A new wellness desk, will be added to Annenberg Media next semester to encourage students to report on mental health and wellness and improve the mental health of the news staff.
Next semester, Annenberg Media executive editor Ruby Yuan and managing editor for culture and outreach Dan Toomey will hire student editors for the desk who will oversee a group of reporters.
“What we are doing is to lay out the foundation, lay out this system and logistics and everything,” Yuan said. “And hopefully, in the future generations … [and in] future classes, people will keep developing this desk and make it helpful to both [the] newsroom and USC community.”
Toomey said the initial idea came from the Kaleigh Finnie Memorial Endowment. The endowment was started by the Finnie family to honor the life of their daughter, who was a USC student, and support students interested in exploring issues related to mental health.
The endowment is a merit-based fund that provides scholarships and awards to Annenberg undergraduate and graduate students who contribute to the conversation around mental health. Toomey applied and received the funding.
In the announcement posted to Annenberg Media, Toomey encouraged people to contact Annenberg Media reporters over social media or email to talk about mental health. Toomey said the desk is modeled after an initiative by The Denver Post, which piloted off-the-record community conversations about mental health around Colorado. The Post received a grant from Annenberg’s Center for Health Journalism to support initiatives for the project.
“This sounds very industry-talk, but journalism at the end of the day is a service, right?” Toomey said. “I really do believe that by telling these stories, we are doing a service. We are helping people understand that it’s OK to share these stories, and we want people to do that so we understand the changes that need to happen.”
Yuan said the desk will also educate staff members about reporting on mental health and wellness topics and help improve their own mental health as they cover difficult topics.
Yuan, a senior majoring in journalism, experienced firsthand what it means to report on difficult topics and the effects these events had. In two years, he covered both the Thousand Oaks shooting in 2018 and the Santa Clarita shooting in November. He covered a fire, a robbery, a murder trial and a story on financial aid difficulties in a four-week period last spring.
Yuan wishes there were more school-specific or industry-specific mental health counselors, either at Engemann Student Health Center or at each school.
As an adviser for the wellness desk, Annenberg Media Center Director and professor Christina Bellantoni said she hopes the desk can help student journalists learn to cover sensitive issues.
“I always stress to every student I ever meet that you are a human first, and it is OK to be human and to have feelings, even while making sure you’re getting the full story and talking to all sides and all those things,” Bellantoni said. “Pretending you aren’t part of the equation is not a wise formula.”
Yuan mentioned the Daily Trojan’s wellness initiative as another way to support student newsrooms on campus. The paper also added a wellness initiative this year, directed by associate managing editor Natalie Bettendorf.
The initiative followed coverage of major scandals last year, which was particularly taxing for Daily Trojan editors, as many skipped classes and lost sleep to cover them, Bettendorf said.
Over the summer, Bettendorf met with Engemann professionals to figure out ways to better support editors and other staff members. The initiative now includes monthly check-ins with all the editors, giving writers and editors more days off, channels for feedback from staff members and ensuring more mental and physical health coverage in the paper.
“It opened up this conversation that I thought that we were just having in our campus, in our newsroom,” Bettendorf said. “But to realize that it’s happening in newsrooms across the country, —specifically colleges and universities — that was just mind-boggling to me. I didn’t realize how people are having these same kinds of conversations of how we can take better care of student journalists? I think that was the most striking thing for me.”