James Scurry (above), Sky News, speaking at MediaStrong conference 17 May 2024

Credit: Brendan O'Neill

"Fifteen years in a newsroom adds up," says James Scurry, an assistant editor and senior producer at Sky News.

He has produced television reports on some of the most traumatic news stories from war zones to courtrooms. These experiences have transformed him from someone who once sought gruesome stories out, to avoiding them altogether and accessing hundreds of hours of therapy.

Speaking at the MediaStrong conference last month, he opened up on the mental toll that has come from doing his job.

For personal reasons, nowhere was this harder than covering the Jacob Crouch trial, a 10-month baby who was murdered by his stepfather in 2020. He finds it hard to talk about this story still to this day.

"It was unbearable," Scurry says, composing himself.

It is the only time in his career he was pulled out of the edit suite, and he is thankful for it, as the support of his colleague Sam Foster meant he was able to cover the Lucy Letby trials a fortnight later, the former nurse who was found guilty of murdering seven babies in 2015-16. 

"Know the stories that are going to get you and take yourself off them, so you can do the bigger story or the other story later," he advised.

"Don't push yourself through something excruciating and don't shut down so much that you're numb, because being numb is never going to get you to that important story later on."

He also spoke how news organisations can do better trauma-informed journalism - for audiences and journalists alike - based on his experiences within a broadening career.

While remaining freelance with Sky News, Scurry is now a qualified psychotherapist, specialising in work with trauma, victims of sexual abuse and journalists experiencing PTSD. He also co-founded Safely Held Spaces, a mental health non-profit organisation that offers broadcast media mental health training programmes for newsrooms, and became a senior fellow for the John Schofield Trust.

'This is not a problem, this is an opportunity'

He has seen both sides: the daily pressures that newsrooms are under, and how poor editorial language can have a long-lasting effect on ordinary people.

He cited a headline that read: "Brain implant may lift most severe depression".

"There's so much more to this story that we're not asking what happened, we're only looking at what's wrong with people," he explains.

"It's the nature of the beast, though. We sometimes have two words for a slug to put on TV and we reach for 'schizophrenia attack' not thinking there's a human being who's possibly going through something very difficult and the story is lost."

Journalists need to understand the severity of putting names out in the public, he adds. But this is one of just a few areas where news organisations have an opportunity to do better.

Reversing myths and challenging the stats

There is a long-standing presumption that low levels of serotonin cause depression, only this has recently been debunked and very few news organisations have covered it.

"This is unfortunately a very paper thin way of describing the experiences I encounter in the therapy room," says Scurry.

Journalists need to stop asking what's wrong, and start asking what happened, he continues. 

'Tell me about your life' is a question borrowed from the world of therapy, which builds a picture of what led people to get to where they are now and fully understand why they are suffering.

There are usually deeper, better human stories if journalists can adopt this approach, using actor David Harewood’s Psychosis and Me documentary as a prime example of tracing his condition back to a racist moment in his childhood. 

The mental health experiences within minority and marginalised communities are especially important, as these are too often grouped together, losing the nuance of what is potentially really going on.

"Storytelling is the key to healing," he says, acknowledging that there are no simple answers to this problem, but the first step is starting a conversation before harmful, generalised labels are created and associated with identities.

Journalists must also challenge authorities on the statistics they provide. The NHS press office sends out press releases that are too routinely copied and pasted onto news websites without closer inspection, he continues.

He questions the accuracy of stories about the number of children and teens having mental disorders, but even if they are true, he challenged news organisations to take a different angle.

Consider the cause instead, children are "barometers of society" and there are likely important stories driving these trends.

"We in the mental health industry [look at these stories] and say: 'Not again, please stop telling kids that they’re unwell'," he explains.

"Let's look at the social indicators underneath it: systemic racism, poverty, lack of access to good community care. None of this is rocket science."

Regulating the nervous system

Journalists can be affected by the stories they cover, for all sorts of reasons. Not just the horrific and traumatic, but for personal reasons, too.

When Eilud Kipchoge made history by finishing a marathon in under two hours, this may have had little emotional charge for most journalists. But for Scurry, this brought him back to his own marathon run, which was his own personal way of regulating himself from the stresses of working in news.

Regulating the nervous system is an essential part of being able to work in high-demand jobs. When we are dysregulated, we are overloaded with the hormones adrenaline and cortisol, meaning we cannot access good executive functioning in the prefrontal cortex of the brain.

In other words, we find it hard to think, manage, organise and make decisions for ourselves. It is also hard to manage our stress in this state. 

Dysregulation affects all parts of the news creation process: the stories we choose to cover, how we conduct interviews and speak to people, how we write and gather information.

Self-regulation, as well as managerial and collegiate support, is critical for journalists to be able to do their jobs to the best of their abilities. You can find out more about how to do this by getting in contact with Safely Held Spaces who can direct you to a host of resources for newsrooms by emailing them here.

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