobs. Nipping deep sources of stress in the bud can be one of the solutions to a healthier and more productive newsroom.

We’re also renewing our commitment to covering student wellness and stories of mental health in-depth this semester. Just as we want to see the mental health of our staff improve, we also want to see the mental health of every student on campus improve — our coverage of on-campus mental health this semester will reflect that.

Our hope is that by making significant changes to our newsroom, we are not just improving the well-being of our staff but also benefiting the quality of our journalism. 

Take this note as a warm welcome into a new era of the Daily Trojan.