Credit: Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

There is an old mantra in journalism: the reporter should never be the story.

That makes a lot of sense in terms of the ethics around objectivity. But what it also means is that journalists instinctively do not like talking about how the stories they cover can affect their mental health.

Fortunately there is a sea change underway according to John Crowley, a seasoned journalist and the co-founder of Headlines Network, a community that seeks to promote mental health conversations within the media.

Headlines Network marked its one year anniversary last week. In that time, it has launched mental health workshops for journalists, mental health training for newsrooms and a podcast, Behind The Headlines, produced by Rachael Buchanan, where journalism pros share their experiences with their own mental health.

"Journalists have always been told to subsume our feelings, almost like we’ve squashed ourselves as humans and erased ourselves out of the picture," says Crowley.

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The trouble is that journalists are impacted by the news they cover, they just do not like to talk about it. Look no further than the latest Headlines Network podcast episode, published today, which is a revealing conversation where hosts Crowley and fellow co-founder Hannah Storm speak with Victoria Macdonald, the health and social care editor for Channel 4 News, and Emily Morgan, the health editor at ITV News.

The conversation explores the unprecedented nature of news reporting on the coronavirus pandemic over the past two and a half years, working with vulnerable contributors, the need for a private life, the tolls of online trolls and how the continuous reporting on covid-19 led them both to seek out therapy.

When the Omicron variant was on the horizon in November last year after covid-19's brief lull, Morgan revealed how she was dreading another four weeks of visits to ICUs and reporting on the situation.

"It wasn't the physical aspect of being in the studio at 10 o'clock at night, it was the mental aspect of knowing what was to come over the next four weeks because I knew it was looking bad and scientists were already talking about this horrible new variant," says Morgan on the podcast.

"Of course, we'd been there before. I saw another wave, more visits to an ICU, I just felt I couldn't do it and so the next day I spoke to my editor and said: 'I need help, I don't know if I'm going to be able to do this'.

"At that point, I felt the whole ITN came to my rescue and say 'we can do this together' and I've never felt so immensely grateful throughout my working career. I didn't particularly want to do it, I didn't enjoy those four weeks in the run-up to Christmas but I felt utterly supported and had a team behind me every step of the way.

"I think it was that moment of me holding my hand up saying 'I'm done, I can't do this'. I just needed that help and support which got me through to January 2022 where I took a break, where I just said I needed time and when I went to see someone. It helped recalibrate everything and was one of the most important things I've done."

Young journalists: agents of change

It is a surprising admission of honesty and vulnerability for a senior editor at the peak of their game, covering a career-defining story and working for a major broadcaster.

It is a sign, Crowley suggests, that young journalists are becoming agents of change in the newsroom.

He says that mental health support has become a basic expectation in the workplace for many young reporters who are used to having these options available to them while studying at college and university.

One young journalist on their training course said that she instigated mental health check-ins every fortnight with her bosses. She told them that was what she needed and expected. That is a far cry from Crowley's own generation who he says would have just '"soaked it up".

There is still resistance in some quarters, and senior newsroom leaders are not as articulate and open to discussing mental health as their juniors.

That means that beyond Employee Assistance Programs (EAPS; a UK scheme where a specialist company provides free confidential advice for staff), what newsrooms desperately need is mental health training for line managers - which is precisely what Headlines Network will launch in the autumn of this year.

"A lot of newsroom leaders are telling us they want to help, but that this used to be something they'd be told to toss over to human resources. They don't quite have the confidence or the language literacy or the training to know how to start the conversation and how to listen non-judgementally. All of those things require, in our view, training."

Another string to the bow, another plate to spin

That is another demand placed on the shoulders of busy newsroom leaders, and another resource for news organisations to factor in. However, it is a business imperative and part of the job description now. The consequence for ignoring the issue is an exodus of talent.

"Newsroom leaders need to have the mental health skillset now on top of all the others," says Crowley.

"You will not retain young talent [otherwise]. They will not want to work in a toxic newsroom, they will go elsewhere and pursue another industry.

"You will have people in the industry who have been there twenty or thirty years who are feeling burnt out and jaded saying they’ve had enough and cannot go on. You will have people that need to take mental health days off.

"My issue is that none of these things are measured, which is hard to do. How can you measure happiness? How can you measure mental health sick days or retention of talent? If the newsroom looked at it and tried to think about it beyond a tickbox exercise, it will make them a better newsroom."

Thinking beyond covid-19

The mental health issues facing journalists, of course, go way beyond reporting on covid-19. The pandemic has simply been a catalyst for being more comfortable with opening up.

The Behind the Headlines podcast has explored other relevant themes, like the impact of online abuse and identity in the newsroom. There is much more ground to explore, and the conversation has just started. Follow the podcast to stay in the know.

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